History of Modern Sex Education in US

The United States has a long history leading up to the inclusion of sexuality education in our public schools. The first major inroads into sex education in public schools came about slowly after American forces in Europe during WWI found themselves in a 'VD' epidemic, then reached their height in the 1950s. These courses focused on morality issues and attempted to apply social pressure to discourage students from premarital sexual activity. The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought renewed opposition to teaching about sex in public schools, with opponents fearful that exposure to the topic would normalize the sexuality of the counter-culture.

Following dramatic increases in teen pregnancy rates and the sudden explosion of HIV/AIDS into the American consciousness in the 1980s, the push for widespread sexuality education in America's public schools had a new wind behind it going into the 1990s. As these programs became prominent around the country, a push began by religious conservatives to focus this education on abstinence instead of teaching the facts about “the birds and the bees.” The federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996 enlarged federal funding available for states to teach sex education exclusively dedicated to promoting abstinence until marriage to significant levels.

In 2006, under the presidency of former Texas governor George W. Bush, this abstinence-until-marriage funding, which is known as Title V, because of its location within the Social Security Act, was increased even further. Title V has the following requirements:

“An eligible abstinence education program is one that: A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children; C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems; D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity; E) teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society; G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances; and H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.” (Social Security)

Current State of Sex Education in Texas

Abstinence-until-marriage sex education was implemented in Texas in 1995 with the passage of Senate Bill 1 in Texas Legislative Session 74.

Currently, sex education is not required to be taught in Texas public schools. There are, however, requirements on how it can be taught if it is. These requirements follow the Title V outline pretty closely, with the addition of teaching about contraception, such as condom use, only in terms of failure rates. Other than those requirements, sex education curricula are left to the local level.

Each local school district is required, by Texas law, to appoint a School Health Advisory Council, “a group of individuals representing segments of the community, appointed by the school district to serve at the district level, to provide advice to the district on coordinated school health programming and its impact on student health and learning.” Though the official state literature no longer reflects it, the original intent of these councils was and remains to be to determine local sex education curriculum, doing do so with an effort to ensure “local community values are reflected in the district's health education instruction” (TLO 1995, TDSHS 2008).

Over the last decade or two this has meant a “virtual monopoly over sex education instruction in Texas public school classrooms ” has been held by abstinence-until-marriage sex education with almost all school districts “employ[ing] a strict abstinence-only message that omitt[s] references to – or discouraged use of – condoms or other forms of contraception ” (TFNEF 2011, emphasis mine). A new report by Texas Freedom Network raises hopes that more school districts are providing a more inclusive sex education, with information on contraception in addition to abstinence. While this is likely true for some of the larger school districts, such as Dallas ISD, which are making purposeful advances beyond an abstinence-only approach (Hobbs 2013), there is no reason to believe that the majority of school districts are actually providing instruction in this direction.

Texas, along with Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Wisconsin have the following requirements for sex education (Guttmacher 2014):

  • Sex Education is not required.
  • If it is taught, it must stress abstinence-only and the importance of sex only within marriage.
  • Do not teach about contraception.
  • Do not teach about communicating with your family about sex.
  • Do not require information presented during sex education to be medically accurate.

A 2012 report on the instruction methods used during sex education instruction in Texas public schools found that fear and shame based teaching about sex is used around the state that “exaggerat[es] negative consequences of sexual behavior, demoniz[es] sexually active youth and cultivat[es] shame and guilt to discourage sexual activity.” (Wilson 2012)

Goals of Sex Education

The goal of all public education is to provide basic knowledge and skills to the youth of our society so as to help them be more successful in their lives, and to better contribute to our society. The goals of sex education are very similar. Because there are consequences to sexual activity among teens that they may not fully understand without being educated about them, we provide our youth with sex education so that they can be more successful in their lives and better contribute to our society.

