May 22, 2001

The findings of several recently published studies highlight a significant disparity between the inclinations of policymakers and the needs and desires of students, parents and teachers regarding sexuality education, according to "Sex Education: Politicians, Parents, Teachers and Teens." The review, by Cynthia Dailard, senior policy analyst with The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), appears in the February 2001 issue of The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy.

"This growing body of research highlights a troubling disconnect: While politicians promote abstinence-only education, teachers, parents and students want young people to receive far more comprehensive information about how to avoid unintended pregnancy and STDs, and about how to become sexually healthy adults," comments Dailard.

Dailard examines findings and synthesizes conclusions from six recent national studies addressing sexuality education, which were conducted by AGI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and The Urban Institute (UI). Among the findings, she highlights:

Eighty-six percent of school districts with a sexuality education policy require the promotion of abstinence either as the preferred or the only means of protecting against unintended pregnancy and STDs (51% require it be taught as the preferred option but permit discussion of contraception and 35% require it be taught as the only option for unmarried people, while prohibiting or limiting discussion about contraception), according to "Abstinence Promotion and the Provision of Information About Contraception in Public School District Sexuality Education Policies." (AGI).

The proportion of public school teachers in grades 7-12 who teach abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancies and STDs rose dramatically between 1988 and 1995--from one in 50 to one in four. Further, more than nine in 10 teachers believe that students should be taught about contraception, yet one in four are instructed not to provide such instruction, according to "Changing Emphases in Sexuality Education in U.S. Public Secondary Schools, 1988-1999" (AGI).

Large proportions of schools are doing little to prepare students for puberty or for dealing with pressures and decisions regarding sexual activity. Moreover, fifth- and sixth-grade sexuality education teachers often feel unsupported by the community, parents or school administrators, according to "Sexuality Education in Fifth and Sixth Grades in U.S. Public Schools" (AGI).

A significant proportion of health educators in secondary schools want additional training in the areas of pregnancy, STD and HIV prevention, according to "Surveillance for Characteristics of Health Education Among Secondary Schools--School Health Education Profiles, 1998" (CDC).

Two-thirds of parents believe that sexuality education should encourage youth to delay intercourse but should also support contraceptive use among those who become sexually active. Furthermore, two in five students say they want more factual information about birth control and how to handle pressure to have sex, according to "Sex Education in America: A View from Inside the Nation's Classrooms" (KFF).

Students are not receiving even general information early enough to fully protect themselves against unintended pregnancy and STDs--three in 10 teenage males still do not receive any sexuality education prior to first intercourse, according to "Adolescents' Reports of Reproductive Health Education, 1988 and 1995" (UI).

Despite evidence that the U.S. public believes that sexuality education should both encourage young people to delay sexual activity and prepare them to use birth control and practice safer sex once they become sexually active, Dailard notes that conservative lawmakers continue to pursue funding for abstinence-only education. Citing President Bush's campaign promise to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent priority," Dailard questions whether the new administration will realize that abstinence education is already prevalent in this country, "and that further promotion of abstinence-only education would run contrary to the desires of teachers, parents and students."

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