According to a 2004 poll, jointly sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and National Public Radio, 93 percent of parents whose children have taken sex education courses feel the courses were “somewhat helpful” or “very helpful” to their children. Only seven percent of adults surveyed thought schools should not provide sex education.
Those who supported school sex education were divided into three groups: those who support what’s known as “comprehensive” sex education, in which emphasis is placed on teaching students to make good decisions, without a substantial emphasis on morality or abstaining from sex; those who support “abstinence-plus” education, in which students are taught that abstinence is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but also provided with information on the use of contraceptives to reduce the risk of engaging in sex; and those who support “abstinence-only” education, in which students are given little or no information about contraception, and are taught that abstinence until marriage is the expected standard of behavior. Among those surveyed, 36 percent of parents supported comprehensive sex education, 46 percent supported abstinence-plus, and 15 percent supported an abstinence-only approach.
Conflict over sex education isn’t new, of course, and school curricula are frequently the subject of heated public debate. But the debate over abstinence-only education has intensified in recent years because of increases in federal funding for such programs. The first federal spending for teaching abstinence came in 1981, when president Ronald Reagan’s first budget allocated $11 million in grant money to programs promoting abstinence. Annual funding for such programs remained fairly steady for the next 15 years, until president Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (commonly known as “welfare reform”), which provided $50 million in funds for school sex education programs that focused exclusively on abstinence as a means to prevent pregnancy and STD transmission.
In subsequent years, federal funding for abstinence-only education has increased substantially. In 2005, $167 million was earmarked for abstinence-only education, up from $80 million in 2001. President George W. Bush’s proposed 2006 budget includes $206 million for such programs. This is the only portion of the federal budget targeted towards sex education in public schools, meaning that to qualify for this supplemental money, schools must adopt a sex education program that meets the federal standards for abstinence education. Schools that choose comprehensive or abstinence-plus curricula must fund the programs out of their general budget, provided by local and state governments.
The growth in funding for abstinence education has also increased interest among academic researchers who study the effects of sex education programs on teen pregnancy and STD infection rates. One of the largest academic works on the subject, a group project led by Dr. Douglas Kirby, analyzed 250 individual studies that tracked the effects of sex education programs in the United States and Canada. While the research is not definitive, it does point towards some tentative conclusions. For that reason, Dr. Kirby titled his study Emerging Answers. The study concludes that while further research is necessary, there is good evidence that certain kinds of sex education programs can reduce teen pregnancy and STD infection rates, while other programs appeared to have no significant effects. Working with his co-authors, a group of researchers chosen to represent a diverse body of opinions (including conservative and liberal researchers), the study found ten characteristics of successful programs. Among those characteristics are a consistent, clear message about reducing risk; basic, accurate information about the risks of teen sexual activity and about ways of avoiding intercourse or using protective methods such as condoms; incorporate activities and behavioral goal-setting; last a sufficient amount of time; and involve teachers who are able to fulfill the program’s goals.
While Dr. Kirby’s study does provide some encouragement by identifying programs that work to reduce pregnancy and STD infection rates — programs that incorporated comprehensive or abstinence-plus messages — it was unable to come to a significant conclusion about the effectiveness of abstinence-only curricula. While none of the programs judged effective in the Emerging Answers study were abstinence-only programs, the authors caution that no firm conclusions about such programs can be drawn until further research is done. One of the difficulties involved in that research stems from the fact that many abstinence-only programs have only been in place for a few years, while many schools have used comprehensive or abstinence-plus programs for longer periods. Increased funding for research on abstinence-only programs is expected in the next few years, and Dr. Kirby anticipates that more conclusive results on abstinence-only education may be available by 2006. Until that time, political division within the country, and tensions between groups with different views of sex education, will likely persist, ensuring that the subject remains controversial.
Daniel McDermon is a writer living in New York City.