Sex Education

Sex education is a debated topic. The big debate tends to be abstinence only vs. comprehensive sexual education. This article has information and statistics on sex education, abstinence only, HIV, and how sex education relates to teen pregnancy.

Abstinence Only vs Comprehensive Sexual Education

The Guttmacher Institute reports that the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy of any developed nation. And, even though teen pregnancy rates are lower today than they were 20 years ago, in recent years the rate has crept up slightly. This has the continuous battle between sex education and abstinence only education raging anew. While the battle never really died out, it has stoked up again as opinions on both sides come out. Some claim that abstinence only education is the only way to prevent teenagers from having teen sex, while others insist that teenagers will have sex no matter what, and it is better for them to be equipped with solid educational information about sex. In this way, teens will be able to limit HIV infections and prevent many unplanned teen pregnancies by having access to information, protection and contraceptives that can make the sexual experience a little safer.

Abstinence only and HIV

It is true that abstinence is one of the best ways to protect oneself against HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs). However, the American Psychological Association (APA) points out that abstinence only is not the most effective way to prevent HIV infections. With most of these infections happening prior to the age of 25, and other STIs contracted mainly in the teen years, the APA believes that abstinence should be taught as part of a wider sexual education course. Abstinence only is not the best course of action, according to the APA, and has only limited success. Here is what the APA points out about sexual education and HIV:

“Based on over 15 years of research, the evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs for youth that encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills reduce HIV-risk behavior and also delay the onset of sexual intercourse…scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity.”

In many cases, unprotected sex can lead to a host of problems; the point behind comprehensive sexual education programs is to emphasize the value of abstinence, but also to provide teenagers with the tools and knowledge that are more likely to lead to more responsible behavior should they decide to have sex at all.

Teen pregnancy and sexual education

One of the biggest issues that is addressed in the fight between advocates of abstinence only and advocates of comprehensive sexual education is that of teen pregnancy. The idea that teens will stop having sex because they go through an abstinence only program, or because contraceptives are not made available to them has been repeatedly challenged by anecdotal and scientific evidence. One of the most high profile examples was the recent pregnancy of Bristol Palin, the daughter of Alaskan governor and the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Governor Palin has supported abstinence only education in her state, and her daughter went through an abstinence only program. After having her baby, Bristol Palin expressed her opinion that abstinence only programs were limited in their effectiveness at preventing teen pregnancy.

This idea is backed by the finding by the Guttmacher Institute that 20 percent of teenagers admit that they would still have sex, even if contraceptives were no longer made available to them. Besides, the findings by the APA stating that those in abstinence only programs are more likely to have unprotected sex than those who have been through comprehensive sexual education programs is rather telling.

In the end, though, it is up to parents to ensure that their children receive appropriate information about sexual relations and intercourse. It has been shown that teens who have parents who are diligent in instilling their values and expectations in their children are more likely to wait to have sexual intercourse, and to have it less often and exercise some safety.

Stressing that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases can be useful and important. However, this emphasis is most likely to do the maximum good – in terms of helping your teen become a sexually responsible person – if abstinence messages are included as part of an overall education in communication, contraceptive use, protection and the emotional aspects of sexuality. Public education is available to provide this role (if the community allows it) for the good of public health and safety if parents are unwilling or unable to engage in these conversations with their children.

Sexuality is a very real part of life for teenagers. Ignoring it, and trying to get teens to ignore it, is likely to be a losing battle.


“BASED ON THE RESEARCH, COMPREHENSIVE SEX EDUCATION IS MORE EFFECTIVE AT STOPPING THE SPREAD OF HIV INFECTION, SAYS APA COMMITTEE” American Psychological Association. Press Release, Februaru 23, 2005. Available online: apa.org

sex education