Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:28 AM ET, 10/22/2009

What Kind of Sex Ed Works?

By Valerie Strauss

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.

The Centers for Disease Control details programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS on its Web site, that research has shown have helped reduce risky sex behavior.

“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?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 22, 2009; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  sexual education  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: When do kids need cell phones? Maybe never
Next: Dolly Parton? Michelle Obama? Who should get an honorary degree?


I'm not surprised that DSD, now that she's a teen and suddenly been given all sorts of "freedom", is interested in all things grown up -- to include sex. Suspect in spite of our efforts, she'll be an early experimenter in part because she's wanted nothing more than to be an adult since she was very young and in part because her social skills were late to bloom and it's even more important for her to feel accepted. Being blunt about STDs doesn't seem to work, so we're hoping info about the nature of relationships does sink in. Things like what you might do when hormones are running wild, what a guy might say to you to get you to do something (and vice versa) and the new realities of how far and wide a naked picture of you on your cell phone would spread. Years from now she'll realize her generation didn't invent this any more than my generation or my parents' generation invented it. But hopefully we'll give her some negotiation skills and far better access to protection and information.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | October 22, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Comprehensive Sex Ed is not about teaching your children to have sex or to be promiscuous, it’s about safety, and therefore it is the only viable option. In the end no matter what you teach your kids about what is right and wrong when it comes to having sex, it will be their choice to have sex or not and the use of birth control. Withholding valuable information or supplying misinformation is a disservice to them, and could be dangerous. Having or not sex is going to be for many teenagers and young adults the first adult decision they will make. Wouldn’t you rather have them do it safely than have to have a discussion on what to about contracting an STD or and unwanted pregnancy?

I went to high school in Fairfax County and participated in their Sex Ed program. Abstinence was strongly stressed and we were told that was that that was the only 100% effective method of birth control and STD prevention. We also learn about the different types of birth control. I must tell you between learning about the types of diseases and knowing I did not want to be pregnant in high school, I did not have sex in high school. When I did finally have sex I did it safely. My parents were mildly involved in my Sex Ed process, but frankly it was an embarrassing to discuss it with my parents. It was easier to go to the class in school, make fun of the bad 80s videos, and sophomorically laugh at the fact that we talked about chlamydia in class then to go to my parents.

We need to have a more open discussion about sex and sex education in our society. I am all for any parent who wants to tell their child do not have sex until marriage, but please tell them how to protect themselves in case they do not intend to follow your sage advice. DC has the worst rate AIDS rate; 1 in 20 is living with HIV and 1 in 50 residents has AIDS. And even though many readers live in the suburbs, this statistic should still scare you.

Parents have a moral obligation to keep your children safe. No matter where you live, urban, suburban or rural areas, your children should learn how to protect themselves.

PS Also teach them that condoms are no longer effective if they have been through the washer. My cousin learned this the hard way.

Posted by: MLNoVa | October 23, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I had comprehensive sex ed growing up, starting in the 5th grade. But it wasn't good enough. We needed more info on birth control and condoms. I had way to many friends pregnant at graduation.

I was one of the lucky teens who had parents who sat me down and told me what they expected of me. Not only did they tell me they wanted me to wait till marriage, they told me how to wait. They gave me tools to stay out of situations and to think reasonably about relationships. We didn't just talk about it once either. We started talking about it when I turned 12. Because they were open and honest with me, I felt empowered.

Parents need to grow up and be parents. Your kids really do want to know what you think. As a 27 year old woman who actually waited till marriage, I'm grateful to parents who helped me not become another statistic.

Posted by: MissRed | October 26, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Reading the Twilight books, the take-away message I got is that Edward wanted to wait because he thought he would hurt her (being a violently strong vampire) if he "got carried away". I don't think it was a moral decision.

Seems a weak example of abstinence in pop culture to me.

Posted by: crayolasunset | October 26, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Kids have sex. Period.

Abstinence programs are 100% failed across the nation.

Fundamentalist kids have the most unsafe sex, because they are the most likely students to be kept ignorant.

Fundamentalists of any religion are the last people to consult on the matter of human biology, and reality.

Posted by: onestring | October 26, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

These books and entertainers are fiction. As parents we can start with reality first and leave fantasy for the writers and entertainers. I would try direct dialog with my children first and foremost.

I have three grown daughters with no out of wedlock grandchildren. We spoke openly and honsetly about sex and our three daughters listened and we respected the fact they would make the right choices, and they did.

We also have one son that has no out of wedlock children. We spoke to all of them directly and answered all of their questions. No science fiction or any entertainers to do it for us. Just US. this is a parents job, the hard work of telling the truth.

BTW, we are an african-american family, as well.


Posted by: patmatthews | October 26, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Why don't you get back to us when you have a bit more information.

Posted by: heywallace | October 26, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I was apprehensive when my daughter got the consent-form home for sex-ed in 5th grade, about what she was going to learn and how that will help her to make good decisions. I talked to the teachers in great detail before the class and then found myself having a heart to heart with my daughter about sex even before she attended the class.

Children learn from their parents and I hope that the example my spouse and I set will be followed. At middle school the "popular" girls who were the first ones to have sex - soon got a reputation for being skanky. That was the real eye-opener for her - the fact that these girls got used by the guys and were the only ones who suffered because of that.

I want her to date eventually - when she is on the way to making something of her life - because I believe she will not want to then settle for someone who is not her equal - emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.

Posted by: Netcomment | October 26, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Twilight is NOT a good "wait until marriage" tool. While Edward and Bella do wait until their wedding night in the fourth book, the first three books DRIP with hormones and sexual frustration. Edward and Bella frequently sleep in the same bed together (before their marriage) and Bella frequently expresses her frustration that Edward is making her wait.
The series is fluffy and fun but I honestly think it's more likely to prompt make-out sessions than "smart choices."

Posted by: ishkabibbleA | October 26, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I was one of the volunteer researchers that worked on the Youth Sexual Health Study through the DC Council Committee on Health- I actually created one of the survey's for one for one of the focus groups and my final project for my MPH at The George Washington University focuses on how New Media can be used to increase sex education among the youth in DC. The bottom line is that our sample was small due to resources and time constraint. Oh the youth that I speak to day in and day out on the "streets of DC" I can assure readers of a few things 1. They are listening to their parents 2. abstinence only education does not work 3.the key to making an effective sex education curriculum is asking the youth- they create what they know they will listen to. So simple yet so hard for many. These are good kids living in an environment that does not make it easy to make good choices.

Posted by: iheartDCyouth | October 30, 2009 5:11 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company