Teens who receive formal sex education prior to their first sexual experience demonstrate a range of healthier behaviors at first intercourse than those who receive no sex education at all. This is particularly so when the instruction they receive includes information about both waiting to have sex and methods of birth control. These findings come from a new study, “Consequences of Sex Education on Teen and Young Adult Sexual Behaviors and Outcomes,” by Laura Duberstein Lindberg and Isaac Maddow-Zimet of the Guttmacher Institute.
The authors analyzed data from 4,691 men and women aged 15–24 who participated in the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth. They found that 66% of sexually experienced females and 55% of sexually experienced males reported having received information about both abstinence and birth control prior to first intercourse. Eighteen percent of sexually experienced females and 21% of males had received only abstinence instruction, while 16% of females and 24% of males had had no instruction on either topic. However, these measures do not correlate directly with any specific “abstinence-only” or “comprehensive” sex education programs (see below).
Respondents who had received instruction on both abstinence and birth control were older at first sex than their peers who had received no formal instruction and were more likely to have used condoms or other contraceptives at first sex; they also had healthier partnerships. Those who had received only abstinence instruction were more likely to have delayed first intercourse than were those who had had no sex education, but abstinence instruction was not associated with any of the other protective behaviors at first sex. Moreover, condom use at first sex was significantly less likely among females who had had only abstinence instruction than among those who had received information about both abstinence and birth control. The study found no relationship between sex education and current sexual behaviors, suggesting the need for ongoing education after the onset of sexual activity.
“Sex education is important to teens’ healthy development,” said study author Lindberg. “It should cover a wide range of topics, including both how to delay first sex and how to use contraceptives, and should be reinforced over the course of young people’s development. Reaching teens with comprehensive information before they have sex should be a key goal.”
The authors point out that this study is based on the reports of teens and young adults who were asked if they had received formal instruction prior to age 18 on “how to say no to sex” or on “methods of birth control.” The measures do not correlate directly with any specific sex education programs. However, the authors suggest that their findings complement results of program evaluations showing that a comprehensive approach to sex education is associated with healthier sexual behaviors than is an abstinence-only approach.
“Consequences of Sex Education on Teen and Young Adult Sexual Behaviors and Outcomes,” by Laura Duberstein Lindberg and Isaac Maddow-Zimet, is currently available online and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
For a comprehensive review of research findings on the effectiveness of comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education programs, click here.