Sex education is a broad term used to describe education about human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, and other aspects of human sexual behavior. Common avenues for sex education are parents or caregivers, school programs, and public health campaigns.
Humorous 19th century postcard
commenting on the consequences of sexual ignorance
Education about reproduction typically describes the creation and development of a new human being, from conception and the development of the embryo and fetus, through to childbirth. It often includes topics such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and how to avoid them, as well as birth control methods.
Although some form of sex education is part of the curriculum at many schools, it remains a controversial issue in several countries, particularly with regard to the age at which children should start receiving such education, the amount of detail that is revealed, and topics dealing with human sexuality and behavior (eg. safe sex practices, masturbation and sexual ethics).
In the United States in particular, sex education raises much contentious debate. Chief among the controversial points is whether covering child sexuality is valuable or detrimental; the use of birth control such as condoms and hormonal contraception; and the impact of such use on pregnancy outside marriage, teenage pregnancy, and the transmission of STDs. Increasing support for abstinence-only sex education by conservative groups has been one of the primary causes of this controversy. Countries with conservative attitudes towards sex education (including the UK and the U.S.) have a higher incidence of STDs and teenage pregnancy.
The existence of AIDS has given a new sense of urgency to the topic of sex education. In many African nations, where AIDS is at epidemic levels, sex education is seen by most scientists as a vital public health strategy. Some international organizations such as Planned Parenthood consider that broad sex education programs have global benefits, such as controlling the risk of overpopulation and the advancement of women's rights.
Sex education worldwide
According to a study done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy "almost 60% of adults think that sexually active teenagers should have easy access to contraception." Between 1991 and 2001 the number of high school seniors in the United States who reported that they have had sexual intercourse dropped from 54% to 46%. Despite this drop, the "dominant form of teenage sexuality has changed" in that time period. "It is not penile-vaginal intercourse anymore. It's oral sex."
Some advocates have successfully worked toward the introduction of "abstinence-only" curricula. Under such instruction, teens are told that they should be sexually abstinent until marriage, and information about contraception is not provided. Opponents argue this approach denies teens needed, factual information and leads to unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and propagation of STIs.
Some curricula are advocated on the grounds that they are intended to reduce sexual disease or out-of-wedlock or teenage pregnancy, but no abstinence-only program has ever been shown to reduce teen sexual activity, pregnancy, or STDs. A curriculum ostensibly aimed at reducing pregnancy among high school students, which advocates the use of condoms, could potentially lower the pregnancy rate. Proponents of this view argue that sexual behavior after puberty is a given, and it is therefore crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimized. They hold that conventional or conservative moralizing will only alienate students and thus weaken the message.
In turn, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education object that curricula that fail to teach moral behavior actually serve to prevent adolescents from making informed decisions; they maintain that curricula should include the claim that conventional (or conservative) morality is "healthy and constructive", and that value-free knowledge of the body may lead to immoral, unhealthy and harmful practices.
In December of 2004, U.S. Congressman Henry A. Waxman of California released a report that provides several examples of inaccurate information being included in federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs. This report bolstered the claims of those Americans arguing that abstinence-only programs deprive teenagers of critical information about sexuality.
In 2007, a study ordered by the U.S. Congress found that middle school students who took part in abstinence-only sex education programs were just as likely to have sex in their teenage years as those who did not. The study followed more than 2,000 students from age 11 or 12 in 1999 to age 16 in 2006. It included those who had participated in one of four abstinence education programs as well as a control group who had not. By age 16, about half of each group -- participants in an abstinence-only program as well as the control group -- were still abstinent. Abstinence program participants who became sexually active during the study period reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as their peers of the same age, and first had sex at about the same age as other students. The study also found that students who took part in the programs were just as likely to use contraception when they did have sex as those who did not participate.
The August 29/September 5, 2005, issue of The Nation reported that money from the Federal Government used to create high school abstinence clubs was being used to train "young abstinence advocates", who were being encouraged to engage in politics and support issues like overturning abortion. The article states that although the program's official language has been secularized, a list of its grant recipients "reads like a who's who list of the religious right."
