Adolescents' Preferences for Source of Sex Education
Somers, Cheryl L., Surmann, Amy T., Child Study Journal
The primary purposes of this study were to examine what adolescents' identify as their preferred sources of sexual education (e.g., peers, family, school, media, professionals, etc.) about various topics, and whether patterns varied for each gender, race, grade, and economic group. Participants were 672 adolescents of both genders, three race/ethnicities, and varied economics and geography. Overall, parents were clearly the preferred source of sex education by this diverse sample of adolescents. Next preferred were school and peers. Media, siblings, and self were not generally endorsed as preferred sources of sex education. Slight variations by demographic groups were observed. Implications for parental education about and comfort in discussing important issues are discussed. The implications of misinformation from such sources as media and peers are also discussed.
In the education of adolescents, most teaching challenges are approached and accepted by parents and teachers with a reasonable degree of comfort. The psychology of sex education, however, is qualitatively different from typical academic learning tasks common to the period of human adolescence. Developmentally, adolescence marks the occurrence of reproductive maturity and its associated psychological, physical, and social changes (Savin-Williams & Weisfeld, 1989). Teaching and learning about sexuality can be influenced by religious values, teaching sources, socio-historical context, perceptions, and gender differences in social consequences and cultural messages about sexual behavior. The inherent social implications and complexity associated with sex education reflect the importance of and need for research in this area to increase effective teaching and to facilitate learning.
From whom do adolescents typically learn about sex education? Haffner (1998), for example, noted that fewer than 5% of K-12 students in the United States received comprehensive sex education. However, research has reported that 50% of teens had sexual experiences by age 15 (i.e., Masserman & Uribe, 1989). More recently, Kirby (2001) reported that 50% of 9th-12th grade students across the U.S. in 1999 reported ever having sexual intercourse. The range was from 39% (9th graders) to 65% (12th graders). Clearly, sexual intercourse experience among teens is far from uncommon.
Various sex education programs have been shown to be effective in reducing the frequency of adolescents' sexual behavior and pregnancy rates (Zabin, Hirsch, Smith, Streett, & Hardy, 1986), increasing protective behaviors and reducing frequency of sexual activity (Levy et al., 1995), reducing some risk behaviors and enhancing several protective behaviors (Coyle, Basen-Engquist, & Kirby, D., 1999), and delaying onset of sexual activity, increasing use of contraception, and increasing communication with parents (Hubbard, Giese, & Rainey, 1998).
Examinations have been conducted on various sources of sex education, including peers (e.g., Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg, 1989; Strange, Forrest, & Oakley, 2002), siblings (e.g., East, Felice, & Morgan, 1993; Rodgers & Rowe, 1988), and media (Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987; Ward, 1995; 2000). Also, parent and school sources have been explored (e.g., Fisher, 1986; Somers & Gleason, 2001; Warren & Neer, 1986). However, the preferences of the adolescents' themselves have been largely ignored in the literature, making outcome studies less measurably comprehensive through failure to initially include this important variable. There is indication that adolescents are unhappy with abstinence-only education (Borrusch-Groth & Somers, 2001), for example, but what do adolescents report as their preferred sources of sex education? Thus, it seems important to ask from whom do adolescents prefer to learn about sexual topics. Research is needed to more deliberately assess from whom adolescents prefer to learn about various sexual topics. Rosenthal and Feldman (1999) considered the preferences of adolescents; however, differences in preferences by gender and race among adolescents are still to a great extent unknown. An examination of preferences as a function of gender, race, and grade would further contribute to existing literature.
Implications are significant for responsiveness to and internalization of education efforts. Having a better understanding of the differences in perceptions of conversations about sexual topics as well as of adolescents' preferences by gender and race for sources could contribute to further insight and improved communication between parents and their adolescents. Implications may be significant for how to focus sex education efforts, particularly because adolescents are more likely to internalize and thus benefit from information received from a preferred source.
