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Teaching accurate sexual health information in the US

A portion of US schools include abstinence-only education which is detrimental due to contradicting data and ineffective results.

Photo of Alejandro Arevalo
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the facts

Sex education programs that only promote abstinence are very prominent in American public schools, even though comprehensive sex education is statistically known to be the most effective form of education and is proven to have helped young people make better decisions. Abstinence-only sexual education tries to deter teens from engaging in sexual activities until marriage and avoids methods of contraception or details about STD prevention, sometimes omitting them entirely. In theory, this should decrease the rates of sexually active teenagers, however, national data shows otherwise. 

According to the CDC, in 2014, only 72% of private and public high schools within the United States provided information on pregnancy prevention. Although that is an astounding statistic, the number drops even lower when you want more accurate and useful information, like how to properly put on a condom, which only 35% of US schools included within their curriculum. Experts at the University of California are concerned about the fact that even the more expansive curriculums, like "Abstinence Plus" work from a traditional disease-model perspective, completely leaving out social and emotional health education related to sex. This kind of information could actually decrease the number of sexually active youngsters by teaching them about guilt, regret, and emotional strength.

Abstinence education has gathered more than 1.5 billion dollars in funding, and it has been criticized by Congress for misinterpreting statistical information, errors in information, using outdated discredited citations, and straight up false claims like "the risk of infertility after an abortion." Lying to kids does not help, and should not be the way they're taught to make educated decisions about sex.

Currently, we have the lowest national rate for teen births since the CDC began tracking it in 1940. This could be due to the fact that more schools are required or choose to teach comprehensive sexual education. The University of Washington found that teens who had comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to get pregnant, or get someone else pregnant, while a federal report in 2007 revealed that abstinence-only programs had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence." Additionally, research shows that Abstinence-only strategies could actually DETER contraceptive use among teenagers. Teenagers won't listen to adult advice, however, they apparently do listen to accurate and reliable information.  

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Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Alejandro, thanks for your thoughtful post! Would love to hear your ideas or examples, given some of the political and cultural constraints, of how to scale more programs that address the social emotional aspects of sexual education that you mention are missing from more traditional sexual education models?