In England, sex education is not compulsory in schools as parents can refuse to let their children take part in the lessons. The curriculum focuses on the reproductive system, foetal development, and the physical and emotional changes of adolescence, while information about contraception and safe sex is discretionary. Britain has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe and sex education is a heated issue in government and media reports. In a 2000 study by the University of Brighton, many 14 to 15 year olds reported disappointment with the content of sex education lessons and felt that lack of confidentiality prevents teenagers from asking teachers about contraception.
In Scotland, the main sex education program is Healthy Respect, which focuses not only on the biological aspects of reproduction but also on relationships and emotions. Education about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases are included in the program as a way of encouraging good sexual health. In response to a refusal by Catholic schools to commit to the program, however, a separate sex education program has been developed for use in those schools. Funded by the Scottish Executive, the program Call to Love focuses on encouraging children to delay sex until marriage, and does not cover contraception, and as such is a form of abstinence-only sex education.
In France, sex education has been part of school curricula since 1973. Schools are expected to provide 30 to 40 hours of sex education, and pass out condoms, to students in grades eight and nine. In January 2000, the French government launched an information campaign on contraception with TV and radio spots and the distribution of five million leaflets on contraception to high school students.
In Germany, sex education has been part of school curricula since 1970. It normally covers all subjects concerning the growing-up process, the changing of the body, emotions, the biological process of reproduction, sexual activity, partnership, homosexuality, unwanted pregnancies and the complications of abortion, the dangers of sexual violence, child abuse, and sex-transmitted diseases, but sometimes also things like sex positions. Most schools offer courses on the correct usage of contraception. There are also other media of sex education, in first place the youth magazine "Bravo", which always contains a topic where teenagers pose questions about partnership and sexuality.
Subsidised by the Dutch government, the “Lang leve de liefde” (“Long Live Love”) package, developed in the late 1980s, aims to give teenagers the skills to take their own decisions regarding health and sexuality. Nearly all secondary schools provide sex education as part of biology classes and over half of primary schools discuss sexuality and contraception. The curriculum focuses on biological aspects of reproduction as well as on values, attitudes, communication and negotiation skills. The media has encouraged open dialogue and the health-care system guarantees confidentiality and a non-judgmental approach. The Netherlands has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world, and the Dutch approach is often seen as a model for other countries.
In Sweden, sex education has been a mandatory part of school education since 1956. The subject is usually started at grades 4–6, and continues up through the grades.
The state of sex education programs in Asia is at various stages of development. Indonesia, Mongolia, South Korea and Sri Lanka have a systematic policy framework for teaching about sex within schools. Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have assessed adolescent reproductive health needs with a view to developing adolescent-specific training, messages and materials. India has programs that specifically aims at school children at the age group of nine to sixteen years. These are included as subjects in the curriculum and generally involves open and frank interaction with the teachers. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan have no coordinated sex education programs.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation and the BBC World Service ran a 12-part series known as Sexwise, which discussed sex education, family life education, contraception and parenting. It was first launched in South Asia and then extended worldwide.
AIDS posters in Côte d'Ivoire
Sex education in Africa has focused on stemming the growing AIDS epidemic. Most governments in the region have established AIDS education programs in partnership with the World Health Organization and international NGOs. These programs commonly teach the 'ABC' of HIV prevention, which has been frequently backed by the Bush Administration: a combination of abstinence (A), fidelity to your partner (Be faithful) and condom use (C). (See Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom.) The efforts of these educational campaigns appear now to be bearing fruit. In Uganda, condom use has increased, youths are delaying the age at which sexual intercourse first occurs, and overall rates of HIV infection have been going down.
Egypt teaches knowledge about male and female reproductive systems, sexual organs, contraception and STDs in public schools at the second and third years of the middle-preparatory phase (when students are aged 12–14). There is currently a coordinated program between UNDP, UNICEF, and the ministries of health and education to promote sexual education at a larger scale in rural areas and spread awareness of dangers of female circumcision.
Morality of sex education
One approach to sex education is to view it as necessary to reduce risk behaviours such as unprotected sex, and equip individuals to make informed decisions about their personal sexual activity. Additionally, some proponents of comprehensive sex education contend that education about homosexuality encourages tolerance and understanding that homosexuality isn't something that is wrong.
