By Amelia Holstom, MPH | July 12, 2018
Associate Director of Evaluation, Education, Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Support for sex education among likely voters in the United States is remarkably high. Overwhelming support for sex education that provides information about a range of topics including both abstinence and birth control demonstrates that sex education in school should not be a controversial issue. How can we be so confident about this?
In February, GfK, an international market research organization, conducted a survey on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Our goal was to assess likely voters’ support for sex education and for federal funding of programs that reduce unintended pregnancy among teens. We learned that support for sex education in middle and high school is exceptionally strong. You can see a two-page brief about our findings here.
Young people need and deserve age-appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships, without being shamed or judged. They have a right to information and skills that can protect their health. Data supports this.
According to the 2017 YRBS, for example, only nine percent of high school students used both a condom and another form of contraception the last time they had sex. Just over half, 54 percent, reported using a condom the last time they had sex. By 12th grade, 57 percent ever had sexual intercourse and 44 percent had sexual intercourse in the last three months.
An overwhelming majority of likely voters think it is important to have sex education in middle and high school, and they want it to include a comprehensive list of topics. Ninety-eight percent of respondents answered that it is “very” or “somewhat” important to have sex education in high school; 89 percent answered that it is “very” or “somewhat” important to have sex education in middle school.
Likely voters also agree that sex education should include information on birth control methods, HIV and STDs, puberty, consent, healthy relationships, sexual orientation, and abstinence.
Respondents were asked whether they think these topics should be included in high school and middle school sex education. Over 90 percent of likely voters supported including these topics in high school sex education and 79 percent said sexual orientation should be included. Over 80 percent of likely voters supported including these topics in middle school sex education, and 69 percent said sexual orientation should be included.
The message is clear — there is strong support for sex education that covers a comprehensive range of topics.
The survey also found high levels of support for federal funding of programs that prevent unintended pregnancy among teens. Seventy-three percent of likely voters think the federal government should fund programs to prevent unplanned teen pregnancy. Of those, 85 percent believe federally funded programs should focus on both encouraging teens to delay sex until they are ready, and preparing them for the possible consequences of sex. Only 15 percent believe programs should focus solely on encouraging teens to delay sex until they are married.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) provide federal funding for programs that are proven to help teens delay sex, improve contraceptive use, and/or prevent pregnancy. The current administration is redefining TPPP to fund abstinence-only programs, which they are rebranding as “sexual risk avoidance.”
This policy shift is in direct opposition to what a large majority of likely voters want from federal programs that prevent unplanned pregnancy among teens.
Today, when only 14% of middle schools and 38% of high schools teach the CDC’s 19 essential health topics, I believe advocates for sex education can be more vocal. We need to speak up about how strongly voters support sex education that covers a comprehensive set of topics. We need to emphasize that voters do not support abstinence-only programs.
We also need to explain that rebranding abstinence-only as sexual risk avoidance does not alter the fact that these programs do not cover the information that likely voters (and parents, for that matter) want included in middle and high school sex education. It is critical that those of us working in adolescent health continue to make clear to the public that sexual risk avoidance is simply another name for abstinence-only programs.
I hope you will join me in lifting up the overwhelming support for sex education and federal funding for programs that prevent unplanned pregnancy among teens. Here are some ways to take action:
For more resources, please visit:
Amelia Holstrom, MPH, is Associate Director of Evaluation in the education department at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.