Why is it important to study adolescents' perceptions? First, relations between adolescents' perceptions of greater family communication have been found to be related to increased agreement between parents and adolescents, as well as higher adolescent self-esteem and well-being (Jackson, Bijstra, Oostra, & Bosma, 1998). However, it is particularly important to understand adolescents' preferences in light of the fact that perceptions of parents and adolescents about various topics have been found to be discrepant (Paulson & Sputa, 1996). Specific to sexuality, King and Lorusso (1997) found that parents and students had different memories of frequency, content, and meaningfulness of communication about sex. Parents were more likely to have communication recognized as meaningful by their children if the parents themselves had experienced similar discussions with their own parents. Similarly, Miller, Kotchick, Dorsey, Forehand, and Ham (1998) found that, in a large sample of African-American and Hispanic sample, parents were more likely to discuss topics with adolescents of the same gender, and that they were more likely to discuss topics about diseases than about sexual behavior, contraceptive use, or physical development. Additionally, parents and adolescents disagreed in their recollections of what topics were actually discussed.
Research by Rosenthal and Feldman (1999) also found that mothers were most often involved in discussions, daughters reported higher rates of communication than sons, and that adolescents rated the discussions as unimportant. The authors conclude that the effectiveness of parental messages about sexuality also depends to a great extent upon adolescents' perceptions of the relative importance of communication by parents, not just frequency of communication. Rosenthal and Feldman's (1999) findings emphasize the importance of considering the perception of the adolescent, and further highlight the need for methodological consideration of adolescents' preferences for source of sex education. Furthermore, work by Acock and Bengston (1980) suggested that adolescents' perceptions of adult beliefs are actually a better predictor of behavioral outcomes than the beliefs themselves. The genetic versus environmental nature of these differences are still being explored (Feinberg, Neiderhiser, Howe, & Hetherington, 2001); nevertheless, the differences are documented.
Therefore, the primary purposes of this study were to examine; (a) what adolescents identify as their preferred sources of sexual education (e.g., peers, family, school, media, professionals, etc.) about various topics, (b) whether patterns varied for each gender, race, grade, and economic group, and (c) whether adolescents' sexual education preferences were predictive of sexual attitudes and behavior. Using both descriptive and inferential components to clarify associations between preferences for sources of education and sexual outcomes, the ultimate goal of this study is to provide insight necessary to effectively educate adolescents.
Participants in this study came from a sample of 672 American adolescents (231 males, 413 females, 28 unreported) in the 9th (n=178), 10th (n=126), 11th, (n=192), and 12th (n=151) grades (n=25 unreported). The mean age was 15.97 (SD=1.26). The ethnic breakdown for the full sample was 204 African American (41 males, 152 females, 11 unreported), 181 European American (76 males, 103 females, 2 unreported), 183 Hispanic American (79 males, 93 females, 11 unreported), and 104 other. A portion of the sample whose teachers permitted the time to complete this portion of a larger questionnaire comprised the final sample. Because there was no pattern to which teachers had time for the survey, the subsample is believed to be representative of the larger population. The sizes of each demographic subgroup are reflected in the tables.
Most European American students were from a suburban area, and most minority students were from two urban areas of a large mid-western city. The suburban area is primarily middle socioeconomic status (SES), and the urban areas are primarily lower SES. Among the urban, low SES group, there are two subgroups for data analysis purposes, based on their school of attendance. One is a mixedrace public high school (primarily Hispanic and African American) and the other is a primarily African American public high school for pregnant and/or parenting females only. In all three subgroups (middle-SES, European American, suburban; low-SES, Mixed race, urban; and low-SES, African American females, urban), the age range and dispersion was approximately even.
In each school, the students are exposed to traditional sex education curricula in late elementary school regarding biological development. The suburban school is a relatively conservative school system that tends to favor abstinence only approaches and does not have a formal school sex education curriculum for teens. There are optional classes in high school that cover physical health, but not sex education. The urban school district requires a yearlong health education class in the beginning of high school, which contains a four-week sex education program. This is comprised of education about anatomy, abstinence, growth and development, pregnancy, STDs, and contraception. The teens in the pregnant and parenting school come from a variety of schools throughout the same urban district and thus had the same health classes. However, once in the school for pregnant and parenting teens, the sex education and pregnancy prevention curriculum is more detailed and explicit in an effort to prevent repeat pregnancy.