These consequences are very real on the personal and societal level. As noted by Dr. Douglas Kirby (Kirby 2007):

  • “Teenage mothers are less likely to complete school, less likely to go to college, more likely to have large families, and more likely to be single—increasing the likelihood that they and their children will live in poverty. Negative consequences are particularly severe for younger mothers and their children.”
  • “Children of teenage mothers are likely to have less supportive and stimulating home environments, lower cognitive development, less education, more behavior problems, and higher rates of both incarceration (for boys) and adolescent childbearing. ”
  • “Young people age 15 to 24 account for one- quarter of the sexually active population in the United States but nearly one-half of all new cases of STDs. Nearly 4 million new cases occur each year among teens. As a result, about one-third of all sexually active young people become infected with an STD by age 24. ”

Because of this, the primary goals of sex education have been and continue to be the reduction of teen pregnancy rates and the reduction of STD infections among our youth.

We can, therefore, measure the success of our sex education programs based on our success in reducing rates of these occurrences. Statistics are not always available to directly measure these, however, so we can also use indicator rates, such as teen sexual activity which offers them greater exposure to negative consequences. For example, data on teen STD infection rates are not easily available, but we can look at rates of teens having sexual intercourse with multiple partners and the use of condoms during sexual intercourse.

Because Texas employs abstinence-until-marriage sex education almost exclusively, which seeks to reduce teen exposure to the negative consequences of sexual activity by eliminating or dramatically reducing all involvement in sexual activity (offering no other education on how to avoid these negative consequences), we can judge the efficacy of Texas' sex education programs based on the rates of teenage sexual activity and its primary negative consequences, teen pregnancy.

Sexual Behavior Among Texas Youth

First, it is important to note that, overall, teen sexual activity and dangerous sexual activity have declined at the national level over the last twenty-five years.

While sex education in public schools surely cannot account for all of these positive gains – though we will look at that more closely later – by all of these measures, the introduction of sex education into public schools has been a success.

Table 1: National Average Teen Sexual Activity Trends 1991 – 2011, Percent of Population

A close examination of the data in Table 1 show that for the decade between 1991 and 2001, teen sexual activity and dangerous sexual activity decreased dramatically. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, however, no reductions occurred in teen engagement in sexual intercourse. During this time there was, continued from the previous decade, an increase in the number of teens using condoms and a decline in the number of teens not using any form of contraception during sexual intercourse. (CDC 1995 – 2012)

Texas did not begin taking data until 2001, but we can see in Table 2, below, that the same stagnation of sexual activity rates has been present in Texas. We might be able to assuming there was an initial decrease mirroring the national average, but it is impossible to say.

Table 2: Texas & National Teen Sexual Activity Trends 1991 – 2011, Percent of Population

There are some alarming facts to note from Table 2. The intention of Texas' sex education curriculum is to dissuade teens from engaging in sexual activity altogether. Since Texas has been taking data there has been no decrease in either the number of teens engaging in sexual intercourse or the prevalence of multiple sexual partners. In fact, for as long as we have data, Texas has been well above the national average for both of these indicators of teen exposure to the negative consequences of sexual activity.

Sexually active Texas teens use condoms at an alarmingly low rate, as well, well below the national average. For the first time in 2011, the CDC released per state data on teens that do not use any form of pregnancy prevention. One in five sexually active Texas teens did not use any form of protection or contraception during their last sexual intercourse. This is not only almost twice as dangerous as the national average, it is the worst in the entire nation (CDC 2011).

When you look at the data further, Texas teens are more sexually active and engaged in dangerous sexual activity at a consistently higher rate than the national average, including: having ever had sexual intercourse, having had sexual intercourse with four or more people, having first sexual intercourse before the age of 13, currently sexually active, drank alcohol or used drugs or used drugs before last sexual intercourse.

Texas ranks as follows for those indicators:

  • Ever had sexual intercourse: 6th highest rate in the nation
  • Had first sexual intercourse before the age of 13: 10th highest rate in the nation
  • Had sexual intercourse with four or more persons during their life: 11th highest rate in the nation
  • Currently sexually active: 10th highest rate in the nation
  • Condom use among sexually active teens: 4th lowest rate in the nation
  • Birth control pill use among sexually active teens: Lowest rate in the nation
  • Did not use any method to prevent pregnancy: Highest rate in the nation
  • Drank alcohol or used drugs before last sexual intercourse: 5th highest rate in the nation

When compared to the rest of the United States, Texas is not doing well at preventing teen sexual activity and teen dangerous sexual activity and shows no progress in that direction since data began to be collected.

Teen Pregnancy Rates in Texas

In addition to teen sexual activity declining at a national level, teen pregnancy rates have declined both nationally and in Texas since 1988. In 1988, before the modern push for sex education in our public schools, the national average rate of teen pregnancies was 111 girls per 1000, and in Texas the rate was even worse than the national average at 117 girls per 1000. In 2008, the latest year for which we have data, those rates have reduced to 68 girls in 1000 nationally and 85 girls in 1000 in Texas (Kost 2013).

The intervening years are as follows:

  • 1988: 117 / 1000
  • 1992: 122 / 1000
  • 1996: 113 / 1000
  • 2000: 101 / 1000
  • 2005: 87 / 1000
  • 2008: 85 / 1000

The increase from 1988 to 1992 is likely due to Texas' delay in implementing classroom-based sex education in public schools. A policy, it should be noted, Texas has reverted to as of 2011.

Once again, the reduction in teen pregnancy rates is a real and measurable success.

When these rates are compared to rates of teen sexual activity as shown in Table 2, we see a decrease in teen pregnancies that do not correlate to any reduction in teen sexual activity. This raises the question as to the cause of Texas' reduced teen pregnancy rates. While there is no correlation with sexual activity, there is a correlation with an increasing number of Texas teens using condoms when engaging in sexual intercourse. This rate rises for the years between 2001 and 2009, with a sudden drop-off in 2011. These are the same years reflected in the teen pregnancy rates, for which 2008 is the last year accurate numbers are available, suggesting that the reduced rate of teen pregnancy in Texas is due not to reduced teen sexual activity but contraceptive use. This is a question we will return to later. (Hopefully we will not find that the sudden reduction in condom and contraception use results in an upturn in teen pregnancy rates.)

The over-all reduction of the teen pregnancy rate may be where the good news ends for Texas, however. While rates have improved, Texas consistently has a teen pregnancy rate well above the national average, being 25% higher than the national average in 2008 and ranking Texas the third highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, which is worse than the 11th highest rate in the nation Texas had in 1988.

While Texas has reduced its teen pregnancy rate since 1988, it has done so at a much slower rate than the rest of the nation. Texas has seen a 27% reduction in teen pregnancies since 1988, while nation-wide the average reduction has been by 39%. So, while conditions are improving in Texas, they are improving at a much reduced rate as compared to the rest of the nation (NCPTUP 2013).

Table 3. Pregnancy Rate, Improvement & Ranking, 1988 – 2008

Source: Kost 2013.

As you can see in Table 3, only 10 states have an improvement rate worse than Texas, which leaves 39 states improving faster than Texas. Texas achievements are dwarfed by most other states. New Hampshire, which began 1988 with a teen pregnancy rate similar to the current rate in Texas has reduced teen pregnancy rates by 62%, over twice as effectively as Texas.

This evidence suggests that Texas' sexual education in public schools has had a positive impact. This positive impact, however, pales in comparison to the strides made by almost every other state around the nation, suggesting that the efficiency and efficacy of the Texas program is rather low.

Efficacy of Abstinence-until-Marriage Sex Education

Since the data does not correlate to the reduction of teen pregnancy rate being caused by a reduction in teen sexual activity and because this reduction in Texas is so thoroughly out-paced by greater reductions around the nation, it is worth examining the efficacy of Texas' chosen form of sex education: Title V styled abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

There have been limited studies done on the efficacy of abstinence-centered sex education. With most of the studies around the nation concentrating on comprehensive sex education or abstinence-plus sex education (teaching abstinence as the best choice, but offering education on contraception and decision making), only four major studies have been done on abstinence sex education. Largely because of the failure of the programs in these studies, further large-scale and rigorous studies have not been undertaken.

The results of these four program studies were released together in a report titled, “Impacts Of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs ” in April 2007 by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (Trenholm 2007).