Another viewpoint on sex education, historically inspired by sexologists like Wilhelm Reich and psychologists like Sigmund Freud and James W. Prescott, holds that what is at stake in sex education is control over the body and liberation from social control. Proponents of this view tend to see the political question as whether society or the individual should teach sexual mores. Sexual education may thus be seen as providing individuals with the knowledge necessary to liberate themselves from socially organized sexual oppression and to make up their own minds. In addition, sexual oppression may be viewed as socially harmful.
To another group in the sex education debate, the political question is whether the state or the family should teach sexual mores. They believe that sexual mores should be left to the family, and sex-education represents state interference. They claim that some sex education curricula break down pre-existing notions of modesty and encourage acceptance of practices that those advocating this viewpoint deem immoral, such as homosexuality and premarital sex. They cite web sites such as that of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality as examples. Naturally, those that believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are a normal part of the range of human sexuality disagree with them.
Many religious conservatives believe that sexuality is a subject that should not be taught at all. They believe that the longer a teenager is kept unaware of sexuality, the less likely they will become involved in sexual behavior. Conservative religions believe that sexual behavior outside of marriage is immoral.
Other religious conservatives believe that sexual knowledge is unavoidable, and so desire to teach curricula based on abstinence.
Some believe that when a person explains sexual matters to a teenager without a formal education program and without consent from the parents that it is inappropriate, and may in some cases be interpreted as child grooming.
Youth seeking his father's advice on love
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are often ignored in sex education classes, including a frequent lack of discussion about safer sex practices for manual, oral, and anal sex, despite these activities' different risk levels for sexually transmitted diseases.
Some people do not agree with comprehensive sexual education that references or discusses such practices, believing that including this additional information might be seen as 'encouraging homosexual behavior'. Proponents of such comprehensive curricula hold that by excluding discussion of these issues or the issues of homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgenderedness, feelings of isolation, loneliness, guilt and shame as well as depression are made much worse for students who belong or believe they may belong to one of these categories, or are unsure of their sexual identity. Supporters of including LGBT issues as an integral part of comprehensive sexuality education argue that this information is still useful and relevant and reduces the likelihood of suicide, sexually transmitted disease, 'acting out' and maladaptive behavior in these students. In the absence of such discussion, these youths are said to be de facto forced to remain in the closet, while youths are left without guidance on dealing with their own possible same-gender attractions and with their LGB and Transgender classmates.
Supporters of comprehensive sex education programs argue that abstinence-only curricula (that advocate that youth should abstain from sex until marriage) ignore and marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are often unable to marry a partner due to legal restrictions. Proponents of abstinence-only education often have a more conservative view of homosexuality and bisexuality and are against them being taught as normal, acceptable orientations, or placed in equal footing to heterosexual acts/relations, and so they generally do not see this as a problem.
Scientific study of sex education
The debate over teenage pregnancy and STDs has spurred some research into the effectiveness of different approaches to sex education. In a meta-analysis, DiCenso et al. have compared comprehensive sex education programs with abstinence-only programs. Their review of several studies shows that abstinence-only programs did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy of women who participated in the programs, but rather increased it. Four abstinence programs and one school program were associated with a pooled increase of 54% in the partners of men and 46% in women (confidence interval 95% 0.95 to 2.25 and 0.98 to 2.26 respectively). The researchers conclude:
Also, in answer to the criticism of conservatives, a US review, "Emerging Answers", by the National Campaign To Prevent Teenage Pregnancy examined 250 studies of sex education programs. The conclusion of this review was that "the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity". Regarding abstinence-only programs, the summary notes:
There is a movement separate from school-based programs to encourage sexual abstinence; scientific research on these programs indicates decreased use of contraceptives among participants who become sexually active (see sexual abstinence).
Recently a tool called VDNote was released — part of MyBlackBook, which is the Internet's first secure and confidential on-line sexual history tracker. The service was developed to help combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, by promoting safe sex. The VDNote tool analyzes the user's account — giving them the probability of obtaining a sexually transmitted disease based on their entries and account.
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