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:
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.