A group of parents in Princeton, New Jersey, has come together to protest their school district’s current comprehensive sexuality education program because they worry it promotes condom use and “alternative sexual activity.” Calling themselves Parents for Sex Ed Choice, the group of 15 parents is not asking for the course to be removed from the school altogether, but is requesting that the school offer a separate abstinence-only class as a second option. As someone who has tracked controversies over sexuality education for almost 20 years, this feels like an old fight over a settled issue. The good news is that Princeton school officials seem to agree.
Princeton schools contract with HiTOPS, a local nonprofit that works with districts across the state to supplement the health education offered by teachers. The high school offers comprehensive sex education using a combination of lessons taught by school health teachers, HiTOPS adult health educators, and trained peer educators. Each year, health teachers work with HiTOPS to determine which topics will be covered by adults and peers. Typically, all sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and 11th graders receive two, 45-minute lessons taught by adult health educators, and ninth graders attend three peer-led workshops. (In New Jersey, tenth graders take driver’s education instead of health.) The peer leaders, who are juniors and seniors, take a year-long class for credit that meets every day. Parental permission is required for students to join the peer leader class. Parents also have the option of removing their child from the 45-minute workshops the peer educators lead.
Aileen Collins, president of Parents for Sex Ed Choice, thinks this program provides too much information, promotes condoms use, may be “psychologically damaging” to students, and is likely to increase sexual activity and promiscuity. She told the Times of Trenton that she read the 900-page curriculum and was shocked by some of the language and graphics.
Elizabeth Casparian, executive director of HiTOPS, said she thinks that Collins is likely referring to the entire curriculum much of which is only used with peer leaders and not intended to be shared with younger students. Regardless, Casparian points out that the research has consistently come down on the side of more information. She told RH Reality Check, “Research shows that abstinence-only education is not effective in helping young people who choose to be sexually active to protect themselves from pregnancy or disease, but a more comprehensive approach does seem to help young people make the decision to delay sexual intercourse.”
Casparian is right. While many parents have feared that teaching young people about sexuality will encourage sexual activity, the research has shown otherwise. Young people who take classes that teach about both abstinence and contraception do not have sex sooner than their peers, do not have sex more frequently than their peers, and do not have more sexual partners than their peers. In fact, the opposite is true. Young people in these courses are more likely to delay the onset of sexual activity and have fewer partners. More importantly, they are more likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active.
Casparian explained why this might be the case: “Our model really uses peers to help young people make healthy decisions about their sexual behavior, including the choice to be abstinent, which is reinforced in every lesson.”
Still, Collins and her group do not think that abstinence is emphasized enough and are asking the school district to consider offering an abstinence-only program as well. Collins told the Times that after looking at five other programs offered in the state, some secular, some religious, her group believes that the best choice for the alternative class is an abstinence-only curriculum called Yes You Can. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the Yes You Can curricula series was created by Saint Michael’s Medical Center under the now-defunct federal grant program known as Community-Based Abstinence Education. Yes You Can was developed to help youth “buck the tide of an over-sexualized social climate” by offering information on “the benefits of waiting,” “the impact sexual decisions have on the future,” and “the differences between males and females,” among other topics.
It is unclear whether Yes You Can relies on fear and shame like so many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula but it is clear that the program does not provide information on contraception or disease prevention methods. Casparian sees this as a problem. “For those students who are choosing to be sexually active,” she said, “it would be immoral to deny them information that could save their lives, like how to use condoms and contraceptives.”
Though administrators did send a staff member to a Yes You Can training, it seems unlikely that the district will be making any major changes soon. School board president Timothy Quinn told the Times that Student Achievement Committee reviewed the curriculum after the concerns were raised and that a separate program will not be introduced.
And though small but vocal groups of parents have protested comprehensive sexuality education, sometimes effectively, in communities across the country, the majority of parents and adults support teaching a broader-based program. In one national survey, 89 percent of parents supported teaching about both abstinence and contraception.