New Research Again Confirms That Comprehensive Sex Ed Delays First Sex and Keeps Teens Safe


One of the most persistent myths about sexuality education is that teaching kids about sex and providing them with information about contraception gives them some kind of license to “do it” and means they will have sex sooner and more often. Despite years of research proving this fear to be unfounded, it remains the basis of many arguments over sex education and the cause of controversies in communities across the country.  This week, the Guttmacher Institute released new research which yet again shows that formal sex education, including instruction on both waiting to have sex and effective training on birth control, not only helps teens delay sex but also has a positive impact on other decisions when they do, such as partner selection and contraceptive use.

Researchers looked at data from 4,691 men and women ages 15 to 24 who participated in the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).  The NSFG asks young people if they had received formal instruction before age age 18 on “how to say no to sex” and/or on “methods of birth control.”  The results show that 66 percent of sexually-experienced females and 55 percent of sexually-experienced males reported having received information about both abstinence and birth control prior to the first time they had sex. Of the remaining sexually-experienced individuals of both sexes, 19 percent of females and 21 percent of males had received only abstinence instruction, and 16 percent of females and 24 percent of males had had no instruction in either topic.

The researchers caution that these categories do not tell us exactly what respondents learned in the classroom or whether the programs in which they participated would be characterized as comprehensive, abstinence-based, or abstinence-only.  For example, given what we know about abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, it is possible that those who say they learned about both “how to say no” and “birth control” did not actually receive comprehensive sex education because the only thing they learned about contraception were failure rates.   

In order to determine the impact of sex education on sexual decision-making, researchers also looked at age of first sex, whether first sex was a wanted experience, contraceptive use, and partner selection, including whether a respondent’s partner was more than three years older and whether the relationship was casual or romantic. 

The researchers determined that those young people who had had formal sex education (in either of the categories used by the NSFG) were more likely to delay first sex than their peers who had had none.  Those who had received information on both abstinence and contraception were also more likely to use condoms or birth control methods at first sex than either their peers who had had no sex education or their peers who had learned only about abstinence.  Moreover, they were more likely to have healthier partnerships at first sex.

Receiving only abstinence instruction did lead to delayed first sex but was not associated with any of the protective behaviors at first sex. In fact, condom use at first sex was significantly less likely among females who had had only abstinence instruction than among those who had received information about both abstinence and birth control.

Interestingly, while the study found sex education had an impact on first sex it found no relationship between sex education and current sexual behaviors.  The authors suggest that this confirms the need for ongoing education after the onset of sexual activity.

Finally, the authors found significant socio-demographic differences in those who had received sex education before they had sex. Black and Hispanic teens, those from lower-income groups, and those whose mothers had fewer years of education were less likely to receive any formal sex education.  For example, nearly one-third of young men of color did not receive instruction on either abstinence or birth control methods before first sex. The authors note that such results are troubling as these demographic groups have poorer sexual health outcomes, including higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancy.

“Sex education is important to teens’ healthy development,” said Laura Lindberg, one of the study’s authors. “It should cover a wide range of topics, including both how to delay first sex and how to use contraceptives, and should be reinforced over the course of young people’s development. Reaching teens with comprehensive information before they have sex should be a key goal.”

Maybe, just maybe, this study will put an end to the argument about whether sex education causes sex and we can spend more time making sure everyone receives the comprehensive information they need to make healthy decisions before they have sex.

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