Sex education is education about sexual reproduction in human beings, sexual intercourse and other aspects of human sexual behavior.
Education on reproduction typically describes the process of a new human being coming into existence in stages including conception, the development of the embryo and fetus, and the birth of the new baby. It often includes topics such as sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and how to avoid them, as well as methods of contraception.
Although some sort of sex education is part of many schools' curriculum, it remains a controversial topic in several countries as to how much and at which age schoolchildren should be taught about contraception or safer sex, and whether moral education should be included or excluded (see sexual morality).
In the United States in particular, the topic is the subject of much contentious debate. Chief among controversial points is whether sexual freedom for minors is valuable or detrimental, as well as whether instruction about condoms and birth control pills reduce or increase out-of-wedlock or teenage pregnancy and STDs.
The existence of AIDS has given a new sense of urgency to the topic of sex education. In many African nations, where AIDS is at pandemic levels, sex education is seen by most scientists as a vital strategy for preserving the health of citizens. Some international organizations such as Planned Parenthood see worldwide benefit to sex education programs, such as the control of overpopulation and advancement of the rights of women.
Morality of sex education
One viewpoint on sex education, historically inspired by sexologists like Wilhelm Reich and psychologists like Sigmund Freud and James W. Prescott, holds that what is at stake in sex education is control over the body and liberation from social control. Proponents of this view tend to see the political question as whether society or the individual should dictate sexual mores. Sexual education may thus be seen as providing individuals with the knowledge necessary to liberate themselves from socially organized sexual oppression and to make up their own minds. In addition, sexual oppression may be viewed as socially harmful.
A more common approach to sex education is to view it as necessary to reduce risk behaviours such as unprotected sex (these views sometimes are an element of those mentioned above), and equip individuals to make informed decisions about their personal sexual activity. Additionally, proponents of comprehensive sex education contend that education about homosexuality encourages tolerance, but does not "turn students gay" as some conservatives believe.
To another large and vocal group in the sex education debate, the political question is whether the state or the family should dictate sexual mores. They believe that sexual mores should be left to the family, and sex-education represents state interference. They also claim that some sex education curricula are intended to break down pre-existing notions of modesty and encourage acceptance of practices they deem immoral, such as homosexuality and premarital sex. They cite web sites such as that of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality as examples.
If a person explains sexual matters to a child without a formal education program and without consent from the parents this may be considered inappropriate, and may in some cases be interpreted as suspicious child grooming.
Debate in the United States
Most parents in the U.S. feel that teenagers should remain sexually abstinent, but should have access to contraception. Ninety-five percent of adults in the United States and 85 percent of teenagers think it's important that school-aged children and teenagers be given a strong message from society that they should abstain from sex until they are out of high school. Almost 60 percent of adults also think that sexually active teenagers should have access to contraception. (Source: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy). A 1997 study found that about 48 percent of high school students are sexually active.
In the U.S. some advocates including President George W. Bush have successfully worked toward the introduction of "abstinence-only" curricula. Under such instruction, teens are told that they should be sexually abstinent until adulthood and/or marriage, and information about contraception is not provided. Opponents argue this approach denies teens needed, factual information and could lead to unwanted pregnancies and propagation of STDs.
Some curricula are advocated on the grounds that they are intended to reduce sexual disease or out-of-wedlock or teenage pregnancy, but no abstinence-only program has ever been shown to reduce teen sexual activity, pregnancy, or STDs. A curriculum ostensibly aimed at reducing pregnancy among high school students, which advocates the use of condoms, could potentially lower the pregnancy rate. Proponents of this view argue that sexual behaviour after puberty is a given, and it is therefore crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimized. They hold that conventional or conservative moralising will put off students and thus weaken the message.
In turn, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education object that curricula which fail to teach moral behaviour actually serve to prevent children from making informed decisions; they maintain that curricula should include the claim that conventional (or conservative) morality is "healthy and constructive", and that value-free knowledge of the body may lead to unhealthy and harmful practices.