Demographics. Adolescents were asked to provide information including age, race, and gender.
Preference for Sex Education Sources. Adolescents' preferred sources of information about sexual education were measured by asking adolescents to identify from whom they would prefer to receive sex education. Adolescents were permitted to identify as many options as they wished. Most adolescents listed 1 or 2 responses. Independent raters then analyzed the responses and coded them into seven categories: Parents, school, peers, siblings, media, nobody/self, and other professionals (i.e., doctor, nurse). Inter-rater reliability was 97% and disagreement was settled by discussion among raters. Each adolescent's response to this question was split into seven variables, and adolescents were assigned a value of 1 for each source named and a value of 0 for each source that was not named. These were treated as continuous variables in the analysis.
In addition to obtaining parent signatures on the parental permission form, the adolescents themselves were asked to sign an assent form to indicate voluntary participation. In each school, several classrooms were invited to participate. Approximately 67% of students approached at the mixed race urban school participated, and more than 95% of students approached at each of the other two schools participated most likely due to greater encouragement and support from teachers and their principals observed by the researchers. Rates of behavior for the samples were similar to national averages, and thus the sample is believed to be representative of the larger adolescent population. It is not believed that the students who participated were significantly different than those who did not participate. Survey completion occurred during a single class period and was supervised by the researcher and/or the teachers in classrooms. All procedures were approved by the University Institutional Review Board.
The most feasible way to examine the sex education data was to look at frequencies of responding and descriptively evaluate trends. See Tables 1-3 for frequency counts of preferred sex education sources for males and females within each race, grade, and group. Percentages reflect the proportion of responses provided for each category to the total number of participants in each subgroup. Participants were permitted to make multiple responses. The range of each percentage listed is also, therefore, limited to the proportion of the sample that responded to these questions. For example, each percentage listed reveals information about the proportion of adolescents who not only responded to the question but also endorsed that response category (sex education preference).
Few African American males responded to these questions, and thus it is not a representative reporting. With this in mind, however, across all three race groups, males and females combined, parents were the most preferred source of sex education. The same was true across all grade levels, except 11th and 12th grade males, who indicated a preference for school sources and parents equally. A breakdown by group, which parallels SES in this sample, revealed that most groups prefer parents as their primary source of sex education. Caucasian, middle class males were the only group who endorsed a desire for school-based sources more than for parents. Two groups of adolescents more frequently identified professional as more ideal than peers for sex education: poor, urban, minority males, and urban, African-American females who are either pregnant or already parenting.
For all groups, grades, races, and both genders, school was the second-most desired source of sex education, and peers followed third. The combination of parents, schools, and peers comprised a significant portion of the frequency counts. Siblings, media, self/no one, and other professionals and were not consistently preferred sources of sex education.
This study examines descriptive information about which sources of sexual education adolescents prefer and to determine whether differences exist by gender, race, and SES group. This study provides both expected and unexpected information, both of which offer important contributions to existing literature.
Descriptive data reveals that adolescents' primary preferred source of sex education is parents. Despite past studies with college-age students (late adolescents) that indicated that adolescents did not believe parents to be important sources of sex education (Rosenthal & Feldman, 1999), this sample of middle adolescents (high school age) appear to indicate that parents are desired, and thus important, sources of information. Apparently, parents of adolescents ages 15-18 have a potential role that should be better developed. The same is true across grade levels, indicating that parents are important during the transition to high school and they continue to be important. Frequency data reveal that this was especially true for females. Males continue to identify parents in 11th and 12th grades, but they also cite a desire for the school teaching them more information at these later grades.
Interestingly, adolescents in all grades, races, and groups do not frequently identify siblings, media, other professionals, and self/no one as preferred sources of sex education. Media "education"/exposure is rampant; yet apparently adolescents do not want prefer to receive their formal sex education from such a source. Perhaps it is not providing sufficient information to them. Similarly, the lack of identification of other professionals such as doctors and nurses is at first counterintuitive, particularly because medical professionals offer a relatively impartial perspective and are not directly involved in one's personal life. However, perhaps adolescents are unaware of this potential source. Indeed, previous research has found medical professionals to be rarely cited as sources of sex education for adolescents (Somers & Gleason, 2001).
There is also a clear preference for peers and schools to be sources of sex education over the other sources (media, siblings, self). Therefore, advocacy for dissemination of accurate information is warranted, particularly because peers often have limited and inaccurate knowledge (Somers & Paulson, 2000). Parents appear to be key, though. How can parents get involved in educating their children about sexuality? Clearly, this is a hotly debated issue, but several recommendations are worth considering. During middle and high school, biological, cognitive, and social change is profound, and if adolescents are not adequately and accurately educated, they will be left to acquire information in less credible ways. Because adolescents such as those in this sample are reporting a desire to learn information from their parents, it would be an important first step for school districts to educate parents about these findings, and prompt inquiry from parents. Second, not only can schools attempt to provide accurate, appropriate sex education, parents can be trained through district or school level in-services on how to communicate with teens, what is important to teach, what are typical questions teens have and answers they require, and how to overcome any anxieties or fears that may impede successful communication with their teens. Perhaps most importantly, parents would likely benefit from education about the fact that no research study has found that parental education about sexuality has a causal relationship with increased adolescent sexual activity.
These findings must be considered in light of limitations such as the way in which the preferences questions are asked. Adolescents are asked to identify from whom they would prefer to learn about sexual topics. Perhaps it would be beneficial to provide a list of options from which respondents could choose. It would also be informative to ask which topics they would prefer to learn from which sources. Perhaps education efforts would be most effective if various sources could focus energies on specific topics, driven by adolescents' preferences. Ultimately, preferences are likely linked to willingness to engage in conversation and internalized information learned. Also, some view self-report data and convenience samples as limitations; however, personal perceptions can only be measured by directly soliciting the subject of inquiry.
It is also important to note that we cannot separate race/ethnicity from economics and geography in this sample, as most of our European American students were from a suburban working and middle SES area, and most of our minorities were from low SES, urban areas. Thus, any results are generalizable to poor minorities only and not to all poor or all minorities or to working to middle SES, suburban European Americans and not to all European Americans. Nevertheless, these findings are useful in many cities in the U.S., especially those that are particularly racially and economically segregated such as that used in this study. Future research should build upon these findings by teasing out the patterns among large subsamples of each demographic group.
Despite limitations, this study appears to be a relatively novel contribution, and uses a large and diverse sample of adolescents. Overall, results indicate that adolescents want to be educated by their parents and schools. These are two sources likely to provide the most accurate information. However, these sources typically provide relatively little information. Thus, adolescents are likely to rely on less accurate or even warped sources such as peers and the media. Implications for the focus of prevention efforts are significant. Parents often shy away from sex education due to personal discomfort. Schools often shy away from sex education due to parent protest. Educating both parties about what their adolescents desire and encouraging collaboration in educating adolescents is an important initiative to undertake.
