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Sexuality Education Definitions

When discussing sexuality education, many people refer to two distinct schools of thought: comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs. In reality, however, most schools in the U.S. teach programs that fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum and programs are often called by a variety of different names.

The following terms and definitions provide a basic understanding of the types of sexuality education programs that are currently offered in schools and communities. Remember, however, that names can be deceiving. It is important to look past labels and find out the specifics of what young people in your community really are, or are not, learning in their sexuality education programs.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education
Sexuality education programs that, in school settings, start by kindergarten and continue through 12th grade. These programs include age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality including human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behaviors including abstinence, sexual health, and society and culture. CSE programs provide students with opportunities for learning information, exploring their attitudes and values, and developing skills.

Abstinence-Plus, Abstinence-based, Abstinence-Focused or Abstinence-Centered
All of these terms refer to programs that emphasize the benefits of abstinence. These programs also typically include information about sexual behavior other than intercourse as well as contraception and disease-prevention methods.

Abstinence-only
Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors. These programs generally do not include information about contraception or disease-prevention methods.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM)
Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors outside of heterosexual marriage.   If contraception or disease-prevention methods are discussed, these programs typically emphasize failure rates. In addition, they often present marriage as the only morally correct context for sexual activity.

Fear-based
Abstinence-only and AOUM programs that are designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt. These programs rely on negative messages about sexuality, distort information about condoms and STDs, and promote biases based on gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy options. (For more information see the “Knowing the Opposition” section).