Thursday, January 7, 2010

Teen Pregnancy, Is Education Helping?

Rising teen pregnancy and STI rates has moved the issue of sex education into the public arena. Since this is a complicated issue, I will be breaking it up into a few posts. In this piece, I will review the pros and cons of abstinence and comprehensive sexual education programs.

The United States Government uses the following criteria when defining abstinence-only sex education programs.
Under Section 510 of the 1996 Social Security Act abstinence education is defined as an educational or motivational program which:
(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity (Santelli, et al., 2006)
Abstinence is 100% effective against pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). The programs, however, are not as effective. Scientists offer a few reasons for this failure. One, it does not inhibit sexual behavior. Two, when the teen does engage in sexual intercourse, they are less likely to use protection. Finally, it systematically ignores a high-risk population: sexually active youth (see Satnell, et al. 2006 for an in-depth review).

While abstinence is a worthy goal, researchers argue that it fails in its primary goal: to educate adolescents. Teens are not provided with the appropriate information regarding safe sex practices. Thus, when they do engage in sexual intercourse, they are not aware of contraceptive devices and are more likely to become pregnant and/or develop a STI.

Abstinence-only supporters argue that comprehensive programs are equally uneffective. Does the research support this claim? Let's find out.

Comprehensive education includes discussions on abstinence, safe sex practices, and contraceptive devices. In comparison studies, teens who have undergone this educational method are less likely to become pregnant than their counterparts who have received no education. They are also less likely to become sexually active, although these results are only marginal (see Kohler, et al, 2008 and Starkman, 2002).

Critics of the comprehensive approach suggest that teens will be more likely to become sexually active. Studies, however, show contrary results. As stated above, they are somewhat less likely to even engage in sexual activities.

In terms of educating youth, comprehensive sex education is better. It provides information regarding safe sex practices, contraceptive uses, and abstinence. It discusses the risks of sexual activity, including pregnancy and the spread of STIs. The research shows it is effective in decreasing teen pregnancy and the spread of STIs. 

The research clearly shows the efficacy in comprehensive sex education programs. If we are seeking to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of STIs, comprehensive programs are necessary. 

However, this is only a small portion of the teen sex argument. Stay tuned for the next portion.

As a parent, do you feel confident in the sex education your teenager is/did receiving/received?
Are there any changes you would like to see in sex education?
Do you agree with this research, or do you feel future studies need to be conducted?

This is part of my on-going look at current research on issues affecting families. If you have any ideas for future posts, please feel free to e-mail me at If you would like copies of any of the articles I cite in here, e-mail me.

To keep me honest, here are the references I used.
Kohler, P. K. et al. (2007). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351.
Santelli, J. et al. (2006). Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 72-81.
Starkman, N. & Rajani, N. (2002).  The case for comprehensive sex education: Commentary. AIDS Patient Care and STDs, 16, 3313-318.


  1. I definitely think sex education in schools should be compulsory. BUT, I think the only way the message truly gets across is if parents talk with their kids (and not just once!) about these issues as well.

  2. Ah, you have alighted upon a more profound issues. Discussing sex at home. Stay tuned, that will be coming up in this series.

  3. As TKW said, an ongoing discussion at home is the key. I was involved in a program at our church that included discussion about alternatives to having sex (you know, the less penetrating ways - I'm trying to keep it clean;). The kids were squimish hearing about it (and frankly, so were the adults talking about it) but I've always brought up these alternative ways with my now-teenage daughter. Just recently (she was in a relationship) she said to me, "Mom? You know how I would always get grossed out when you talked about the other things you can do instead of sex? Well, it helped."

  4. When I was teaching here in NC, we were only allowed to teach abstinence. And while I'd love if the kids would listen to that, the reality is that some are going to have sex and they need to know how to have safe sex.

  5. I will tell my kids anything - with discretion - about my past to save them from making all the incredibly stupid mistakes I made as a teenager when my sex education came from my older sisters, some of whom were a little wild. Finding my place in the world, and finding that a safe, monogamous, faithful marriage always has been the best place for me, is something I express to my children. I have also been very clear to my kids that you get to keep your memories your whole life; every stupid thing you do, it comes along. What do you want to remember? I wish my mother had told me that I would know inside my heart and soul when it was right and to trust that inner voice. So that's what I tell them.

  6. I'm not sure how the school teaches the sex ed here (my daughter will be taking it soon) but we have already done sex ed at home with my 3 oldest and it was definitely comprehensive. It is always ongoing, too. I think that if the school beats you to the education, you've given up an important role as a parent. Just last week I explained condoms to my 13 year old. My poor children will probably get clinical pictures of the STD's that are NOT condom safe before they ever go on a date. We are rather thorough with our teaching.

  7. I have been through my school district's entire program on sex education, or as they prefer to call it Family Life Education. You can sanitize the title of the program all you want but the truth is what is taught in schools will never be enough. It must be ongoing, at the level of the specific child, and honest. It must be before the child starts to want to know more.


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