Sex Education in Public Schools

Sex education (SE) in public schools is a reoccurring topic in the academic literature. More recently, it has also caught the attention of the public again due to rising unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease (STD) among youngsters in the US over the last decade. This essay briefly looks at two major issues in this debate, firstly, what recent evidence is being presented in the academic literature for the usefulness of SE in public schools? Secondly, how is it best implemented in practice in public schools?

Earlier literature tends to posit a rather negative picture concerning the actual impact SE has in schools on the behaviour of teenagers. Stout and Rivara (1989), for example, base their argument on a review of published studies in the field and conclude that SE does not have an impact on the behaviour of teenagers in the US. This, however, has been disputed more recently in studies that have larger samples and longitudinal data such as in Bleakley et al. (2006) or Abdella (2013). It appears that its overall usefulness is less disputed in the recent academic literature, there seems to be also agreement on what should being taught.

What to teach in SE in public schools has been mostly assessed based on public opinion surveys such as the seminal article by Bleakley et al. (2006). Fewer articles survey undergraduate students directly as for instance Abdella (2013) or teachers in high schools such as Landry et al. (2007). The results, however, appear to be rather unitary in a sense that teaching content should consist of a mixture between abstinence (i.e. teaching teenagers not to have sex before marriage) and other methods of prevention (i.e. teaching the use and evaluation of other prevention methods). Rather than teaching only the one or the other, in order to maximise the impact of SE.

This essay briefly reviewed the more recent academic literature on the debate about SE in public schools. From the limited literature reviewed it could be concluded that, firstly, there is indeed a need to have sexual education in public schools. Secondly, it has been argued by leading authors in the field that a balanced approach to what is being taught is desirable. Teaching abstinence alone might not be sufficient to reduce the risks of unwanted pregnancies and the spreading of STD among teenagers.

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