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When it comes to sexuality education, we often seem like a nation divided. Reading newspapers or listening to political debates, one might think that adults cannot decide whether schools should provide comprehensive education about sexuality or take a strict abstinence-only-until-marriage approach.

In fact, when asked, the vast majority of American adults, including parents and voters, supports comprehensive sexuality education, disapproves of the government’s investment in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and rejects popular myths that suggest teaching about sexuality encourages teens to be sexually active. Nevertheless, the government currently spends over $175 million per year for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, in direct contradiction to public opinion.

School-Based Sexuality Education

Parents and other adults overwhelmingly support making sexuality education part of junior high and high school curricula. In addition, many parents believe that sexuality education can help young people make responsible decisions about sexual behavior and sexual health.

  • 93% of parents of junior high school students and 91% of parents of high school students believe it is very or somewhat important to have sexuality education as part of the school curriculum. In contrast, only 4% of parents of junior high school students and 6% of parents of high school students believe sexuality education should not be taught in school.1
  • 92% of parents of junior high school students and 93% of parents of high school students whose child has had, or is currently in, sexuality education believe that this class will be very or somewhat helpful to their child.2
  • 77% of parents of junior high school students and 72% of parents of high school students believe that sexuality education is very or somewhat effective in helping teens avoid HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; 73% of parents of junior high school students and 66% of parents of high school students believe it is very or somewhat effective in helping teens to avoid pregnancy; and 71% of parents of junior high school students and 68% of parents of high school students believe it is very or somewhat effective in helping teens make responsible decisions about sex.3
  • 88% of parents of junior high school students and 80% of parents of high school students believe that sexuality education in school makes it easier for them to talk to their children about sexuality issues.4

A Wide Range of Topics

In recent years many schools have restricted the topics that are covered in sexuality education either because of an ongoing community controversy or the fear that one might erupt. The truth is, however, that the majority of parents want sexuality education to cover a wide range of topics. In fact, most parents believe that it is appropriate to teach students about many subjects that are considered controversial, including abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, given the reality they face, young people also want sexuality education to cover many topics.

  • 100% of parents of junior high school students and 98% of parents of high school students believe sexually transmitted diseases are an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.5
  • 100% of parents of junior high school students and 99% of parents of high school students believe HIV/AIDS is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.6
  • 99% of parents of junior high school students and 97% of parents of high school students believe basic information about how babies are made, pregnancy, and birth are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.7
  • 95% of parents of junior high school students and 93% of parents of high school students believe that birth control and other methods of preventing pregnancy are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.8
  • 97% of parents of junior high school students and 96% of parents of high school students believe information on how to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.9
  • 91% of parents of junior high school students and 83% of parents of high school students believe abortion is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.10
  • 88% of parents of junior high school students and 85% of parents of high school students believe information on how to use and where to get contraceptives is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.11
  • 83% of parents of junior high school students and 79% of parents of high school students believe information on how to put on a condom is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.12
  • 81% of parents of junior high school students and 76% of parents of high school students believe masturbation is an appropriate topic for sexuality education programs in schools.13
  • 80% of parents of junior high school students and 73% of parents of high school students believe homosexuality and sexual orientation are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.14
  • 81% of parents in low-income communities favor sexuality education programs that teach young people about all aspects of sex and sexuality including how to use birth control to prevent unintended pregnancy and how to protect against STDs.15
  • 82% of adolescents ages 15 to 17 and 75% of young adults ages 18 to 24 want more information on a variety of sexual health topics such as “how to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS and other STDs,” “the different types of birth control that are available,” “how to bring up sexual health issues such as STDs and birth control with a partner,” and “how to deal with pressure to have sex.”16

The Politics of Sexuality Education

Sexuality education is becoming ever more political, with the federal government supporting strict abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, states debating how to address sexuality in their schools, and communities bracing for controversy. Most people, however, do not support current policies that favor abstinence-only-untilmarriage programs and funding. In addition, parents reject many of the myths about sexuality education that have been used to remove programs and restrict topics.

  • Only 30% of American adults agree with the statement “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose.” In contrast, 67% of adults agree with the statement “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.”17
  • 90% of the engaged, voting public believe all students should receive age-appropriate, medically accurate sexuality education that begins early and continues through high school.18
  • 66% of registered voters are in favor of a proposal to increase efforts to provide age-appropriate sexuality education in public elementary schools.19
  • 63% of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports comprehensive sexuality education.20
  • Only 10 percent of engaged voters support abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in public schools.21
  • Only 28% of American adults agree that “providing information about how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception might encourage teens to have sexual intercourse.” In contrast, 65% of adults believe that “not providing information about how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception might mean more teens will have unsafe sexual intercourse.”22

State Surveys

Support for sexuality education exists across the country. Mirroring national surveys, numerous state surveys show that adults from California to New York and Connecticut to Minnesota support providing young people with comprehensive school-based sexuality education, disapprove of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and reject myths about sexuality education.