In December of 2004 Henry A. Waxman a United States Congressman from California released a report that provides several examples of inaccurate information being included in federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs. This report bolstered the claims of those Americans arguing that abstinence-only programs deprive teenagers of critical information.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are often ignored in sex education classes. This means that information about safer sex practices for oral sex and anal sex are not discussed nor are their different risk levels for diseases. Some people do not support including this additional information because it might be seen as approving of their "lifestyle". Supporters of including GLBT issues as an integral part of comprehensive sexuality education argue that this information is still useful and relevant.
Also, abstinence-only sex education programs that advocate that youth should abstain from sex until marriage ignore and marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who might not be able to marry their partner due to legal restrictions. Proponents of abstinence-only education sometimes say that this is a good thing, as it prevents students from being exposed to the “sin” of homosexuality/bisexuality and the immorality associated with it, thus preventing moral corruption of society. Opponents of abstinence-only education would say that this viewpoint is religious-based and thus has no basis in American public education; and furthermore, that sexual orientation cannot be learned and is not a choice, so exposure to homosexuality and bisexuality could only cause a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person to be more self-accepting and could not cause a straight person to “turn” lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Scientific study of sex education
The debate over teenage pregnancy and STDs has spurred some research into the effectiveness of different sex education approaches. In a meta-analysis, DiCenso et al. have compared comprehensive sex education programs with abstinence-only programs. Their review of several studies shows that abstinence-only programs not only did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy of women who participated in the programs, but that 'abstinence- only' actually increased it. Four abstinence programs and one school program were associated with a pooled increase of 54% in the partners of men and 46% in women (confidence interval 95% 0.95 to 2.25 and 0.98 to 2.26 respectively). The researchers conclude:
- "There is some evidence that prevention programmes may need to begin much earlier than they do. In a recent systematic review of eight trials of day care for disadvantaged children under 5 years of age, long term follow up showed lower pregnancy rates among adolescents. We need to investigate the social determinants of unintended pregnancy in adolescents through large longitudinal studies beginning early in life and use the results of the multivariate analyses to guide the design of prevention interventions. We should carefully examine countries with low pregnancy rates among adolescents. For example, the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates in the world (8.1 per 1000 young women aged 15 to 19 years), and Ketting & Visser have published an analysis of associated factors. 2 In contrast, the rates are:
- We should examine effective programmes designed to prevent other high risk behaviours in adolescents. For example, Botvin et al. found that school based programmes to prevent drug abuse during junior high school (ages 12-14 years) resulted in important and durable reductions in use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana if they taught a combination of social resistance skills and general life skills, were properly implemented, and included at least two years of booster sessions.
- Few sexual health interventions are designed with input from adolescents. Adolescents have suggested that sex education should be more positive with less emphasis on anatomy and scare tactics; it should focus on negotiation skills in sexual relationships and communication; and details of sexual health clinics should be advertised in areas that adolescents frequent (for example, school toilets, shopping centres)." 5
Also, in answer to the criticism of conservatives, a US review, "Emerging Answers", by the National Campaign To Prevent Teenage Pregnancy examined 250 studies of sex education programs. 6 The conclusion of this review was that "the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity". Regarding abstinence-only programs, the summary notes:
- "Emerging Answers says that the jury is still out about the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. That is, current evidence about the success of these programs is inconclusive. This is due, in part, to the very limited number of high-quality evaluations of abstinence-only programs available and because the few studies that have been completed do not reflect the great diversity of abstinence-only programs currently offered. However, the early evidence about abstinence-only programs is not encouraging. Fortunately there is currently a high-quality, federally-funded evaluation of abstinence-only programs under way which should offer more definitive results soon."
There is a movement separate from school-based programs to encourage sexual abstinence; scientific research on these programs indicates decreased use of contraceptives among participants (see sexual abstinence).
- Sex information website by the "Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming" (Netherlands Society for Sexual Reform)
- Note 5: DiCenso A. et al.: Interventions to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies Among Adolescents: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. British Medical Journal 2002;324:1426. Online copy.
- Note 2: Ketting, E. & Visser, A., Contraception in the Netherlands: the low abortion rate explained. Patient Education and Counseling 23
- Note 3: Note 4: http://www.ethesis.net/clb/clb.htm
- Note 6: Douglas Kirby, Ph.D.: Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001. Homepage of the study.