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The Texas State Board of Education holds a virtual public hearing about potential changes to the state's standards for sex education. The Texas State Board of Education holds a virtual public hearing about potential changes to the state's standards for sex education.

The Texas State Board of Education holds a virtual public hearing about potential changes to the state's standards for sex education.

Madlin Mekelburg
By Madlin Mekelburg July 17, 2020

Research shows sex ed reduces rates of sexual activity

The Texas State Board of Education heard testimony from hundreds of people during a 15-hour virtual public hearing last month about changes to state standards for health education, including instruction on reproductive and sexual health.

Public schools in the state are not required to teach sex education, and those that do are required to emphasize abstinence. The state has not updated its standards in more than two decades.

During the meeting, the majority of speakers urged the board to approve comprehensive sex education with information about contraceptives, consent and sexual orientation.

But other speakers said this kind of education needs to come from parents and that schools should emphasize education on "sexual risk avoidance," a term state educators use for  abstinence until marriage.

Monica Cline, a former volunteer sex educator, told the panel that parents should be having sex education conversations with their children at home and that  those lessons should not be happening in schools.

When she was still teaching sex education, Cline said, she encountered teenagers in Austin who told her that they felt they were expected to have sex "because of comprehensive sex education."

"There is much research that actually shows that children feel pressured or they feel that they have to become sexually active because of comprehensive sex education and the expectations they have for the use of condoms," Cline said. 

But is that accurate?

"That statement is patently false," said Andrea Swartzendruber, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia who has conducted research in this field. "Comprehensive sex education is associated with delayed onset and reduced frequency of sexual activity."

Sorting through Cline’s evidence

When asked for sources to support her remark, Cline pointed to a 2015 report produced by Ascend, a group that promotes sexual risk avoidance over comprehensive sex ed, which educates students on how to avoid sexual activity outside of marriage.

The study surveyed 533 people ages 18 and 19 about their feelings towards sex and what kind of education they received. Information about what sex education each individual respondent had received was self-reported. 

On the question of pressure, the study found that respondents felt more pressure to have sex from movies, music, social media, the news and their peers than they did from their sexual education courses. Of those surveyed, 29% said their sex education courses "made it seem like sexual activitiy is an expectation."

But Swartzendruber said the findings in the report are not "reputable or evidence-based" and it lacks any information about the methodologies used and the types of questions that were asked. 

"It does not include information about key questions that would help provide confidence in and influence interpretation of the results: How were survey participants contacted?" she said in an email. "Who, specifically, was contacted? What were participants asked to do? How were questions asked? Were they paid for participating? How were analyses conducted? Were the appropriate statistical analyses conducted to support generalization to all 18-19 year olds in the U.S.?"

Cline also pointed to a report from the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health (now the Office of Population Affairs) summarizing the findings of multiple programs funded by grants through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded research on the effectiveness of different programs on reducing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and sexual risk behaviors for years.

Typically, each program is assessed and analyzed individually and then all of the findings are considered together for a more comprehensive look at the impact of comprehensive sex education in general.

The report Cline shared highlights 19 individual programs that received grant funding and a brief summary of the findings.

For some programs, evaluators found there was "no significant differences" between rates of sexual activity among students receiving comprehensive sex ed and those receiving other instruction. For others, the summary of findings states that students who did not receive the education were less likely to have reported having sex.

But these evaluations are only part of the equation in this research.

Susan Zief, a senior researcher at Mathematica, said she has been at the "forefront of the federal government’s effort to learn about these programs" for more than a decade and noted that she would "caution against using findings generated by subgroups," as opposed to the results of a more complete review.

A meta-analysis of multiple studies across three grant programs found that, overall, comprehensive sex education programs "significantly reduced risky sexual behaviors as measured by their pre-specified confirmatory outcomes."

Examining other research

Leading medical organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — have published reports outlining the latest research on sex education and its impact on sexual activity.

"Although formal sex education varies in content across schools, studies have demonstrated that comprehensive sexuality education programs reduce the rates of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors (eg, number of partners and unprotected intercourse), STIs, and adolescent pregnancy," reads a report from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Adolescent Health Care.

Amies Oelschlager, a member of the committee, said adolescents will experience more pressure to have sex from media and their peers than from sex education courses.

"There is a big misconception that if you talk to adolescents about sexual activity, then you are encouraging them to have sexual activity," she said. "That has not been shown to be true."

Oelschlager said the same argument has been made about the HPV vaccine, or access to condoms: that making these things available to adolescents encourages them to be more sexually active.

"That’s not true," she said. "The provision of education and the provision of contraceptives are not aphrodisiacs."

A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that comprehensive sex education programs "have been proven to delay onset of sexual activity, reduce numbers of partners, increase condom and contraceptive use, and decrease incidence of teen pregnancy and STIs, including HIV."

A review of research on comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only programs published in the Guide to Community Preventative Services concluded that comprehensive curriculum were "effective in reducing sexual activity and increasing protective sexual behaviors in adolescents." 

Our ruling

Cline said research shows that children feel pressure "to become sexually active because of comprehensive sex education."

We found little to no research exploring whether sex education curriculum contributes to adolescents feeling pressure to have sex. But there is research examining the relationship between sex education and sexual behaviors, the bulk of which shows that youths who receive comprehensive sex education are less likely to engage in sexual activity. 

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Austin American-Statesman, Speakers call for changes to Texas sex ed curriculum, June 29, 2020

Texas Education Agency, Health Education TEKS Review Work Group E Draft Recommendations, accessed June 30, 2020 

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee on Adolescent Health Care Opinion Number 678, 2016

Guide to Community Preventive Services, The Effectiveness of Group-Based Comprehensive Risk-Reduction and Abstinence Education Interventions to Prevent or Reduce the Risk of Adolescent Pregnancy, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2012

American Academy of Pediatrics, Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents, Aug. 2, 2016

National Center for Health Statistics, Educating Teenagers About Sex in the United States, Sept. 2010

Phone interview with Dr. Anne-Marie Amies Oelschlager, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, July 6, 2020

Email interview with Monica Cline, July 7, 2020

Ascend, Teens Speak Out: National Survey Indicates That Most Teens Want More Than Contraception From Their Sex Education Classes, June 2016

U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau, Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Program (General Departmental-Funded), accessed July 7, 2020

Office of Adolescent Health, Summary of Findings from TPP Program Grantees (FY2010-2014), accessed July 7, 2020

Email interview with Andrea Swartzendruber, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia, July 7, 2020

Phone interview with Susan Zie, senior researcher at Mathematica, July 8, 2020

U.S. Health and Human Services, Meta-Analysis of Federally Funded Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs: Final Study Report, Nov. 2019

Youth.gov, HHS Teen Pregnancy Prevention Evidence, accessed July 8, 2020

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Updated findings from the HHS Teen Pregnancy Prevention Evidence Review, April 2018

Journal of Adolescent Health, Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact, 2017

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