Almost all teens in America have received a formal sex education by age 18, but only about two-thirds have been taught about birth control methods.
Amazingly, only 13 states require that instruction be medically accurate and 19 require information on condoms or contraception, while 37 require information on abstinence be provided.
With such inconsistent standards it’s no surprise that 15- to 24-year-olds, who make up about 25 percent of the sexually active population, acquire nearly half of all new STIs. Or that in 2012 there were 29.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 – a decline from previous years yet a rate still higher than almost every other developed country.
Nations like ours, which have a strong religious orientation within their political realm, have pressures to downplay sex altogether, as something reserved only for marriage. So the topic is not discussed openly in civilized conversation. But we need to begin to do so.
People are marrying later than they ever have; the average age in the US is 28 for men and 26 for women. Meanwhile, 88 percent of teens who pledge abstinence and 90 percent of Americans overall will have sex before marriage.
Where abstinence-only programs fail to impact actual sexual behavior, they still shape how teens perceive their actions. Young people that get less sex education understand less about sex and their bodies, have lower self-worth and are less open to talking about their sexual feelings and experiences with an adult. Teens that receive an abstinence-only sex education also have the same amount of sex that other teens are having, except they don’t use protection as often.
By contrast, when young people are given a comprehensive education around sex they have fewer sexual partners than those who didn’t receive sex education. Comprehensive sex education programs help delay the onset of sexual behavior, and when those young people do begin having sex they use condoms more often, have fewer unplanned pregnancies and contract fewer STIs (see here and here).
Ideally, all programs would provide context and combat messages from popular media and the Internet – especially porn – which have become the main go-to resources for unanswered questions and curiosities. But we heard from high school students that programs rarely cover these topics.
This is why adults think the idea of porn is to turn real life into fantasy while teens may think of porn as the opposite. As one high school student told us, “The idea of porn is to make fantasies into real life.”
This begs the question to parents: would you like to educate your children around sex – or would you rather let porn and pop culture, which exploit your failure to do so, be their primary source of education?
Even if you are not comfortable with your teenager engaging in sexual behavior now, surely you want them to have a healthy intimate relationship with someone at some point in their adult life. Preparing them for that starts with supporting healthy, shame-free and realistic attitudes about sex when they’re young.
Although the Obama administration recently cut funding to abstinence-only programs it is not clear how sex education in this country will move forward.
Perhaps it’s time we actually asked young people what they want to learn about. For our book, Man Interrupted, Phil Zimbardo and I spoke with many high school students. Many suggested employing certified health educators who can be objective and non-judgmental, covering such topics as:
- Communication around personal boundaries, safer sex, peer pressure and common relationship issues.
- How to know when you’re ready to become sexually active.
- Abstinence, preventing pregnancy and how to use different kinds of contraception.
- Preventing sexual and relationship abuse.
- Questions to ask a prospective spouse before marriage.
- How to detect breast, ovarian and testicular cancers.
- Fertility and aging.
- Reproduction and pregnancy.
- STI risks of various sexual acts.
- Legal and privacy issues around cybersex and sexting.
- How each sex goes through puberty.
- In-depth anatomy and biology.
- Positive aspects and health benefits of intimacy.
- Awareness around LGBTQ issues.
- Critical discussion around false representations of intimacy and romance in the media, television shows and in online porn.
- Relating basic life skills to intimacy and sexuality.
The vast majority of students independently agreed that sex education should be taught yearly, starting no later than middle school and continuing on into older year groups.
They felt that too often sex education petered out right around the time when they were becoming sexually active and had the most questions. An especially critical time period for them was 14 to 15 years old.
They thought sex education should be less formal and be taught in smaller groups because it would be easier for them to take the topics more seriously and to discuss issues openly.
Some wanted to separate the sexes when sex education was being taught while others didn’t. One great suggestion was to teach a co-ed group of students, then separate boys and girls for anonymous Q&A sessions with a trained health professional.
Leading up to this kind of sex education can be lessons in even earlier years about respecting the boundaries of others and empathy.
Miranda Horvath, a psychology professor at Middlesex University in London, suggests that young people would benefit from learning these types of lessons before they encounter porn culture:
If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.
We don’t need to be scared of sex education. Just like any other subject there should be a core of consistency, but sex education doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all approach.
Even communities that are pushing for abstinence-only programs can still make improvements by talking realistically to young people about the risks and responsibilities of unprotected sex while still reinforcing the values parents are teaching at home.
Regardless of the direction that school programs eventually go, young people are going to learn about sex one way or another, and technology is here to stay. We must offer better alternatives.
Thumbnail image via iStock