What Kind of Sex Ed Works?
Several people have said to me recently that if parents want their teenage girls to abstain from sex, they should make them listen to Taylor Swift’s song “Fifteen,” or read the wildly popular “Twilight Saga” series.
Swift, for those, who don’t know, is a young singing sensation who started in country music but is huge in the pop world too. "Fifteen" is a call to girls to think before they jump into bed with the first guy who professes love because he won’t for long.
In the “Twilight Saga,” a teen named Bella falls in love with a vampire named Edward who refuses to have sex with her until they get married. He is more than a century old, and, wouldn’t you know it, an old-fashioned vampire.
I wondered what reach into the teen psyche popular culture has on individual teen behavior so I conducted a mini survey: I asked three people involved with sex education how much the popular culture affects teen behavior.
The first two were my teenage daughter Maddy and her friend Emily, who have had comprehensive sex education at their school. They said they doubted safe-sex songs--or Twilight--would have a real effect on kids in the heat of the moment.
I also consulted Maureen Ellen Lyon, a clinical health psychologist and associate research professor at George Washington University who was president of an American Psychological Association committee that recommended comprehensive sex education in schools to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Do safe sex message messages coming from popular cultural figures resonate with young people? For that matter, does the constant barrage of misogynist and sexist and violent lyrics heard constantly on the radio have any real effect to individual mores?
Lyon said that “there is no denying” that popular culture can affect teen behavior, but a more powerful force can be a child’s parents. Peer norms (which can be affected by pop culture) matter too. So does the kind of sex education a teen receives at school. (Yes, some people think sex education should be left to parents. We all know, though, that many parents aren't comfortable or effective doing so.)
This issue arose in an article today in The Washington Post by my colleague Darryl Fears. It says that D.C. public high school students who took part in focus groups on sexual health gave a thumbs down to the District's sex ed curriculum.
They don’t feel comfortable, they said, talking to school nurses who are supposed to counsel them--and they don’t like the Durex brand of condoms that their schools distributed. (They said they preferred Trojan or Magnum.) Girls said they didn’t even want to carry condoms because they thought they would be called promiscuous.
It should be noted that the survey sample was so small that he findings could not be said to be representative of the entire teen population in the District. But it is not unreasonable to think they represent a good portion.
Meanwhile, the tug of war over whether and how to teach sex education in schools continues around the country. What is happening in Florida tells the story.
According to The Jacksonville Observer, Florida Democrats and a coalition of health advocacy groups are trying yet again to win approval in the legislature for comprehensive sex education in public schools.
A $13 million federal grant for abstinence-only education ran out this summer.
Proponents of comprehensive sex ed have tried for years to win state funding but have been defeated by opponents, who are expected to continue fighting. Proponents are hoping that the statistics will change some minds:
*It is estimated that more than half of all new HIV infections occur before the age of 25.
*Half of new infections are attributed to 25 percent of the population that doesn’t know they are infected.
*Research shows that 1 in 5 adolescents will have sex before the age of 15 and most who continue to be sexually active do not use condoms consistently.
Lyon said that research has shown that comprehensive sex ed, when it is targeted to specific populations, can reduce risky behavior among teens, even those who are already sexual active.
The need to target it to specific populations--for example, 14- to 16-year-olds, kids already sexually active, gay men and women--makes it trickier to provide sex ed in schools, but, she said, school-based education on this subject is vital.
Safe sex education also works best to reduce risky behavior when it reaches kids before they start sexual activity--that is, before they turn 15.
Peer norms matter; kids want to fit in and do what they think other kids are doing.
“If you think everybody is having sex, it’s not true,” she said. “There is pressure to have sex though. They are less concerned with hearing about the birds and the bees... but rather want to know how do you negotiate in the context of a relationship."
Peers who have made mistakes and talking honestly to teens about their experiences helps, too, she said.
“A lot of what teens need to learn is how to say ‘no’ when they aren’t ready,” Lyon said.
What kind of sex education have your children had at school? Do you think it was at all useful? What is your opinion of school-based sex ed?
| October 22, 2009; 11:28 AM ET
Categories: Health | Tags: sexual education
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