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The many sides of the U.S. sex education debate


(Reuters) A study published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine has found that teen pregnancy might have less to do with sex education and more to do with cultural variations from state to state. The study examined school curricula in numerous states and found that those focusing on how to use a condom, avoid HIV and other safe practices had fewer teen pregnancies. Once the study took into account race, wealth and crime levels in states, the schools became less important. Poor states, highly religious and conservative states had higher teen pregnancy rates regardless of what the schools taught. Even in states that indicated they taught students about contraception, pregnancy rates varied according to conservatism.


The stats

Facts about sex information from the Guttmacher Institute
The Guttmacher Institute is an independent study organization dedicated to examining everything to do with sexual health in America and the world. It's been around for more than 50 years and is run on private donations and grants. The site has limitless statistics all properly sourced, and wonderful interactive graphics on all things sexual health. Some particularly interesting stats include:

  • Only 14 per cent of the current decline in teenage pregnancy is due to decreased sexual activity. The other 86 per cent is thanks to contraceptive use.
  • 46 per cent of males and 33 per cent of females receive no formal education about contraception before their first sexual experience.
  • About a quarter of high schoolers receive only abstinence education and get no information about contraception. This is up about 15 per cent from 1995 levels.
  • Only 39 per cent of American schools taught students how to correctly use a condom in a required course.
  • 55 per cent of teens have gone to websites to look up additional health information and those sites often have inaccurate or incomplete information. The same is true of the roughly 70 per cent of teens who talk to their parents about sexual health.
  • Not a single state requires that contraception education be stressed, while 26 of 50 states mandate that abstinence education be given extra weight.
  • A study in 2007 found that abstinence-only education has no benefit whatsoever to young people's sexual behaviour.



The Florida model

Great To Wait: How to abstain, from the Florida Department of Health
It's Great to Wait at first looks like a fairly typical abstinence-advice page, except that it's actually a project of the Florida Department of Health. Florida is a state with some issues in sex education. The site has some useful information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well tips for kids to learn how to say no to sex. It's well designed for kids to explore with bright and inviting colours and easy-to-navigate menus. Parents also have a section where some useful strategies for teaching sexual health are laid out. There is good information on this site, but it's also hard to ignore the generous dose of horror stories and bizarre ideological concepts as well. Once one digs around the site for a while (and loses patience with the sloppy grammar in places) the attempts to sell educators an abstinence curriculum become more apparent. It's Great to Wait does provide stats, but a quick survey of the Guttmacher shows a selective hand has obviously gone through this list-the other side of the story is missing on this site.


Does abstinence prevent HIV/AIDS?, an HIV/AIDS charity on both abstinence and comprehensive sex ed
One of the main reasons for abstinence education is to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, as was the goal of George W. Bush's PEPFAR program. AVERT is a British charity whose website puts out considerable information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS education, prevention, treatment and more. It has also put together a fair summary of the goals and key tenets of abstinence education. Issues touched on include the ways in which abstinence education can be combined with other types of sex education (called abstinence-plus) and the roots of some of the moral disagreements about the issue. While the site doesn't support abstinence-only curricula and extols the virtues of what it calls comprehensive sex education, it does take the time to look at the 'why' and 'how' of abstinence education, which is too often missing from the debate.


Advocating the other side of the debate

Advocates for Youth site
Just like there are sites for those looking for more abstinence education, there are sites for those looking for more information on other sex education models. In the case of Advocates for Youth, they really do much more than that. As the name suggests, it's an advocacy group focused on youth reproductive health. It's a useful learning tool as well as a resource for anyone looking to make some noise and protest about sexual education in the U.S. There are buzzwords on this side of the debate, too, but it does include a useful (if slightly biased) fact sheet and another nice interactive map. They take a look at the European situation, too. There's a section for educators, too, just like the It's Great to Wait website. The site is a little more upfront with its goals-it has a blog-but it's still part of the debate.


The heavy reading: UCSF sex ed study

Study on effects of various sex education methods in 2002
There's nothing for a debate like a 16-page academic study on the issue. As these things go, the one produced in 2002 by the University of California at San Francisco is fairly accessible and although almost a decade old, still summarizes the issues fairly well. A lot of the literature still cited today, this study reveals, is actually quite old. It gets to the heart of the issue which is that "[no] quantity of research will settle the moral and religious disputes that circle around the sex education debate." At the same time, it calls on Congress to reconsider George W. Bush's substantial spending on abstinence programs which was undone by Barack Obama in 2009, and the president is still tackling issues in contraceptive control today. For anyone willing to sit down and read for a bit, the study provides good historical context and a useful, academic treatment of the many sides of a complicated moral, social, political and medical debate.

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