CALIFORNIA

  • 93% of adults in California believe sexually active teens should be encouraged, in school-based sexuality education, to use protection and to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.23
  • 84% of adults believe young people should receive specific instruction about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.24
  • In 93% of California’s public schools, no more than 5% of families remove their children from sexuality education classes even though they have a right to do so.25

CONNECTICUT

  • 94% of adults in Connecticut agree that, “in the era of AIDS, young people need the information and skills from sex education to protect their health and lives.”26
  • 93% of adults in Connecticut agree that “whether or not young people are sexually active, they should receive sex education so they have the information to make responsible choices.”27
  • 91% of adults in Connecticut support sexuality education in high school and 79% support sexuality education in junior high school.28
  • 83% of adults in Connecticut reject the claim that “sex education only encourages young people to have sex.”29
  • 73% of adults in Connecticut reject the claim that “giving young people information about abstinence and birth control in school sends mixed messages and encourages young people to have intercourse.”30
  • 59% of adults in Connecticut oppose current policy that provides funds solely for abstinence-only-until-marriage education and prohibits teaching of condoms or other contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and disease.31

MINNESOTA

  • 91% of Minnesotans support teaching sexuality education in high school and 84% support teaching sexuality education in junior high school.32
  • 90% of Minnesotans agree with the statement “whether or not young people are sexually active, they should receive sex education so that they have the information to make responsible choices.”33
  • 80% of Minnesotans reject the claim that “sex education only encourages young people to have sex.”34
  • 67% of Minnesotans reject the claim that “giving young people information about abstinence and birth control in school sends mixed messages and encourages young people to have intercourse.”35
  • 59% of Minnesotans oppose current policy that provides funds solely for abstinence-only-until-marriage education and prohibits teaching of condoms or other contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and disease.36

SOUTH CAROLINA

  • 81% of South Carolina registered voters think that sex education in public schools should contain information on both abstinence and contraception.37
  • 7 out of 10 South Carolina registered voters believe that “comprehensive sex education in the schools decreases rates of pregnancy and disease.”38
  • 93% of South Carolina registered voters support instruction on sexually transmitted diseases, 86% support instruction on physical/social growth changes, 85% support instruction on reproductive anatomy, and 82% support instruction on contraception.39
  • A majority of South Carolina registered voters indicate instruction on sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence, contraception, physical and social growth changes associated with puberty, sexual decision making, pregnancy and childbirth, and responsible relationships should begin no later than middle school.40
  • Only 1 in 10 registered voters in South Carolina feels that sex education should not be taught in the state’s public school.41

References

1. Sex Education in America (Washington, DC: National Public Radio, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Kennedy School of Government, 2004), 5.

2. Sex Education in America, 28.

3. Sex Education in America, 6.

4. Sex Education in America, 28.

5. Sex Education in America, 9.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Sex Education in America, 10.

10. Sex Education in America, 11.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Sex Education in America, 12.

15. Lower-Income Parents on Teaching and Talking with Children about Sexual Issues: Results from a National Survey, (New York, NY: SIECUS, October 2002.)

16. Tina Hoff, et al., National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences (Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003), 79-71, 111-112.

17. Sex Education in America, 7.

18. Mobilizing Support for Sex Education: New Messages and Techniques (New York, NY: The Othmer Institute of Planned Parenthood of NYC, 2002.)

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Sex Education in America, 22.

23. Get Real About Teen Pregnancy! Findings in Brief: A Look at California’s Views on Teen Pregnancy (San Francisco, CA: The Field Institute, 1999).

24. Ibid.

25. Sex Education in California Public Schools: Are Students Learning What They Need to Know? (San Francisco, CA: ACLU of Northern California, 2003).

26. Connecticut Sexuality Education Survey: Survey Among Connecticut Residents (Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth, 2004), 1.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Connecticut Sexuality Education Survey, 2.

30. Ibid.

31. Connecticut Sexuality Education Survey, 3.

32. What Parents Want: Sex-Ed Survey (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting, and Prevention, 2001).

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. F. Alton, South Carolina Speaks 2004 (Columbia, SC: South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2004).

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.