Adolescents' Preferences for Source of Sex Education

By Somers, Cheryl L.; Surmann, Amy T. | Child Study Journal, March 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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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. …

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