Sex education is critical – and you can do it yourself!

Well.  Far be it from me to look any gift horse in the  mouth when it results in a critical, national conversation about the nuances and effectiveness of sexuality education.

USA Today, of all places has two really interesting (if short) pieces about sexuality education in the schools and in the home.  This one is titled “Sex ed in schools: Little connection between what’s taught, teen behavior” but the information presented in the content of the article suggest something very different.  It quotes one well-respected scholar of sexuality education:

He says a couple of the abstinence programs showed “weak evidence” for delaying sex, but most did not delay initiation of sex. Nearly half of the comprehensive programs delayed first sex, reduced the number of partners and increased condom or contraceptive use. One-quarter of the 48 programs reduced the frequency of sex.

Yeah, sure, we’re not seeing as substantial of results as we might wish, but that’s a pretty dramatic difference between abstinence-only programs and comprehensive-programs.  The piece goes on to say:

“You can’t expect that one class is going to undo all the misinformation teens are receiving from the other sources,” says Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. “It needs to be reinforced, and parents should be the primary sex educators of their children.”

Says Elizabeth Schroeder of Answer, a New Jersey-based group that favors comprehensive sex education: “For any kind of behavior change or healthy maintenance, it has to be an ongoing program.”

That doesn’t always happen.

“A lot of times, parents just don’t want to deal with the situation — ‘the talk’ or whatever,” says high school senior McCleod. “They truly believe the best sex education is at school. That’s not the case in schools that I know. That’s not the case at all.”

These are points that I make to parents every single day: Regardless of anything else happening in their children’s lives, THEY are their children’s primary sexuality educators.  They cannot expect the schools to do the job, they cannot expect the churches to do the job, and they certainly cannot expect the culture that we live in the do a decent job at educating about sexuality.

The next USA Today article, Does sex education really influence teen behavior?, starts off with much the same message: It doesn’t matter what we say in class, teenagers are going to go off and do whatever they do anyway.  But again, it makes clear towards the end of the article that this is just not the case.  What we say, what ALL of us say, has the potential to make a HUGE difference in what choices teenagers make.  Here’s their main point:

Other new international data come from Advocates for Youth, which supports comprehensive sex education. Its not-yet-released report on adolescent sexuality in the USA, France, Germany and the Netherlands shows more contraceptive and condom use in Europe, and higher rates of sexually transmitted disease, abortion, pregnancy and births in the USA. Teen birth rates here are more than four times higher than France or Germany.

“They are far more open to discussing sex … than in the U.S.,” he says. “There is a cultural norm that teen pregnancy … interferes with your future career. That is really, really clear.”

So rather than focusing on what is happening in one class or another class, we need to have a national conversation about how we talk and think about sexuality education.  That conversation has started with Sarah and Bristol Palin’s step onto the national stage.  I hope it continues.

The NYTimes also has a recent Op-Ed piece on sexuality education, Let’s Talk About Sex. In this piece, Charles M. Blow focuses on international sexuality education programs.  Using European teen pregnancy and abortion rates as something for the US to aim for is a legitimate goal.  They’ve got quite a head start on us.  Using this point as a starting place, Blow says:

Britain is already taking these steps. London’s Daily Telegraph reported last month on a June study that found that “one in three secondary schools in England now has a sexual health clinic to give condoms, pregnancy tests and even morning-after pills to children as young as 11.”

Furthermore, a bipartisan group from the British Parliament is seeking to make sex education compulsory for “children as young as four years old.” In a letter to the paper, the group laid out its case: “International evidence suggests that high-quality sex and relationship education that puts sex in its proper context, that starts early enough to make a difference and that gives youngsters the confidence and ability to make well-informed decisions helps young people delay their first sexual experience and leads to lower teenage pregnancy levels.”

That may be extreme, but many Americans can’t even talk about sex without giggling, squirming or blushing. Let’s start there. Talk to your kids about sex tonight, with confidence and a straight face. “I’d prefer you waited to have sex. That said, whenever you choose to do it, make sure you use one of these condoms.” It works.

And he’s right.  So is USA Today.  The way to reduce teenage pregnancy, abortion, and unsafe sexual acts is to talk about sex.  Talk about it as often and with as many people as you can, but especially important is to talk with children, teenagers, and preteenagers.

I talk about sex a lot.  It’s my job.  And when I am introduced to people, and they find out that I am a sexuality educator we often don’t get much further into the conversation.  Either they move on from our conversation, or they engage me in often deeply personal conversation about themselves, their children, their friends.  Your friends and neighbors are desperate to talk about sex – they’re just waiting for someone to open the door a crack.

Teenagers are often more reticent to talk about sex, because their own sexual feelings are so new, and they’re worried about getting a stock cultural response (Don’t have sex!  But still be sexy!).  Once they realize you’re in the conversation for something deeper, more informative, and more honoring of them and their path, they will want to talk with you about sex just as much as your adult peers.

Children don’t have the same emotional energy tied up in sex that teenagers and adults do.  But they’re still curious!  And by starting early and often talking about gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, body image, how to have good interpersonal interactions, and so much more, you will be supporting a healthier adolescent who approaches sexuality with more conscientiousness and a clearer head.

Take Blow’s advice.  Take my advice.  If you’re still having a hard time keeping that straight face or confident demeanour, take one of my classes (another round is starting later this month!) or talk to me one-on-one.  You CAN do this.  And for the sake of your children, you MUST do it.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Wow. The stats from the European countries are startling. I knew the US was behind when it came to sexual health and sex ed programs for youth, but these numbers are really sad.

  2. My Kid Was Taught Sex Education Through Grand Theft Auto and the Jonas Brothers
    Any consumer in the United States- not to mention the rest of the world can tell you, sex sells. Calvin Klein, I Can’t Believe its Not Butter, and Herbal Essence all believe you will use your libido and not your brain when deciding which tightie-whities, margarine, and haircare products you’ll use your club card to buy this week. We incorporate these products into our subconscious and our everyday lives, but when Jamie Lynn Spears gets knocked up at the age of 16, we wonder what is happening to the children in our society. Instead of talking to our children about sex we give them “Grand Theft Auto,” Vin Diesel, and Eminem. We have no problem exposing our children to R rated movies and rappers who sing about murdering their wives, but if we have to live through the humiliation of explaining how a condom is used, we’d rather they contract a deadly virus or deal with an unwanted pregnancy or abortion.

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