552: Sex Ed

A Thousand Things to Talk About
552: Sex Ed

Should schools teach sex education? If so, do you think a particular program or style should be preferred?

Full episode script

If you ever want to throw a bomb into a PTA meeting, try discussing sex education. It’s a topic that’s almost always assured to bring up high emotion, because it combines a discussion of relationships, values, religion, parenting, uncomfortable discussions, and about a dozen other things.

There’s at least two major sides to this debate… at least how it is normally framed. But that doesn’t really even begin to cover it. As with most major debates, it all depends on the criteria you’re using to judge the question — and what end goal you’re aiming for.

Between abstinence-only and what’s usually called “comprehensive” sex education, the only goal that seems to be agreed-upon is reducing sexual activity of teens and young adults. Body knowledge, contraceptive knowledge, relationship skills, understanding of shared cultural values… various types of programs all aim for different goals on all of these items. So if you stick with just the pure reduction of sexual activity as the goal, then what criteria are you looking at?

In August of 2002, Mónica Silva published a meta-analysis of sexual education studies in Health Education Research. Among other things, that study reported:

Programs that promote abstinence have become particularly popular with school systems in the US, according to Gilbert and Sawyer, 1994, and even with the federal government — Sexual abstinence program has a $250 million price tag [according to one 1997 study.]

No significant effect was associated to the type of intervention: whether the program was abstinence-oriented or comprehensive—the source of a major controversy in sex education—was not found to be associated to abstinent behavior. Only two moderators—parental participation and percentage of females—appeared to be significant in both univariate tests and the multivariable model.

But – you can find studies of various quantity and quality that quote-unquote prove just about any point you want to make about any type of sex education. There’s studies saying that abstinence-only education is heavily correlated with higher rates of STIs and teen pregnancy. On the other hand, there’s studies saying that any sex education at all delays the age of first sexual activity — and studies saying that comprehensive sex education increases discussion of (if not the amount of) sex that teens engage in.

In other words, this is one of those cases where determining what you value, and how you want to judge success, is a better place to start than research alone. In all likelihood, you already have an opinion. So I’d like to challenge you to ask yourself — and ask others — what values and what judges of success they are looking at, in order to attempt to speak a language similar enough to actually communicate.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.