“The four selected programs offered a range of implementation settings and program strategies, reflecting the array of operational experiences of the Title V, Section 510 programs operating nationwide. The programs served youth living in a mix of urban communities (Miami and Milwaukee) and rural areas (Powhatan, Virginia and Clarksdale, Mississippi). In three of these communities, the youth served were predominantly African-American or Hispanic and from poor, single-parent households. In Powhatan, youth in the programs were mostly white, non-Hispanic youth from working- and middle-class, two-parent households.” This selection seems reasonable considering Black and Hispanic populations have had historically higher rates of teen pregnancy than Non-Hispanic Whites.

All four of the selected programs followed Title V, Section 510 (b)(2)(A-H) of the Social Security Act. The programs were chosen to represent a wide range of teaching styles, age ranges and commitment levels:

  • These programs were considered intense in regard to hours spent in the course, as compared to other Title V programs, with two of them meeting every day of the school year and the one voluntary program allowing attendance for up to four years.
  • Two of the programs operated in school districts with other “rich” sex education courses, while the other two were in school districts with “limited” such educational services.
  • Enrollment in these programs ranged between Grade 3 and Grade 8, with most in grades 5 through 8.
  • The four classes represent one year, two year, three year and voluntarily up to four year classes.

Even though the programs were chosen because they supposedly represented the best that abstinence sex education had to offer, the results were anything but promising. “Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

For every indicator tested, including length of abstinence after course, use of condoms among those that had sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, age of first sexual intercourse, knowledge of STDs and knowledge of unprotected sex risks, the results were exactly the same, with only a single percentage point difference on rare occasion.

The only differences found between the two groups had to do with their assessment of the value of contraception. Participants in the programs reported at a slightly higher rate than the control group that condoms are never effective at preventing STDs (which is false). Participants also reported at a slightly higher rate than the control group that birth control pills are never effective at preventing STDs (which is correct). This difference is likely due to the tendency of abstinence programs to teach students that condoms and other forms of contraception are so ineffective as to be worthless.

Abstinence advocacy groups have been highly vocal in their outcry against this study, likely because it is the only one of its kind and it was not supportive of their ideologies. The group Abstinence Works released a reply to the Mathematica study, noting several problems they had with the study's methods, including an unrealistic follow-up period, a lack of ongoing reinforcement of abstinence after youth completed their courses, low participation rates, a non-representative sample and “cross-contamination” (NAEF). It is worth taking a look at a few of these complaints.

“Low participation rates.” This refers to one of the four programs only, which was a volunteer program. Even if the results of this program were discarded, the results would remain the same, as none of the programs showed notable results. In addition, it is good to see one of the programs involve voluntary participation, seeing as how remaining abstinent is a voluntary act, much like attending this program. If the youth did not find the program relevant to their lives, it is hard to state how they would find abstinence relevant.

“Non-representative study sample.” As already noted, the study did have skew toward Black and Hispanic students. However, these are, statistically, the most at-risk students for teen pregnancy, so it would make sense that the study give extra attention to these demographics. And the demographics of the study participants were not significantly different between the program and control groups. So this complaint seems to be irrelevant.

“Cross-contamination.” This complaint states that the students in the programs were allowed to “intermingle” with students who were not in the program. Basically, Abstinence Works is complaining that the study happened in the real world. Does Abstinence Works really expect us to buy that the answer is to isolate students from outside influences? This is life. If the program cannot succeed in the real world, it does not need any further consideration.

The objections made to this study seem unfounded, based more on ideology than scientific rigor. The one good suggestion that Abstinence Works made was the need for further studies. The scientific method is all about replication of results. Which is a great disadvantage for abstinence sex education.

Many proponents of abstinence education tout the success of this program or that program around the nation. To be fair, this is quite true. There are individual successful abstinence-only programs in existence. The problem that has been found with these programs is that their success is not replicable. While individual programs may be successful, the success is isolated, as it has not been able to be translated into widespread success for abstinence programs. There have been, as far as I can find, no peer reviewed studies showing that Title V styled abstinence-until-marriage sex education is effective in reducing teen sexual behavior or teen pregnancies.

Another review of sex education studies released in 2007 stated that “[a]t present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior. That is, they did not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners.” The only positive widespread impact of abstinence programs, according to this review, seems to be “improved teens’ values about abstinence or their intentions to abstain, but these improvements did not always endure and often did not translate into changes in behavior” (Kirby 2007).

There have been many smaller scale rigorous studies of abstinence undertaken, especially at the state level. Texas commissioned such a study, through the Texas Department of State Health Service, back in 2004. The study evaluated five “self-selected” contractors that teach abstinence in school districts around the state. “The number of adolescents who had had sexual intercourse did not change or increased after they had received abstinence only sex education.” The number of girls reporting sexual activity before and after taking the course increased afterwards by 20%. The number of boys reporting sexual activity actually spiked, increasing by 62% after taking the course (Hopkins 2005). Other states that have undertaken such studies have had similar results.

Chart 1: Pregnancy Rate & Abstinence Education

Source: Stanger-Hall 2011.

Chart 2: Pregnancy Rate Reduction & Abstinence Education

Source: Stanger-Hall 2011.

When looked at state by state and community by community, comparing those that use an abstinence-until-marriage sex education against those that require sex education to be medically accurate and teach about contraception, a study out of the University of Georgia found that “abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy rates." The author even suggested that abstinence-until-marriage may be a cause of higher teen pregnancy rates. The results were unmistakable, “The more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate. [See Chart 1, to the right.] States that taught comprehensive sex and/or HIV education and covered abstinence along with contraception and condom use, tended to have the lowest teen pregnancy rates, while states with abstinence-only sex education laws that stress abstinence until marriage were significantly less successful in preventing teen pregnancies” While it is impossible to say from these results that abstinence-until-marriage sex education causes higher teen pregnancy rates, it does not seem to be making any progress in lowering them. (Stanger-Hall 2011)

The levels of commitment to abstinence education assigned in Chart 1 are as follows: “A higher category value indicates more emphasis on abstinence with level 3 stressing abstinence only until marriage as the fundamental teaching standard (similar to the federal definition of abstinence-only education), if sex or HIV/STD education is taught (sex education is not required in most states). The primary emphasis of a level 2 provision is to promote abstinence in school-aged teens if sex education or HIV/STD education is taught, but discussion of contraception is not prohibited. Level 1 covers abstinence for school-aged teens as part of a comprehensive sex or HIV/STD education curriculum, which should include medically accurate information on contraception and protection from HIV/STDs. Level 0 laws on sex education and/or HIV education do not specifically mention abstinence.”

I have also charted correlation between the level of commitment to abstinence per state with the level of reduction in teen pregnancy rates since 1988, in Chart 2, below.

The correlation that becomes clear with the data in Chart 1 and Chart 2 is that states that emphasize abstinence but still teach about contraception use (Level 1) have the lowest rate of teen pregnancies and the greatest reduction in teen pregnancy rate, with a strong correlation between stricter abstinence teachings and higher levels of teen pregnancy and lower improvement.

Emerging Answers 2007 also takes a look at the efficacy of comprehensive sex education, finding “Two-thirds of the 48 comprehensive programs that supported both abstinence and the use of condoms and contraceptives for sexually active teens had positive behavioral effects. Specifically, over 40 percent of the programs delayed the initiation of sex, reduced the number of sexual partners, and increased condom or contraceptive use; almost 30 percent reduced the frequency of sex (including a return to abstinence); and more than 60 percent reduced unprotected sex. Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of the programs had positive effects on more than one of these behaviors. For example, some programs both delayed the initiation of sex and increased condom or other contraceptive use.” Several of these studies were replicated in different locations around the nation and had similarly positive results, showing that unlike successful abstinence programs, the success of comprehensive sex education programs can be reproduced.

