Class Warfare

By the late ’90s, the debate over whether U.S. public schools should provide sex education classes was over: In every region of the country, more than 90% of the public supported sex ed. But the battle over specific content—especially regarding contraception—raged on. In 1998, as the federal government began distributing new matching funds to support abstinence-only education, David Landry and colleagues at the Guttmacher Institute launched a pair of studies to explore the national landscape of sex ed policies and curricula.

In the first study, 825 public school superintendents were asked about their district’s sex education policies. Nearly a third said they had no policy at all. Among the others, only one in seven had a policy to teach comprehensive sex education (i.e., abstinence and contraception were both presented as suitable options for preventing pregnancy). About half of district policies emphasized abstinence but also discussed the benefits of contraceptives, while a third took an abstinence-only approach and either did not discuss contraceptives or portrayed them as largely ineffective. State directives influenced three-fourths of districts’ policies and were the most influential factor in half of districts.

The second study, based on a national survey of teachers who taught sex ed in grades 7–12, confirmed that many students were not receiving accurate, comprehensive information: Two-fifths of the educators taught that contraceptives were not effective or did not discuss them at all. Unlike the prior survey, the second collected detailed data on the topics and skills taught in sex ed; while many subjects, such as how to resist pressure to have sex, were nearly universal, coverage of others, such as sexual orientation and how to use a condom, varied widely across regions. Noting that polling data showed almost universal support for teaching abstinence, Landry and colleagues suggested that discussions of sex education curricula shift from that issue to “whether and how condoms and other methods are taught.”

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine