Are We Taking the Pleasure out of Sex? What a Comprehensive Sexuality Education Program Should Look Like

Article excerpt

Jon O'Brien, moderator and president of Catholics for Choice

Doortje Braeken, Senior Advisor for Adolescents/Youth at the International Planned Parenthood Foundation in London

Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

Roger Ingham, psychology professor and director of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton, England

William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS)

IN APRIL 2009, CATHOLICS FOR CHOICE CONVENED A ROUNDTABLE CONVERSATION on comprehensive sexuality education. An edited transcript follows.

JON O'BRIEN: In the United States, there is a lot of talk about preventing the need for abortion or reducing unplanned pregnancy. The solution many people look to is sexuality education. What evidence is there that comprehensive sexuality education either prevents unplanned pregnancy or reduces the need for abortion?

SARAH BROWN: This is well-tilled turf in the US--and in Western Europe to some extent as well. We now have a pretty robust body of evidence that shows that a variety of curricula in schools and communities can reduce teen pregnancy, either by delaying sexual debut or increasing the use of contraception.

There are, however, very few curricula that have been proven to reduce teen pregnancy because you have to sample so many thousands of people to do that. What we often see is that a curriculum will encourage young people to postpone first sex by a few months or a year or two and to be better users of contraception when they do become sexually active.

So, we have a number of very well done studies that show how some good sex education curricula--many of which were developed to reduced HIV and AIDS and not just unintended pregnancy--do help. They are not the solution. They reduce risk. They help but they do not eliminate the problem.

JON O'BRIEN: Bill, when you're on Capitol Hill and people discuss promoting abstinence-only education, what do you say about the effectiveness of that type of sex education?

WILLIAM SMITH : My top-line message in promoting a more comprehensive approach over the abstinence-only approach is pretty simple: The evidence that we have shows that a more comprehensive approach actually does a better job of helping young people delay sex and be abstinent than do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. If the real goal here is helping young people delay sex and be abstinent as long as they can, we know how to do that and it's through a more comprehensive approach.

It seems to me that this is the message that is really raking hold across the country when states and school districts are turning down abstinence-only-until-marriage money or outright rejecting these programs. It is also taking hold as Congress and the president move away from the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach toward a more comprehensive one.

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JON O'BRIEN: And what studies would you cite to demonstrate that sex education does reduce unintended pregnancy?

WILLIAM SMITH: Most notably, the work that Doug Kirby has done for the National Campaign is pivotal. The work of John S. Santelli from Columbia University has been really wonderful as well as the work of a number of other researchers. On the HIV side, the work of David Holtgrave from Johns Hopkins demonstrates how advancing evidence-based prevention reduces the risk behavior that leads to young people becoming infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or HIV or an unplanned pregnancy. These studies have been crucial contributions to our understanding of just how important behavioral interventions can be.

JON O'BRIEN: Roger, the UK has supported sex education for a number of years. At the same time, the UK has seen a rise in teen pregnancies and STIS. …