Research Watch: Sex Education

Diana Zuckerman
November 1, 1998

Patricia Donovan

Family Planning Perspectives,

Vol. 30, No. 4, July/Aug 1998

The Alan Guttmacher Institute

120 Wall St.

New York, NY 10005


(800) 765-7514

Fax: (212) 248-1951

Sex education is under attack in states and communities all over the country, according to a special report published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a leading family planning research institute.

Polls show that at least 80 percent of adults support sex education in schools, but according to the report’s author, Patricia Donovan, many school districts are “under intense pressure” to focus only on abstinence and eliminate discussion of birth control methods and disease-prevention strategies.

Donovan tells Youth Today that the current climate has a “chilling effect” that makes many teachers reluctant to discuss information that they believe would help prevent AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and pregnancy.

AIDS changed Americans’ views of sex education in the classroom, with a boost from Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s 1986 recommendations calling for sex education as early as third grade. State laws requiring sex education followed, and as a result most of today’s students attend sex education classes in the 9th or 10th grade.

But sex education courses have always been a target for social conservatives, and there were more than 500 local disputes involving all 50 states between 1992 and 1997. Although most of these were initiated by a few parents or members of a local church or group, many had the support of national conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family or the Eagle Forum. These groups want abstinence-only education, even though research shows that doesn’t work, and most argue that parents should have to provide written consent, instead of the current policies that notify parents that a sex education course will be given and that parents can let the school know if they don’t want their child to participate.

Conservatives are also pushing for separate sex education classes for boys and girls. Educators believe that having some coeducational classes helps kids learn how to resist pressure to have sex or unprotected sex.

According to Donovan, teachers don’t feel that their principals will support them if parents complain, so they are “self-censoring” information, making these courses less informative and effective.

In order to improve the effectiveness of sex education courses, the report recommends:

-Prospective teachers of health education and other relevant courses should be required to take courses on sexuality and STD and HIV education. States should adopt certification requirements for teachers of sex education.

-Communities should create local advisory committees composed of parents, religious leaders, medical professionals, and community leaders to review and approve curricula and books for sex education courses. This would make the courses less vulnerable to pressure from a small number of parents with extreme views.

-Parental involvement should be encouraged through these advisory committees, and in other ways. For example, Washington State permits parents to remove their child from AIDS education classes only after the parents have attended a program where they review the curriculum and meet with the teacher.

Peter Brandt, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Abstinence Education, agrees with the report’s recommendation to increase parental involvement, but disagrees about the role of schools in sex education. “Schools should provide messages that promote the most healthy behaviors for teens, and that means one partner for life and abstinence,” he told Youth Today. Teens who are already sexually active need counseling and information from their parents and primary care physicians, he says, not from their schools.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Sex Education." Research Watch review of "School-based Sexuality Education: Issues and Challenges". Youth Today, November 1998, p. 8.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.