Expanding sex ed: Kid-tested, Dems-approved

Mississippi is the newest state to update its sex-education policy. Last week Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill that, beginning June 30, 2012, requires all school districts to adopt a state-approved sex-education curriculum.

Districts will be required to choose between abstinence-only instruction or sex education that focuses on abstinence but also offers information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Notably, this “abstinence-plus” education will not include “any teaching that abortion can be used to prevent the birth of a baby," according to the new law.

Proposed legislation in Illinois, passed out of the Senate Public Health Committee last week, would similarly force state school districts to update their sex-ed curricula.

And last year, both Wisconsin and North Carolina took abstinence-only off the books.

On the federal level, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) last week reintroduced a bill, titled “Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act,” which would end funding for school programs that teach only abstinence-until-marriage sex education.

This has long been a matter of contention among LGBT-rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign because the abstinence-only programs that receive federal funding are legally prohibited from discussing contraceptive use and exclude information on safe sex.

According to Lautenberg's press office, the bill would strip the abstinence-only provision of Title V from the Social Security Act and rescind $50 million that has been appropriated to abstinence-only programs. Instead, it would provide for $125 million in funds for the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which provides for comprehensive, evidence-based efforts to prevent teen pregnancy and reduce sexually transmitted infections.

Lautenberg and Lee have claimed that Congress has spent around $1.5 billion on the "failed" abstinence-only system since 1996.

Shedding light on the sex-ed debate, the Guttmacher Institute recently published two qualitative studies whose findings suggest that public schools should enforce more comprehensive sex education that includes in-depth information about abstinence and contraception.

In the studies -– “Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information” (PDF), and “The More Things Change ….: The Relative Importance of the Internet as a Source of Contraceptive Information for Teens” (PDF) -– Guttmacher’s Rachel K. Jones and three other researchers interviewed 58 high school students in Indiana and New York City, from April to June 2008, to find out where teens acquire sexual health information and to what extent teens trusted their sources. The studies included these sources: school-based education classes or talks, family, friends girlfriends/boyfriends, the Internet, mass media, doctors/nurses and religious groups.

The study sample, according to the methodology report, involved a racially- and ethnically-mixed group of boys and girls from two schools in New York and one in Indiana. Though 11 high schools were initially contacted, the research team settled on three schools that did not stand out academically as either extremely low- or high-performing. The recruits were taken from:

  • a public high school in New York City with 3,700 students, where a full semester was dedicated to an opt-in/opt-out comprehensive sex education that included condom demonstrations and posters in the halls about contraception, abstinence and other sexual-health issues,
  • a public high school in New York City with 400 students, where there was no formal sex education class, but there were occasional group discussions about sex and other issues during an advisory period that met weekly, and condoms were available as well as a few posters on contraception displayed in the halls,
  • a public high school in a mid-sized city in Indiana with 1,800 students, where two weeks were spent on sex education.

Two dominant themes that came out of this study were teens’ wariness about contraception and the idea that contraceptive and abstinence instruction was compatible.

Many teens were reportedly discouraged by the long list of side effects of hormonal birth control advertisements and some reported receiving inaccurate information about using hormonal birth control, e.g., that it could “close ovarian tubes." Condoms were perceived as the most effective form of birth control, but teens expressed awareness that condoms are not foolproof and many recalled learning about contraceptive-failure rates from school, friends and the Internet, though some stated that failure rates were overemphasized by school officials.

A self-defined sexually-active, 17-year-old Hispanic female from Indiana recalled learning the following from an abstinence-only peer education program she attended in middle school: “Even if you have sex and you use a condom, you can still get pregnant. That’s what they told us in like 8th grade. There are still micro tiny holes in a condom so you can still get pregnant.”

The researchers stated that going into the study they perceived contraception and abstinence to be “somewhat opposing constructs,” but ended up being surprised that teens did not view abstinence as an “all or nothing” safe-sex strategy or that contraceptive information was only appropriate for sexually-active teens.

A 17-year-old black Hispanic female from New York City, and a self-defined virgin, told an interviewer: “Well, you can always wait. It’s nothin’ to rush. You can, you know – if you do decide to do it, use condoms, ’cause, you know, things that happen that people do not want to happen: having kids; gettin’ diseases and all that.”

The second study, using the same pool of students as the first, focused more narrowly on the Internet as a source of sex-health information and revealed that the teens interviewed were very discriminating when it came to information on the Web. Most reported trusting only sites that ended in .edu, .gov., or .org and distrusting sites such as Wikipedia or those with pornographic content. Based on their findings, researchers concluded that within a comprehensive sex-education model, schools would be wise to direct teens to websites that provide accurate, age-appropriate information on sexual health.