Sex Ed Veers to the Right

The history of sex education in U.S. schools is marked by countless twists and turns, and no small amount of controversy. Undoubtedly one of the biggest changes came in the early 1980s, when the federal government started pouring money into programs that focused on abstinence, rather than taking a more comprehensive approach to preparing youngsters to have healthy, responsible sexual and reproductive lives. Two studies published in Perspectives documented changes that ensued as the right-leaning agenda gathered momentum. One examined how course content had changed by comparing data from two nationally representative surveys of teachers; the other used data from three nationally representative household surveys to examine teenagers’ reports about the sex education they’d received.

The teacher surveys, conducted in 1988 and 1999, involved 7th–12th-grade public school teachers of the subjects most likely to include sex education: biology, health education, home economics (or, later, family or consumer science) and phys ed. Teachers in both years reported that their schools’ sex ed curricula covered a wide range of topics, including STDs, abstinence, birth control and abortion. Some topics, including how HIV is transmitted, were reportedly offered in lower grades in 1999 than in 1988. So far, so good. But at the same time, the proportion of teachers who told their classes that abstinence is the only means of preventing pregnancy and STDs soared, the proportion who considered abstinence the most important concept to convey grew by more than half, and the proportions who explained to students how various contraceptive methods work and who provided information about where students could get contraceptives dropped.

Meanwhile, reports from teenagers participating in the 1995 National Survey of Adolescent Males and the 1995 and 2002 rounds of the National Survey of Family Growth provided evidence that formal sex education in U.S. schools was becoming increasingly uncommon. Between 1995 and 2002, both male and female adolescents became significantly less likely to say they had learned about contraception at school, and significantly more likely to report having had instruction only about abstinence. And in 2002, teenagers said that they’d been taught about abstinence education about two years earlier than they’d learned about birth control.

In our own time, abstinence education, recently rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance,” continues to have powerful allies on the right. Advocates of comprehensive sex education, meanwhile, continue to seek—and implement—approaches that will best serve not politics, but the needs of American youth.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine