There can be few more incendiary topics for parents than sex education. It’s an area that many would prefer not to discuss with their kids and so they happily hand it over to schools. Once it is part of the curriculum, though, sex education becomes hostage to intellectual fads and social theories.

The dominant theory at the moment is “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE). In a climate which prioritises “choice” as the highest value, CSE emphasises consent in sexual relationships. In the words of several Canadian experts, “It helps them learn to respect their own bodies and emerging sexuality and that of others, and it factors in on decisions around sexual activity.” 

It’s easy to see why “abstinence education” – which is popular among American conservatives — is regarded with horror by fans of CSE.

“Conservative school boards don’t want to teach consent because they’re worried that it opens the door for consensual sexual activity,” says Andrea Barrica, the founder of an online sex education platform, O.school, which offers teens the advice of a number of “pleasure professionals”. “But when you teach kids that all sexual feelings are wrong and shameful, rather than natural, it actually makes consent violations more probable.”

A position paper released this week by the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) gives some clarity to the debate.

It points out that CSE is actually an umbrella term for two approaches, sexual risk avoidance (SRA), and sexual risk reduction (SRR).

SRA is basically abstinence education – guiding children towards the best health outcomes by avoiding risk. ACPeds cites a recent document of the US Centers for Disease Control to emphasise that this is the best way to bring down America’s sky-high rates of sexually transmitted diseases:

Abstinence from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse is the only 100% effective way to prevent HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy. The correct and consistent use of male latex condoms can reduce the risk of STD transmission, including HIV infection. However, no protective method is 100% effective, and condom use cannot guarantee absolute protection against any STD or pregnancy.

SRR is a completely different approach. It assumes that teenagers are going to have sex and tries to educate them to do it safely and respectfully. In ACPeds’s words, “The goal of this strategy is to reduce the risk of harm for those actively engaged in the high risk behavior while still encouraging them to return to risk-free behavior.”

The problem for parents is that comprehensive sexual education programs bundle SRA and SRR in the same package — and SRR ends up dominating. This gives students the impression that “everyone is doing it” and that there is nothing wrong with sexual activity outside of marriage.

In fact, most CSE curricula appear to be based on the premises that sexual activity for teens is a normal and morally acceptable behavior as long as it is “consensual” and “protected;” that engaging in sexual activity is inevitable for teens, and that once sexually active, they are unable to alter that behavior. 

Consequently, the underlying philosophy of CSE is that risk avoidance is not attainable, and the best anyone can do to help our youth is to reduce risk by promoting contraceptive education and services.

Less explicit, but included in CSE ideology, is the idea that young people should be free from sexual inhibitions, outdated moral constraints, and that adolescents should make up their own minds about when they are ready for sexual relations; adolescents should be free to enjoy sexual pleasure.

CSE’s fans insist that it is supported by scientific research. But ACPeds points out that the evidence cited in a recent study of 40 CSE programs is ambiguous at best. “The field of prevention research considers an intervention effective when it generates sustained post-program effects on protective indicators for the main intended population. When the reviewers applied this standard to the programs, they found far more evidence of CSE failure than success.”

For example, none of the studies demonstrated a reduction in teen STDs. In fact, only two of them even measured it. Only one program reported a reduction in teen pregnancy, but only during the program. A subsequent study elsewhere found that the very same CSE program increased teen pregnancy rates.

Why do the CSE programs – which are really SRR programs – fail?

ACPeds offers four explanations. First, risk reduction programs are normally aimed at people who are already engaged in risky behaviour. Exposing children who are not sexually active leads to normalising sex. Second, it doesn’t motivate students to avoid sex – as, say, a drugs risk reduction program would. Third, it claims that CSE programs are successful even if teenagers are still engaging in sexual activity. And finally, explicit demonstrations in the classroom can tempt kids into sexual activity.

ACPeds acknowledges that not all SRA programs are effective. They have to be well-designed and well-implemented. But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that SRA works better than SRR.

SRA education is built on the premise that all non-marital teen sexual activity is high-risk behavior, due to the many possible consequences of that conduct, and the likelihood of multiple lifetime sexual partners resulting from the early onset of sexual activity. In contrast to CSE programs, SRA programs teach that abstinence is not another “option” like condoms and contraception; it is singly presented as the optimally healthy  lifestyle for teens. SRA education teaches teens that it is normal to be curious about sex, but that the healthiest and most rewarding context for sexual intimacy is within marriage. Therefore, the focus of a SRA program is to teach the benefits of choosing to delay sexual activity until marriage and to empower teens to achieve this goal.

Another plus for SRA is that parents are encouraged to get involved in conversations about sexual behaviour. “Social science research that finds communication of parental expectations is one of the most protective factors against early sexual debut,” notes the position paper. But, almost necessarily, SRR programs encourage kids to sneak around parental vigilance to obtain condoms, contraception or even abortions.

ACPeds concludes, “America’s young people deserve the best that we can give them; school-based sexual risk avoidance education is the best for children.”

Best as a starting point, perhaps, in classrooms where teachers are reluctant to impart higher values. But even sexual risk avoidance per se is deficient. Sexuality has to be integrated into a higher vision of what a human being is. Where does sex have meaning? In a truly humane life-story, in a permanent commitment where it expresses the love of the spouses and is open to transmitting life. Young people need to be taught that sex is sacred. Only a deep respect for that ideal will keep young people from reckless experimentation.

Otherwise risks look attractive. “As a kid, I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and my job was to say no,” Andrea Barrica says. If that really was the impoverished messsage of her sex education as a Filipino-American Catholic schoolgirl, it failed. Big-time. Now she is a lesbian running a website peddling advice which is indistinguishable from pornography.

The ACPeds position paper, School-Based Sex Education in the United States,  is a fine overview of the debate and is well worth studying.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.