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Students in middle and secondary school are engaging in sexual activity and as a result face certain risks including contracting a sexually transmitted infection or disease, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. As of 2012, The Center for Disease Control reports that 46% of high schoolers report having sexual intercourse at least once (Arnett, 2013, p.
255). There are varying pedagogies for how this sensitive subject should be addressed in schools. Most people in American society do believe that adolescent rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are a growing problem and action should be taken to reduce their frequency.
Of these types of interventions aimed at reducing sexual intercourse, teenage pregnancy, and STIs, we will focus on abstinence education and comprehensive sexual education. Through review of these programs we will discuss correlating rates of adolescent sexual risk taking. In doing so, we will support with evidence that school based sexual education interventions in adolescents does lead to lower rates of sexual risk taking.
As stated, most Americans do believe we should lower rates of STIs and teenage pregnancy, but there is disagreement on how to go about this (Arnett, 2013, p. 273). There is research which suggests that school programs for adolescents can impact sexual behavior. In The Impact of Schools and School Programs Upon Adolescent Sexual Behavior, Douglas Kirby addresses how school and school based programs influence teenagers. The argument for school-based programs stems from the fact that 95% of all youth are enrolled in school in our nation (Kirby, 2002, p. 27). It logically follows that almost all youth attend school for many years before they begin to engage in sexual activity.
This research by Kirby sought to answer a variety of questions including whether or not enrollment in schools with particular characteristics or programs reduced the chance of sexual risk taking (Kirby, 2002). It should be mentioned that most schools in the United States do have some form of sexual education; as of 2010, 70% of students attending a public did have sexual education in one form or another (Arnett, 2013, p. 273). However, these programs vary greatly as each school district is able to choose the length and content of sexual education.
One main takeaway from the research is that students who have dropped out of school are more likely to initiate sex earlier, as well as more likely to give birth and less likely to use contraception (Kirby, 2002). One way to deter these risky behaviors is to develop a greater attachment to school. Just by being enrolled in school, an adolescent is statistically less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. This is supported by Arik Marcell who concludes that out-of-school black males have higher levels of sexual risk taking than their peers who remain in school (Marcell, 2013).
Another characteristic of schools which impacts adolescent sexual activity is the conclusion that schools with higher rates of poverty have youth that are more likely to become pregnant. “When female teens attend schools with higher percentages of students receiving a free lunch, with higher dropout rates, and with higher rates of school vandalism, they are more likely to become pregnant” (Kirby, 2002, p. 28). This ties into the concept that adolescents with varying socioeconomic status will have varying rates of sexual activity.
As discussed, just being in school is a deterrent to these risky sexual behaviors. One possible means of school impact mentioned is that schools limit a student’s time to be alone and engage in sex. In other words, school keeps them busy. In addition, schools create an environment where risk-taking behaviors are discouraged. When in school, students have increased attachment to adults who are discouraging risky behavior and these adults help to increase belief in a future such as higher education; “multiple studies demonstrate that educational and career aspirations are related to use of contraception, pregnancy, and childbearing” (Kirby, 2002, p. 28).
One type of school-based program focused just on attachment to school and not sexuality. The results of this study did indicate that there was a reduction in teen pregnancy when attachment to school was increased. This leads to the conclusion that just keeping youth in school, making them feel attached, and making them want to be successful in their future can delay student’s onset of sex, increase contraceptive use, and decrease their pregnancy (Kirby, 2002).
One school based sexual education type is comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). Those in favor of CSE support that sexual education should begin at an early age and include information on not only biological development but also sexual behaviors and access to contraceptives (Arnett, 2013, p. 273). These programs also focus on STD/HIV curriculum. Studies show have found that these education programs consistently increase contraceptive use (Kirby, 2002). However, less than 10% of adolescents in the United States receive CSE by high school graduation (Arnett, 2013, p. 273).
In contrast to this, there are abstinence programs. Abstinence programs promote the ideology that adolescents should abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage, and they hold the belief that CSE actually encourages promiscuity (Arnett, 2013, p. 273). These programs have no evidence to support that teaching abstinence-only delays sex in adolescents (Kirby, 2002). In fact, it should be noted that interventions that focus solely on abstinence education have been found to be ineffective at decreasing adolescent sexual activity (Arnett, 2013, p. 274). A randomized control trial by John Jemmott concluded that abstinence-only education does not affect condom use but it did find that comprehensive interventions did reduce reports of multiple partners (Jemmott III, Jemmott, & Fong, 2010, p. 152). This is in contrast to CSE, in which about two-thirds of interventions show a postponement in commencement of sexual intercourse and increase in use of contraceptives (Arnett, 2013, p. 274).
Some schools combine STD/HIV education and still emphasize abstinence, there is no evidence that suggests by teaching STD/HIV education students are more likely to partake in sexual intercourse. We can refer to this type of intervention as abstinence-plus. These programs still encourage abstinence but provide contraceptive information for those who do want to partake in sexual activity (Arnett, 2013, p. 274). This kind of abstinence-plus program can be seen as sending mixed messages, however it is the approach that 69% of adults and 67% of teens support (Arnett, 2013, p. 274). In addition, it is worth noting that when condoms are made more readily available on campuses it does not increase sexual activity (Kirby, 2002, p. 30).
In conclusion, majority of Americans believe birth control should be covered including condoms, and up to 82% of adults believed “all aspects of sex education including birth control and safer sex should be taught” (Kirby, 2002, p. 32). The efficacy of these programs is not without question because there are limitations to the research methods. The most effective programs are those which increase attachment to school. Though, CSE has shown modest efficacy. If you can affect even only a portion of adolescents the interventions should continue because reducing sexual risk taking allows for healthier adolescents. To continue to build sexual knowledge and sexual agency we should call on schools and legislators to push for CSE in our schools (Grace, 2018, p. 472).
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