TABLE 1 Male and Female Adolescents' Sex Education Preferences for Each Race Males Females Frequency Percentage Frequency Percentage Black (n - 204) Parent 4 9.8 42 27.6 School -- -- 16 10.5 Peer 1 2.4 12 7.9 Sibling -- -- 5 3.3 Media 1 2.4 1 .7 No one/self 2 4.9 10 6.6 Professional 2 4.9 15 9.9 No response 33 82 Possible reporting n 41 152 White (n - 181) Parent 18 23.7 39 37.9 School 18 23.7 26 25.2 Peer 9 11.8 21 20.4 Sibling -- -- 4 3.9 Media 2 2.6 3 2.9 No one/self 1 1.3 4 3.9 Professional 2 2.6 3 2.9 No response 43 39 Possible reporting n 76 103 Hispanic (n = 183) Parent 11 13.9 29 31.2 School 5 6.3 14 15.1 Peer 3 3.8 9 9.7 Sibling 4 5.1 3 3.2 Media 2 2.5 2 2.2 No one/self 6 7.6 -- -- Professional 3 3.8 2 2.2 No response 53 52 Possible reporting n 79 93 Note. Percentages reflect the proportion of responses provided for each category to the total number of participants in each subgroup. Participants were permitted to make multiple responses. A small portion of participants did not report on all demographic variables. TABLE 2 Male and Female Adolescents' Sex Education Preferences for Each Grade Males Females Frequency Percentage Frequency Percentage 9th Grade (n = 178) Parent 20 26.3 33 32.7 School 12 15.8 13 12.9 Peer 3 3.9 13 12.9 Sibling 3 3.9 1 1.0 Media -- -- -- -- No one/self 2 2.6 2 2.0 Professional 4 5.3 2 2.0 No response 41 40 Possible reporting n 64 79 10th Grade (n = 126) Parent 7 14.9 22 28.6 School 2 4.3 16 20.8 Peer 3 6.4 9 11.7 Sibling 2 4.3 6 7.8 Media 2 4.3 3 3.9 No one/self 3 6.4 5 6.5 Professional 3 6.4 3 3.9 No response 22 31 Possible reporting n 38 67 11th Grade (n = 192) Parent 8 11.0 43 37.1 School 9 12.3 20 17.2 Peer 6 8.2 16 13.8 Sibling -- -- 8 6.9 Media 2 2.7 2 1.7 No one/self 3 4.1 3 2.6 Professional -- -- 4 3.4 No response 47 47 Possible reporting n 63 100 12th Grade (n = 151) Parent 7 21.9 32 27.6 School 6 18.8 16 13.8 Peer 3 9.4 10 8.6 Sibling -- -- 1 .9 Media 1 3.1 13 11.2 No one/self 3 9.4 7 6.0 Professional 1 3.1 13 11.2 No response 17 53 Possible reporting n 29 100 Note. Percentages reflect the proportion of responses provided for each category to the total number of participants in each subgroup. Participants were permitted to make multiple responses. A small portion of participants did not report on all demographic variables. TABLE 3 Male and Female Adolescents' Sex Education Preferences for Each Group Males Females Frequency Percentage Frequency Percentage Group 1 Middle SES White Parent 17 23.9 33 36.3 School 19 26.8 24 26.4 Peer 11 15.5 19 20.9 Sibling -- -- 2 2.2 Media 1 1.4 3 3.3 No one/self 3 4.2 4 4.4 Professional 1 1.4 4 4.4 No response 33 29 Possible reporting n 65 86 Group 2 Low SES Black Parent -- -- 27 26.2 School -- -- 8 7.8 Peer -- -- 3 2.9 Sibling -- -- 1 1.0 Media -- -- -- -- No one/self -- -- 8 7.8 Professional -- -- 13 12.6 No response -- 52 Possible reporting n 0 95 Group 3 Low SES Multiethnic Parent 25 15.6 70 32.0 School 10 6.3 33 15.1 Peer 4 2.5 26 11.0 Sibling 5 3.1 13 5.9 Media 4 2.5 3 1.4 No one/self 8 5.0 5 2.3 Professional 7 4.4 5 2.3 No response 96 93 Possible reporting n 131 167 Note. Group 1 is primarily European American, suburban, middle SES (n = 163); Group 2 is all female, African American, urban, pregnant or parenting, lower SES (n = 103); Group 3 is multiethnic, urban, and lower SES (n = 407). Percentages reflect the proportion of responses provided for each category to the total number of participants in each subgroup. Participants were permitted to make multiple responses. A small portion of participants did not report on all demographic variables.
Please address correspondence to:
Cheryl L. Somers
345 College of Education
Department of Educational Psychology
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48202
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Cheryl L. Somers & Amy T. Surmann
Wayne State University…
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Publication information: Article title: Adolescents' Preferences for Source of Sex Education. Contributors: Somers, Cheryl L. - Author, Surmann, Amy T. - Author. Journal title: Child Study Journal. Volume: 34. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2004. Page number: 47+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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