Another study, conducted around 2006, looked at the difference in sexual activity and rate of pregnancy before and after teens went through either an abstinence education course, an abstinence-plus course, or no sex education course. “Adolescents who received comprehensive sex education were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancy than those who received no formal sex education, whereas there was no significant effect of abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse, but comprehensive sex education was marginally associated with a lower likelihood of reporting having engaged in vaginal intercourse. Neither abstinence-only nor comprehensive sex education significantly reduced the likelihood of reported STD diagnoses.” Further, the study found that “teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of adolescent sexual activity or STD.” (Kohler 2008)

With teen pregnancy rates lower for those taught about contraception than those taught only abstinence, it is time to come back to a question we asked earlier.

Contraception Instruction

If sex education has reached a plateau for lowering the rate of teen sexual activity and if all studies of abstinence programs show that they are not having widespread and lasting effects on the sexual activities of teens, what is the cause of the reduction in teen pregnancy rates, not only in Texas but around the nation?

This question was studied by Dr. Santelli and his team, and they released their findings in a study called, “Explaining recent declines in adolescent pregnancy in the United States: the contribution of abstinence and improved contraceptive use,” in the American Journal of Public Health. “We estimated that 14% of the change observed among 15- to 19-year-olds was attributable to a decrease in the percentage of sexually active young women and that 86% was attributable to changes in contraceptive method use; the corresponding percentages among 15- to 17-year-olds were 23%. … All of the change in pregnancy risk among 18- and 19-year-olds was the result of increased contraceptive use” ( Santelli 2007).

This suggests that it might be possible the convince a certain portion of the population that would otherwise have initiated sexual intercourse earlier to delay until they are 17, though even that would be a small fraction of the population. But that they will still engage in sexual intercourse before they leave high school, and will benefit from an education as to the uses of contraception.

In a report on the current state of sex education in Texas, Texas Freedom Network notes that “generally, abstinence-only programs and materials either ignore contraceptive information altogether or discuss contraception only in terms of failure rates. Moreover, abstinence-only programs typically include no information on proper methods of contraceptive use and censor any information about how to access contraceptive services. ” In their 2009 report, 94% of Texas public school districts employed such sex education. TFN reports that upward of one-quarter of school districts might be teaching about contraception as of 2011 (TFNEF 2011).

The key here is “might.” This increase in contraception education is due to a particularly widely used sex education curriculum, Worth the Wait, produced by Scott & White, adding a lesson on contraception to their most recently released course material. Worth the Wait, until this time, had been entirely abstinence-until-marriage based. TNF notes, however, the teacher's book includes instructions on how to remove slides from the slide-show. Further, there is no evidence that school districts that use Worth the Wait are actually teaching the contraception lesson in the classroom. One can hope, but that is all we have evidence for: hope.

Public Opinion on Sex Education in Texas

If contraception use is the key to all successes in sex education, why is Texas not teaching it? Texas state Rep. Steve Toth gives us a clue:

“My wife worked at a home for unwed moms, and one of the little kids that was born, his name is David. David came about as a result of his mom and dad, who were just 16 at the time, going to a Planned Parenthood deal where they taught them how to use contraceptives. They were not sexually active at that point. They got into the car, and they were so hot and bothered from this deal, he couldn’t even get the condom on” (Toth 2013).

Louie Gohmert echoed a similar concern during an interview with David Barton. “Let the kids be innocent. Let them dream. Let them play. Let them enjoy their life. You don’t have to force this sexuality stuff into their life at such a point. It was never intended to be that way. They’ll find out soon enough” (Kirell, 2013).

Rep. Toth speaks to a popular perception that talking truthfully with teens about sex will get them so “hot and bothered” that they will not be able to control themselves. Gohmert, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that there is no need for sex education, because teens will learn everything they need to learn on their own: as if there is a switch that flips where one day teen has no interest in sex and is completely oblivious to its existence, then the next they are sexually mature and have a full understanding of all matters related to sex. I have chosen these two quotes because they represent the main objections raised in Texas when it comes to taking a more comprehensive approach to sex education.

In the case of little baby David, this is a common fear among social conservatives. There are several problems with this line of thinking, however. First let us examine the case mentioned: a single story, an anecdote. Without supporting evidence, anecdotes are only representative of the single case, not the overall truth. Second, it should also be pointed out that this anecdote makes several assumptions: 1. That Rep. Toth remembers this story correctly; 2. That his wife told him the story correctly; 3. That his wife remembered the story correctly; 4. That these kids didn't lie to his wife because they needed an excuse for the "immoral" behavior they engaged in, passing on the guilt to a scapegoat.

Looking at this fear on a larger scale, instead of based on an isolated story, there has been at least one peer-reviewed study asking this question: Does teaching about contraception or talking frankly about sex increase teen sexual activity? The answer is no. In fact, such an approach to sex education is effective at delaying first engagement in sexual intercourse (Kohler PK). Of course, every study that finds that abstinence-plus or comprehensive sex education delays first sexual intercourse – of which there are many – effectively prove this point. This case is summed up in the meta-review, Emerging Answers 2007, which reviewed 48 comprehensive sex education programs and found that “no comprehensive program hastened the initiation of sex or increased the frequency of sex, results that many people fear. Emphasizing both abstinence and protection for those who do have sex is a realistic, effective approach that does not appear to confuse young people.”

Rep. Gohmert's objection is far weaker. The increase in sex education instruction around the nation correlated with simultaneous decreases in teen pregnancy rates show that, indeed, there are many things teens have to learn from sex education that can aid them in making decisions that are good not only for their future but for society as a whole.

Public opinion in Texas does not agree with its elected officials. In 2010, Texas Freedom Network asked if voters supported teaching about “birth control, along with abstinence, in high school sex education classes.” This question received 80% support (TFNEF 2010). A year later, in 2011, a more thorough independent poll found the following (Tortolero 2011):

  • 66% of Texas parents want abstinence plus condoms and contraception taught in public schools; 27% abstinence-only; 8% no sex education. That 66% includes: 70% of Democrats; 65% of Republicans and 61% of Independents
  • 64% of Texas parents want sex education taught starting in middle school or earlier; 28% in High school; 8% never. That 64% includes: 74% of Democrats, 54% of Republicans, 61% of Independents

Conclusions

While teen sexual activity rates have declined nation-wide over the last twenty-five years, they have not continued their decline over the last 13 years. Since data collection began, no change has been seen in teen sexual activity in Texas, except for a temporary increase in use of condoms and other contraception, until 2011 when it sharply decreased. The reduced rate of teen pregnancies in Texas is correlated only with the increase in contraception use.

This reduction in teen pregnancy rate seen in Texas is dwarfed when compared to improvements made around the nation, with 39 states out-performing Texas for decreasing teen pregnancy rates. This is not a case of Texas doing so well initially that we just didn't have room to improve. In 1988 Texas had the 11th highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation. Now, after twenty-five years, we have the third highest teen pregnancy. The overall rate is indeed lower, but our improvements are put to shame by the vast majority of states that are decreasing teen pregnancy rates more effectively.

Sex education in Texas addresses one issue only: reducing teen sexual activity. Teens in Texas, however, are consistently more sexually active than the national average. No reduction has been seen in teen sexual activity since data collection began. Even with current sex education, over half Texas' teens are sexually active. Given that over half the target population is sexually active, and remain sexually, sex education in Texas has nothing to offer this majority of students.

Can we really claim that a sex education program is successful when it addresses less than half the population? If abstinence-until-marriage programs encourage a little under half of our teens not to engage in sexual activity, can we really call that program successful if it does not give the over-half of the population that does choose to have sex the tools and knowledge they need to do so safely? Pretending that this majority portion of the population does not exist is not improving their ability to make informed decisions. This is a failure of public policy and can only facetiously be referred to as an “educational” program.

There is one issue on which we can see a direct success of sex education in Texas. As TFN has reported, sex education in Texas has recently been discouraging the use of condoms and other contraception by attempting to convince students that they are not effective. This teaching has indeed had a result, as we see a sudden decrease in the use of condoms among sexually active teens in Texas between 2009 and 2011, along with a record-setting rate of the use of no contraception among Texas teens.

As we have seen, all of this evidence points toward the need for a more inclusive approach to sex education that discusses the positive uses of condoms and other forms of contraception. Yet reducing the use of condoms and other forms of contraception is the only 'success' that Texas sex education can claim in recent years.

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