US Adolescents’ Receipt of Formal Sex Education
Sex education is vital to adolescents’ healthy sexual development, and young people have the right to information that is medically accurate, inclusive, and age- and culturally appropriate in order to make informed decisions about their sexual behavior, relationships and reproductive choices.1–4 Numerous health organizations recommend comprehensive sex education that addresses a range of topics,2–4 and support for this type of instruction is reflected in national public health goals.5
Formal sex education for adolescents consists of instruction that generally takes place in a structured setting, such as a school, community center or church. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2030 initiative includes objectives for formal sex education for adolescents based on a minimal set of topics that focus on delaying sex, using birth control methods and preventing STIs (including HIV).6 However, not all states require sex education and any required content varies widely; there is further variation at both the district and school levels.7,8 Understanding differences in the receipt of formal instruction is the first step toward ensuring that the needs of all youth are met.
The data in this fact sheet come from multiple rounds of the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Survey of Family Growth and apply to female and male respondents aged 15–19 at the time of the survey interview. (Self-reported gender at time of interview may differ from respondents’ gender assigned at birth.)
- Young people are not getting the sex education they need: About half of adolescents (53% of females and 54% of males) reported in 2015–2019 that they had received sex education that meets the minimum standard articulated in Healthy People 2030; among teens reporting penile-vaginal intercourse, fewer than half (43% of females and 47% of males) received this instruction before they first had sex.9
- In 2015–2019, more adolescents reported that they had received instruction about saying no to sex (81% of females and 79% of males) or waiting until marriage (67% and 58%, respectively) than about where to obtain birth control (48% of females and 45% of males) or how to use a condom (55% and 60%, respectively).9
- More than 90% of adolescents reported receiving instruction on STIs, including HIV.9
- Adolescents reported in 2015–2019 that they first received instruction about birth control methods, where to get birth control and how to use a condom primarily in grades nine and above.9
Changes in receipt of sex education
Adolescents were less likely to report receiving sex education on key topics in 2015–2019 than they were in 1995.9
- In 1995, 81% of adolescent males and 87% of adolescent females reported that they had received instruction on birth control methods, while in 2015–2019, 63% of males and 64% of females reported receiving instruction on this topic.9
- Although the proportion of adolescent males reporting instruction on saying no to sex increased between 1995 and 2015–2019 (74% vs. 79%), this proportion decreased for adolescent females during the same time period (92% vs. 81%).9
Disparities in sex education received
Disparities in the receipt and timing of formal sex education by gender, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation leave some young people without critical information for their sexual health and well-being, particularly when this instruction does not occur before they first have sex.
- In 2015–2019, adolescent females were more likely than males to report receipt of instruction on waiting until marriage to have sex (67% vs. 58%), while males were more likely to report instruction about condoms (60% vs. 55%).9
- Adolescent males were more likely than females to report that, before they had sex for the first time, they had received condom instruction (64% vs. 50%), instruction about birth control methods (61% vs. 54%) and instruction on STIs or HIV (78% vs. 69%).9
Race and ethnicity
- In 2015–2019, non-Hispanic Black adolescents were more likely than their peers of other races and ethnicities to report having received instruction about condoms (males, 67% vs. 58–62% and females, 65% vs. 50–56%).9
- Non-Hispanic Black males and Hispanic males were less likely than non-Hispanic White males to report having received instruction on a range of topics before they first had sex: prevention of STIs or HIV (70% and 72%, respectively, vs. 84%), methods of birth control (41% and 54% vs. 75%) and where to get birth control (36% and 42% vs. 56%).9
- In 2015–2019, 30% of non-Hispanic Black females reported that they had learned about where to get birth control before having sex for the first time; this was true for 45% of non-Hispanic White females and 49% of Hispanic females.9
- Males who reported that they were homosexual, gay or something else were less likely than straight males to report in 2015–2019 that they had received instruction about STIs or HIV (83% vs. 93%) or where to get birth control (31% vs. 46%).9
Sources of formal instruction
Young people receive sex education from multiple sources. Religious institutions were commonly reported in 2015–2019 as a source of sex education, but they rarely offered comprehensive information.
- In 2015–2019, adolescents who attended religious services at least once a week were more likely than their peers who attended services less frequently or not at all to report having received instruction about delaying sex until marriage and less likely to report having received instruction about birth control methods.9
- Among adolescent females who reported in 2015–2019 that they had received instruction about waiting until marriage to have sex, 56% received this instruction in church; more than half (53%) received this instruction in school and 13% in a community setting. Among males, 49% reported that they received this instruction in church, 59% in school and 11% in a community setting.9 (Some respondents received instruction in multiple locations.)
- Among adolescents who reported in 2015–2019 that they had received instruction about birth control methods, 92% of females and 98% of males received it in school. Only 2% and 3%, respectively, reported receiving instruction about birth control methods at church, and 14% and 4% reported receiving instruction in another community setting.9
1. Santelli JS et al., Abstinence-only-until-marriage: an updated review of U.S. policies and programs and their impact, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2017, 61(3):273–280, doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.05.031.
2. Breuner CC et al., Sexuality education for children and adolescents, Pediatrics, 2016, 138(2):e20161348, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1348.
3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Comprehensive sexuality education, Committee Opinion No. 678, Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2016, 128(5):e227–e230, doi:10.1097/AOG.0000000000001769.
4. Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, Abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs: an updated position paper of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2017, 61(3):400–403, doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.06.001.
5. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Healthy People 2030: Adolescents, no date, https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/browse-objectives/….
6. ODPHP, HHS, Increase the proportion of adolescents who get formal sex education before age 18 years—FP‑08, no date, https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/browse-objectives/….
7. Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, School Health Policies and Practices Study, Trends Over Time: 2000–2016, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/shpps/results.htm.
8. Guttmacher Institute, Sex and HIV education, State Laws and Policies (as of January 1, 2022), 2022, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
9. Lindberg LD and Kantor L, Adolescents’ receipt of sex education in a nationally representative sample, 2011–2019, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2022, 70(2):290–297, doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.08.027.
1995 and 2002: Lindberg LD et al., Changes in formal sex education: 1995–2002, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2006, 38(4):182–189. 2006–2010: Lindberg LD et al., Changes in adolescents’ receipt of sex education, 2006–2013, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2016, 58(6):621–627. 2011–2015 and 2015–2019: reference 9.