Sex Ed in the City

Sex education in public schools has long been the subject of debate—some argue it can play a crucial role in reducing teen pregnancy, others think it encourages youth to engage in sexual activity, while still others believe it has no place in the school curriculum. Before the 1980s, much of the discussion on sex education was based on conjecture because there were few data on whether schools even provided it. Freya L. Sonenstein and Karen J. Pittman, in a 1984 Perspectives article, sought to fill this research gap by documenting the availability of sex education in the nation’s schools, and found that it was surprisingly common at all grade levels from elementary to high school.

In their 1982 survey of officials in school districts with populations of more than 100,000, the researchers found that most districts, some 80%, offered sex education at some point, and there were few differences in its availability by grade level. Most respondents stated that promoting informed sexual decision making was the major goal of their district’s program; 77% said that increasing students’ knowledge of reproduction was the major goal, and 40% said their goal was to reduce unwanted teen pregnancy. More than 90% of the districts provided students information on physiology, STDs, pregnancy and parenthood; more than 80% included discussions on relationships, communication and decision making. Slightly lower proportions discussed topics related to pregnancy avoidance; masturbation, homosexuality and abortion were among the least likely topics to be discussed.

Most often, sex education was provided as a part of other courses, although some districts offered it separately, and there was great variation in the number of hours of instruction. Furthermore, the proportion of districts providing sex education that could be considered comprehensive was relatively low, and it became lower as the researchers’ criteria for comprehensiveness became more complex.

In this assessment, Sonenstein and Pittman provided one of the first looks at sex education in American public schools, revealing both its ubiquity and its variety.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine