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Survey Shows Need for Better Teen Sex Ed

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Only 62 percent of teens in a recent survey who had had sex in the past three months reported using condoms the last time they had sex.

CREDIT: istockphoto

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Public health officials say results from a recent survey on risky teen behavior reaffirm the need for comprehensive sex education in public schools.

The survey [PDF] by the Cook County Department of Public Health asked 1,718 students in 20 public high schools in suburban Cook County about sex, drugs, and other physical and psychological health topics.

Responses indicated that 37 percent of teens have had sex—61 percent of African-American teens, 49 percent of Hispanic teens, and 24 percent of white teens.

“As a public health department, we support the need for comprehensive sex education in our schools, and we know we do not have it,” Amy Poore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, told Campus Progress. “And teens are still engaging in these sexual behaviors.”

Poore said most schools teach an abstinence-only curriculum.

With so many teens engaging in sex, it’s crucial that they learn how to protect themselves, advocates say.

Only 62 percent of surveyed teens who had had sex in the past three months reported using condoms the last time they had sex, and 19 percent reported using alcohol before their last encounter. Further, about one in ten girls and one in twenty boys said they had been raped, or “forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to.”

The Illinois School Code on Sex Education does not require sex education. But in schools where it is taught, all courses “shall emphasize that abstinence is the expected norm” and “shall teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.” Information on STIs, AIDS, and condom failure rates is also taught.

“We didn’t know what to expect going into this,” Poore said of the study, adding it provides a research base for receiving grants for more comprehensive education. “It gives us a barometer of what is going on with our kids and shows us things need to change.”

It’s an important example for the rest of the country.

Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only until marriage programs have no statistically significant effect on teen sexual activity.

And though the law says they must be medically accurate, many such programs have taught blatantly false information—for example, that condoms fail to prevent HIV infection 31 percent of the time, and that women who have an abortion are more prone to suicide.

Roughly $50 million a year in federal funds is currently allocated for abstinence-based programs, and $1.5 billion has been spent on such programs since 1997.

Abstinence programs must adhere to a socially conservative eight-point definition, which includes language about how “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical affects.” Since President Obama took office, those standards have been relaxed some: to qualify for "abstinence" funding, a program only has to fulfill one or more of the eight points, not all eight.

But the problem is implementation, says Sarah Audelo, Senior Domestic Policy Manager of Advocates for Youth. The federal government offers the money and governors decide whether to take it, but what is actually taught is up to individual school districts. Certain districts may choose programs that adhere to all eight abstinence points and that provide distorted information.

The survey also asked teens non-sexual activity questions. The report, in an easily readable chart form, is worth looking at in its entirety for a fascinating portrait of what “kids today” are doing in their free time.

The findings include information on bullying, mental health and body image issues, drug use, violence, and nutrition and physical activity:

“There are a lot of topics, and there is a lot of work to be done,” Poore said.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly reported that Illinois receives no federal funding for sex ed programs. The article has been corrected to contain the accurate information about federal funding for such programs.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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