National Partnership for Women & Families

Monthly Women's Health Research Review

Review profiles study showing shortcomings in formal sex education

Summary of "Formal sex education increasingly omits topics important to adolescents' reproductive health," Dore Hollander, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Sept. 19, 2016.

"The proportion of U.S. adolescents who said they had received formal education on a number of key sexual and reproductive health topics declined between the 2006-2010 and 2011-2013 rounds of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG)," according to a new study, Dore Hollander, executive editor of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, wrote.

Hollander outlines the study's primary findings, noting that female respondents "registered more changes in the prevalence of formal sex education than males." Specifically, the study found declines among women on "instruction about birth control (from 70 percent in the earlier survey to 60 percent in the later one), saying no to sex (from 89 to 82 percent), ST[I]s (from 94 to 90 percent), and HIV and AIDS (from 89 to 86 percent)." In contrast, "[t]he only decline among males was in instruction about birth control (from 61 to 55 percent)," Hollander wrote. She added that "[t]he proportion of youth reporting instruction that covered abstinence but not birth control rose among both females (from 22 to 28 percent) and males (from 29 to 35 percent)."

Hollander also highlighted demographic differences in the findings. For instance, she wrote that "[o]ver time, white females, but not members of other racial or ethnic groups, became less likely to report having had instruction on birth control and on abstinence." In addition, while "15-17-year-old females reported a decrease in prevalence of instruction about birth control and an increase in education covering abstinence but not birth control, older adolescents became less likely to have learned about abstinence, ST[I]s, and HIV and AIDS," Hollander wrote.

According to Hollander, between the earlier and later surveys, the researchers also found that female respondents who:

  • "[H]ad attended religious services most frequently at age 14 reported a lower prevalence of instruction about birth control and about abstinence";
  • Had lower incomes reported a decrease in receiving instruction on saying no to sex;
  • Had a higher income experienced "a decrease in instruction about birth control and an increase in reportedly learning about abstinence but not about birth control"; and
  • Had resided in areas other than central cities, "particularly those living in nonmetropolitan areas, reported adverse changes in instruction in multiple areas."

Among male respondents, the research found that "reports of formal instruction about birth control declined between surveys among 15-17-year-olds and those who had attended religious services most frequently at age 14; education covering abstinence increased among 18-19-year-olds and declined among nonmetropolitan residents." Further, she noted that male respondents who lived "outside metropolitan areas also reported a lowered prevalence of instruction about ST[I]s, HIV and AIDS in the later survey."

According to Hollander, questions specific to the 2011-2013 survey "revealed that about three-quarters of both females and males had had formal instruction on postponing sexual activity until marriage." Meanwhile, female respondents "were more likely than males to have been instructed on where to obtain birth control (53 percent vs. 38 percent), but were less likely than males to have learned about condom use (50 percent vs. 58 percent)," she wrote. Hollander added that according to "the later survey, the proportion of sexually experienced females who had had formal instruction about the various sex education topics before first having intercourse ranged from 46 percent (for sources of birth control) to 78 percent ([for] ST[I]s)," while that proportion among "sexually experienced males ... ranged from 31 percent ([for] birth control sources) to 76 percent ([for] ST[I]s)." Hollander also cited two findings showing changes over time: "declines in the proportion of females reporting instruction about abstinence (from 78 to 70 percent) and the proportion of males reporting education about birth control (52 to 43 percent)."

In the 2011-2013 survey, around "22 percent of females and 30 percent of males reported ... that they had not talked to their parents about any of six [key] sexual and reproductive health topics by age 18." According to Hollander, "Females most commonly reported having talked to a parent about saying no to sex (63 percent) and least often said they had discussed condom use (36 percent)," while male respondents said they "talked with a parent most often about ST[I]s (49 percent) and least often about sources of birth control (22 percent)." Further, the researchers found that "[w]hile 13-51 percent of adolescents reported that both schools and parents had covered specific topics with them, reports of topic[s] being covered only in discussions with parents were uncommon."

Hollander noted that "the NSFG data provide no or minimal insight into the quality, quantity, content and context of sex education." As such, according to Hollander, "the investigators argue that while the analyses reveal a declining prevalence of formal instruction on some sexual and reproductive health topics and disparities among subgroups of adolescents, broader exploration of adolescents' sources of information is required," especially "understanding the contributions of the Internet and formal programs outside schools."