Comprehensive sex education: evidence for effectiveness

In contrast, there is also abundant evidence that comprehensive sex education, which offers teenagers a variety of strategies to avoid STIs and pregnancy, works. The 2007 review by Kirby1 found that over 40% of comprehensive sex education programmes delayed the initiation of sex. In addition, 30% of comprehensive sex education programmes produced a reduction in the frequency of sex (including a return to abstinence).

In other words, programmes that did not focus exclusively on abstinence were effective in encouraging abstinence, whereas ones that promoted it as the only safe choice were not.

In addition, more than 60% of comprehensive sex education programmes reduced unprotected sex, and more than 40% of programmes had a positive effect on more than one of these outcomes. Furthermore, no comprehensive sex education programme either hastened the initiation of sex or increased its frequency.

Kirby says: “Comprehensive programmes worked for both genders, for all major ethnic groups, for sexually experienced and inexperienced teens, in different settings, and in different communities...some programs’ positive impact lasted for several years.”

As well as studies cited by Kirby, a subsequent study2 found that sex education in general, with no special emphasis on abstinence, greatly boosted the likelihood that teens would delay having intercourse.

Male teens who received comprehensive sex education in school were 71% less likely, and female teens 59% less likely, to have sexual intercourse before the age of 15. Among African-American girls (the group most vulnerable to heterosexually-acquired HIV) the difference was dramatic: they were 91% less likely to have sex before 15 if they had had sex education before that age. Male teenage school pupils were also 2.77 times more likely to rely upon birth control the first time they had intercourse if they had been in sex-education classes.

“Sex education seems to be working,” said study lead author Trisha Mueller. “It seems to be especially effective for populations that are usually at high risk.” (This backed up evidence from Kirby that “programs may be especially likely to be effective in communities where teen pregnancy or STD and HIV are salient issues, and may be less effective where these issues are not.”)

References

  1. Kirby D et al. Emerging Answers 2007: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington DC, 2007
  2. Mueller TE et al. The association between sex education and youth’s engagement in sexual intercourse, age at first intercourse, and birth control use at first sex. J Adolesc Health 42(1), 2008
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
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This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.