Today the vast majority of public and private schools in the U.S. provide sex education, typically as part of their health curricula. According to Valerie Huber, president of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), there are two basic types of sex ed programs. Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR), sometimes referred to as comprehensive sex ed, is by far the more commonly used program. Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) is sometimes called abstinence-based or abstinence-only education.
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SRR curricula, which often include abstinence as one choice among many, are typically explicit, spelling out different ways people can give and receive sexual gratification. They usually include showing students different types of contraception, but stress the use of condoms, often providing demonstrations with bananas. The underlying assumption of SRR is that teens are going to be sexually active, thus the emphasis on reducing risk instead of avoiding it.
SRA programs are primarily focused on encouraging teens to avoid risk by refraining from sexual activity. Sex is treated like every other health risk teens are confronted with, such as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Despite common misconceptions, SRA curricula typically include information about contraception, using data from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the effectiveness—and ineffectiveness—of various methods. While condoms would likely be discussed, they would not be demonstrated. Simply put, students in SRA programs are taught, as the NAEA website puts it, that "waiting for sex eliminates all risk and is always the best and healthiest option."
So what should parents do when it comes to sex education in their children's school?
Get Informed & Be Prepared
First, find out what's being taught. According to Huber, many parents assume their children are learning risk avoidance when they're not. She recommends starting with the health teacher, and knowing what questions to ask. Avoid using the terms "comprehensive" and "abstinence-based." SRR and SRA are more accurate. On the NAEA website (www.abstinenceassociation.org) is a "Parents School Toolkit" section to guide parents.
"Don't just ask whether abstinence is taught or whether delaying sexual activity is promoted, because every teacher, no matter what curriculum is being used, will say 'yes,'" cautions Huber. Parents should ask to preview the curriculum, including all supplementary handouts, videos, and material from outside presenters. They should look carefully at how abstinence is presented. One program, for example, recommends showering together as an example of abstinent behavior.
Strength in Numbers
Parents who decide to try to change a school's sex ed program should find like-minded parents and work together. The Parents School Toolkit also provides help on how to organize, how to present your case at school board meetings, and how to find partners for such coalitions. Huber has seen many success stories, even in states with very liberal sex ed guidelines.
Defend with Facts
Parents should be prepared to correct the many misperceptions about SRA education, and to deal with resistance, even antagonism. They can find useful facts and suggestions under "Correcting Misinformation" on the NAEA website. Usually the first hurdle that needs to be cleared is showing that SRA has been proven to be effective. The NAEA provides a summary of 23 studies that show a positive impact on teens' sexual behavior from SRA programs. According to Huber,
Those who are not already sexually active going into our programs are about fifty percent less likely to engage in sex as a result, as opposed to their peers. Those students who are sexually experienced coming into the programs are more likely to discontinue that sexual activity, or at least reduce the number of partners. In addition, those who go on to be sexually active are no less likely to use a condom or contraception than their peers.
If parents are unable or unwilling to change a sex ed program they don't like, they should insist on having their children excused from those classes. •
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