For Researchers

Articles for Researchers

Receipt of Sexual Health Information From Parents, Teachers, and Healthcare Providers by Sexually Experienced U.S. Adolescents² by Donaldson et al., 2013, and Invited Commentary: Broadening the Evidence for Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Education in the United States⁴ by Schalet et al., 2014, both consider deficits in sexual and reproductive health education in American schools and homes.

In comparison to other developed nations, the United States has an incredibly high teen birth rate, and while adolescents make up only a quarter of the sexually active population they receive about half of the sexually transmitted disease diagnosis’s each year.⁴  One possible cause of these alarming statistics is a lack of sexual health education from parents, teachers, and health professionals.  As a society, we tend to be uncomfortable thinking and talking about teen and young adult sexuality.  Shame and embarrassment limit conversation around the subject.²

Abstinence-based sexual health education is popular because people are afraid that talking about and teaching safe and healthy ways to have sexual experiences will encourage teens to experiment sexually at a younger age.⁴  Abstinence-based education is now only ineffective but also dangerous because it stigmatizes sexual behavior, particularly if it is premarital or non-heterosexual, and it fails to provide teens who are or will be sexually active with the information they need to make informed and healthy decisions.⁴  Other approaches to sexual education often focus solely on the prevention of disease and unwanted pregnancy but still do not adequately provide the information young adults need.²

Donaldson et al. found that many sexually active teens were not getting sexual health information about condoms, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from parents, healthcare professionals, or teachers.²  Healthcare professionals provided the least amount of information, with only about a quarter of the participants having received information about STIs and birth control from them.²  Parents were more successful at talking with their children about birth control, condoms, and STIs, but still left many children without information.²  Sixty seven percent of young women and 41% of young men surveyed had received birth control information from parents and only 38% of young women and 52% of young men had received information about condoms from parents.²  About 65% of all adolescence had received information about STIs from their parents.²

Teachers, especially those who teach sexual education, have the potential to reach the children who are not getting information from other sources and reinforce and clarify information for those who are.⁴  While they do a good job educating 95% of students about the dangers of STIs, they are much worse at explaining birth control and condom information which will allow sexually active teens to protect themselves against both STIs and unwanted pregnancy.²

The easiest way to get sexual health information to youth is through school systems.  “Schools are also an opportunity to educate all young people about health and sexuality before they initiate health risk behaviors, and to provide health services that prevent disease and promote health.”  But even schools who provide a health education with comprehensive information about birth control, condoms, and STIs, fail to address the needs of all students.  “Gender, heterosexual, economic and racial biases in sexual health education leave youth without the personal agency and the critical knowledge they need to make safer sexual choices… Federally- funded programs must address gender, poverty, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.”

The kinds of sexual experiences a teenager has depend on a variety of factors including sexual orientation.  LGBTQ youth participate in risky sexual behavior at a higher rate than their heterosexual counterparts, making them in greater need of information which will allow them to make healthy choices, but only nine states require health education which provides accurate and comprehensive sexual health education for all sexualities and Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas require negative messages about non-heterosexual behavior in sexual education programs in order to discourage such behaviors.  Poverty and racial segregation also effects youth sexuality.  Youth from low-income families tend to have sexual experiences at a younger age than the general population and are more likely to view such experiences as part of becoming an adult.

Finally, gender plays a huge role in sexual experience and education.  “Traditional gender ideologies frequently link masculinity with heterosexual sexual activity, sex drive, sexual initiation, and lack of emotional involvement, and femininity with sexual passivity, sexual restraint, responsibility for controlling boys’ desires, and emotional over-involvement.”  Young men are praised for the same behaviors young women are shamed for.  This is harmful to young women because it discourages them from participating in decision making and conversation about sexual activity.  It also harms young men because it encourages them to participate in sexual activity before they may be ready and in situations where they may not want to.

Effective sexual health education must be comprehensive and inclusive.  Children must be provided with accurate information about all aspects of sexual health, including but not limited to information about condoms, birth control, STIs, and teen pregnancy.²  This information needs to come from teachers, parents, and healthcare providers.²  Sexual health education must also be inclusive by considering and addressing the particular health concerns of LGBTQ youth and those raised in poverty.  Furthermore, it needs to mitigate current harmful gender ideologies.