Getting With the Program: Sexuality Education in the 21st Century

For several decades, a debate over when, what and even if to teach sex education to youth has ranged on. However, polarizing debates are not helpful to parents who, at the least want to minimize health risks to their children, and at most want their kids to grow up to have a healthy, life affirming attitude toward sex. Comprehensive sexuality education involves teaching youth about abstinence while also educating them about contraception. At the same time, it goes beyond this narrow understanding of sex – hence the term “sexuality education” as opposed to “sex education” – to include areas such as basic biological processes, the psychology of relationships, and the sociology of the family.

The emergence of comprehensive sexuality education has helped bridge the divide in sex education. It encompasses, what is for most people, a reasonable middle ground. In fact, research published in a 2007 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health by Marla Eisenberg and her colleagues indicates that 89 percent of parents want sexuality education for their kids, while only 11% are against it. A clear majority of parents want their kids to learn about human sexuality. In addition, comprehensive sexuality education is endorsed by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This wide consensus means that we ought to move beyond the traditional debates. The question should no longer be centered on whether or not comprehensive sexuality education should be taught but rather when it should be taught. Parents in the Eisenberg study felt that the middle school years (i.e., grades 6, 7, & 8) were preferable. This makes sense given that survey’s show that by grade 9 a third of kids have had intercourse, and that this number rises to two-thirds by grade 12.

While formal sexuality education is being widely recommended for schools, parents should not take this to mean that it will be taken care of by teachers. Although this belief may help calm parents’ fears around having to discuss sexuality with their children, it is not recommended. Instead, parents should take advantage of their greater access and intimacy by finding teachable moments as their kids they are growing. Questions around sexuality don’t begin in the teen years and don’t end when kids are young adults in the twenties. Parents should see themselves as a continuing source of information, experience and comfort around these issues. The truth is that while many parents are willing to engage in these conversations, they are often not sure what to say or when to say it. Tomorrow, Dr. Brian will provide tips to parents around how to approach kids, what questions you can expect, and what to say.

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