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Which type of sex education is right for your teen?

Jennifer Gonzales & Kim Allen, Human Development & Family Studies, University of Missouri Extension


Sex education has become a regular part of many schools’ curriculum. Starting as early as 6th grade, sexual education programs focus on forming attitudes and decision making skills about sex, relationships and intimacy, and some offer information on sexually transmitted diseases and preventing pregnancy. With more than 60 percent of high school students engaging in sexual activity by the time they graduate from high school, sexual education is clearly needed for adolescents.

However, the subject of sex education is controversial, and it can be difficult for parents to understand the different educational approaches. There are several types of sex education programs available and selecting the best approach for teaching in school is highly debated. Schools can choose between abstinence only, abstinence based or abstinence plus, comprehensive and holistic approaches to sexual education.

Abstinence-only education focuses exclusively on postponing sex until marriage. STD’s and HIV are mentioned as a result of sexual activity, but condoms and birth control are not mentioned at all. Critics argue that abstinence-only programs are dangerous and ineffective as they leave out information for teens that do choose to have sex, leaving them at risk for pregnancy and STD’s. Additionally, these programs do not distribute information for youth choosing to wait until marriage on family planning (delaying pregnancy) or sexually transmitted diseases they could receive from their marriage partner. Other critics suggest that abstinence-only programs are fear based and use false information about the effectiveness of contraception and the ways you can get STD’s and HIV.

Abstinence-plus or abstinence-based sexual education teaches that students should wait until marriage to have sex, but this type also refers to other methods of protection from STD’s and HIV. This type of education advocates abstinence but also focuses on contraceptive options and gives information regarding pregnancy, STD’s and HIV, and prevention.

Comprehensive sexual education explains the consequences of sexual decision making, including information on types of sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent pregnancy. Some programs combine an abstinence message with comprehensive information, but all cover the consequences of sexual activity and discuss the best protection methods. Although some critics suggest that giving information about sex will only encourage teenagers, research shows that knowledge is power, and students who have information are best able to make choices to protect themselves. In fact, most research suggests that comprehensive education is the most effective for adolescents.

Holistic sex education focuses on a much more broad youth development model than the other types. Teens are guided through subjects such as self esteem, employment, mental and physical health, and family life. Included in a holistic program is a comprehensive unit on sexual decision making. One example of a successful program is the Teen Outreach Program (TOP), a program that is offered throughout the state of Missouri.

Research shows that the most effective sex education comes from parents discussing sex openly and honestly with their children. Parents should not depend solely on the school system to discuss sex with their teenager. It is up to parents to get the message to their school administration about the type of sex education they would prefer for their children. With 60 percent of today’s graduates having sex and with the growing number of teens infected with a sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy, it is clear that more information on good sexual decision making is needed.


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Last Updated 09/27/2010