When discussing the sexuality education young people receive, many people refer to two distinct schools of thought: comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In reality, however, most schools in the United States 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 what young people in your community really are, or are not, learning in their sexuality education programs.
Comprehensive Sexuality Education
Sexuality education programs that start in 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, decision-making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention. They provide students with opportunities for developing skills as well as learning information.
Programs that emphasize the benefits of abstinence. These programs also include information about sexual behavior other than intercourse as well as contraception and disease-prevention methods. These programs are also referred to as abstinence-plus or abstinence-centered.
Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors. These programs do not include information about contraception or disease prevention methods.
Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors outside of 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.
Abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage 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).