Sex education and teen pregnancy

So, last night the issue of permissive attitudes to sex came up in discussion in the comments. A very frequent objection to sex education came up- that it is too permissive of sex, and thus encourages teenage pregnancy.

Fortunately for us, recently the Journal of Adolescent Health released a study on this very matter. Because I am a complete nerd, I’ve condensed it into a venn diagram as a visual aid:

Sex Education compared with teenage pregnancy

The numbers on the outside parts of the circles represent what percentage of US teens had that type of sexual education. You’ll notice that just over two-thirds had comprehensive sex education. This almost 10% lower than the UK’s figures, for comparison.

The numbers on the inside represent what percentage of teens who had either been pregnant themselves or knew they had made another teen pregnant. You’ll notice that the only number that’s smaller than the one on the outside is the number for comprehensive sex education- that’s because it significantly increases use of birth control, and very slightly decreases incidence of vaginal sex- although by less than the error margins of the study. The methods of comprehensive Sex Ed used in the USA didn’t noticeably reduce the incidence of STIs.

Also interesting- and consistent with feminist and sex-positive claims- is that abstinence education had no noticeable effect. Not on teen pregnancy, not on teen sex, and not on STIs. If we trust the data, it’s certainly better than no education at all, but this study seems to debunk the idea that making sex education less permissive of sex helps teens. The discussion at the end of the document also mentions several other studies that have found similar results for this type of Sex Ed, and that it’s possible that there is under-reporting for the incidence of sex and STIs, as teens who believe in the importance of abstinence have in previous studies been far more likely to initially admit to having sex and then deny it later. As they receive little to no education on STIs, they’re also far less likely to get checked, reducing the rate of reporting. It’s still possible that abstinence-only education is actually actively harmful to teens.

Of course, most worrying is that teens without any sex education are almost twice as likely to contribute to teenage pregnancy. This is complicated by the fact that teens who didn’t receive sex education were very disproportionately poor or members of ethnic minorities. The importance of equal and engaging education for these groups, both in general and for sex education in specific, is made quite clear by this study, and this demographic is probably going to be the easiest place to cut down on teen pregnancy, if we’re willing to put more special programs into place.

The study also had some other interesting pieces of data- the strongest predictor of sexually transmitted infections was a “non-intact family unit”. To put that in simpler words, if you want to stop your kid from picking up a sexually transmitted disease, you need a stable family environment. The study’s authors note that the influence of this factor was strong on all three outcomes they were interested in- incidence of teen sex, teen pregnancy, and STIs.


6 Responses

  1. […] Family First, as always, is taking a conservative christian approach to this issue and objecting on the grounds that emergency contraception encourages promiscuity, which I find rather disappointing. If a girl was looking for convenient ways to have sex without complications, condoms and birth control pills to prevent ovulation would be much higher up the list of convenient aides to pregnancy-free sex, with the big advantage in the case of condoms of also preventing sexually transmitted infections. This also ignores the fact that encouraging teenagers to use contraception is far more effective in preventing them from having sex. […]

  2. […] being used universally or often enough, and that it’s not being used redundantly. I’ve blogged before that comprehensive sex education, even without easy access to contraceptives, reduces incidence of […]

  3. This is particularly interesting as it contradicts the De Kalb County study of high school Driver’s Ed programs. Driver’s Ed actually increased crashes, especially serious ones. A result that actually was consistent with the arguments against ssex education.

    The big question is what does Comprehensive Sex Education consist of? The fact that it reduces pregnancies without reducing STIs suggests it isn’t the Safe Sex message being promulgated in this country.

    Clearly NZ’s approach to road safety has been more effective than the safe sex approach, even when controlled for reduced motorcycle ridership. The opposite seems to be true for the USA. Maybe the two countries need to be willing to learn from each other.

  4. Kevyn- comprehensive sex education does reduce STIs, or at least, this study found that it did. (It’s abstinence-only sex education that didn’t) It’s just that having a stable family environment reduces them much more significantly. Which is interesting, because it says that fixing and preventing domestic problems may actually have wider benefits for the next generation than many people think.

    As to what comprehensive sex education consists of- basically, explaining everything about sex and relationships and the consequences. Safe sex, the various types of birth control, emergency contraception, how pregnancy works, etc… (I’m pretty sure we even had rhythm method and pulling out mentioned when I went through secondary school sex-ed) The really important factor in contrast to abstinence-only education is that comprehensive sex ed teaches that saying no until you’re ready is okay, but that it’s one of only many options available. Instead of just saying that unsafe sex is bad, it explores the consequences of unsafe sex and lets students decide for themselves. Basically, it’s more scientific, more thorough, and less preachy.

    I’m really unfamiliar with the benefits and drawbacks of Driver’s Ed, so I’ll have to take your word for that. I think this may actually follow the Drivers’ Ed argument you’re talking about better than anti-sex ed arguments do though, because presumably you’re comparing people who took Driver’s Ed to those who learned from a dedicated instructor. Essentially, comparing abstinence-only sex education to comprehensive sex education works the same way, as people learning from abstinence-only programs often receive contradictory information from other sources, but those sources aren’t designed to give them a clear picture on the consequences of sex, using birth control, STIs, etc…

  5. Ari, Thanks for the response. What I was really getting at was whether the sex education in New Zealand schools covers the same range of risk factors identified in crash investigations – speed, alcohol, lack of protection or whether it focused mainly on lack of protection.

    The De Kalb County studied compared crashes per licensed driver for high schools that had Driver’s Ed as part of the curriculum and those that didn’t. The best explanation I have seen for the higher crash rates per licensed driver is that parents may be more willing to lend the family car to novice drivers with a “diploma” in driving in addition to the state license and that teen drivers avoid driving in situations where they don’t feel confident which are usually the more high risk types of driving – at night, rural, bad weather etc. That intuitive scale of risk is an abstinence thing but related to level of risk rather than the all or nothing approach with abstinence from sex. I suspect abstinence only works with those who consider it practicing a virtue rather than avoiding a sin. A personality thing, which is not a good basis for a health strategy.

  6. Speaking from my own experience, sex education in New Zealand seems to be holistic- ie. based on encouraging emotional and physical health, encouraging people to protect themselves if they do have sex, empowering them to say no if they don’t want to, showing the consequences of being pressured into having sex, and so on.

    If your explanation is the reason behind Driver’s Ed increasing crashes, (and it seems plausible) then it’s highly likely that it doesn’t pertain to sex education or teenage pregnancy because the situations are very unlike.

    There’s very little parents can practically do to stop their children from being sexually independent in the way that parents can refuse to give their children their keys, outside of trying to ground them until they leave home. If you accept the premise that you’re unlikely to reduce the amount of sex teens have by any significant amount, the reason that comprehensive sex education makes such a difference becomes clear: It’s a choice between slightly less sex but largely unsafe sex, and slightly more sex but largely safe sex.

    And yes, abstinence-only education generally only gains credibility with two groups: those who are largely motivated by faith, and those who believe that virginity has some intrinsic worth. While I fully support good education on how and why to say no, and that it’s okay to do so, putting virginity on some sort of moral pedestal is not an acceptable way of doing that.

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