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January 28, 2004

Executive Summary: What Do Parents Want Taught in Sex Education Programs?

By , and

A newly released, nationally representative poll conducted by Zogby International shows that American parents overwhelmingly support the themes and messages of abstinence education programs. On many themes, parental support is nearly unanimous. By contrast, parents overwhelmingly reject the main messages in safe sex or "comprehensive sex-ed" curricula. Specifically, the poll shows that:

  • Some 79 percent of parents want teens to be taught that they should not engage in sexual activity until they are married or at least in an adult relationship leading to marriage.
  • Some 91 percent of parents want teens to be taught that "the best choice is for sexual intercourse to be linked to love, intimacy, and commitment. These qualities are most likely to occur in a faithful marriage."
  • Some 68 percent of parents want sex education programs to teach that "individuals who are not sexually active until they are married have the best chances of marital stability and happiness."
  • 91 percent of parents want schools to teach that "adolescents should be expected to abstain from sexual activity during high school years."

These themes are central to abstinence education curricula. Abstinence programs teach the following tenets: Human sexuality is primarily emotional and psychological, not physical, in nature; in proper circumstances, sexual activity leads to long-term emotional bonding between two individuals; and sexual happiness is inherently linked to intimacy, love, and commitment--qualities found primarily within marriage.

Abstinence programs strongly encourage abstinence throughout the teen years, and preferably until marriage. They teach that casual sex at an early age not only poses grave threats of pregnancy and infection by sexually transmitted diseases, but also can undermine an individual's capacity to build loving, intimate relationships as an adult. The programs therefore encourage teen abstinence as a preparation and pathway to healthy adult marriage. Additional poll questions show strong parental support for these themes.

Parents Reject "Comprehensive Sexuality Education"
In contrast to abstinence programs, comprehensive sex-ed curricula are focused almost exclusively on teaching about contraception and encouraging teens to use it. These curricula neither discourage nor criticize teen sexual activity as long as "protection" is used. In general, they exhibit an acceptance of casual teen sex and do not encourage teens to wait until they are older to initiate sexual activity. For example, these curricula do not encourage teens to abstain until they have finished high school. "Protected" sex at an early age and sex with many different partners are not treated as problems. Sexuality is presented primarily as a physical phenomenon; the main message is to use condoms to prevent the physical problems of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The vital linkages between sexuality, love, intimacy, and commitment are ignored. There is no implication that sex is best within marriage.

The new poll reveals that parents overwhelmingly oppose the messages contained within comprehensive sex-ed curricula. For example:

  • Comprehensive sex-ed curricula focus almost exclusively on contraception and include little or no material on abstinence. However, only 2 percent of parents believe abstinence is not important; only 7 percent believe teaching about contraception should have more emphasis than teaching about abstinence.
  • Over 90 percent of parents want sex education programs to teach teens to abstain at least until they have finished high school. Comprehensive sex-ed programs do not contain this message, and much of their material implicitly undermines it.
  • Comprehensive sex-ed programs convey the clear message that teen sexual activity is okay as long as contraception is used; only 7 percent of parents agree with that message.

Government Spending Does Not Match Parental Priorities The new poll shows that 85 percent of parents believe that teaching about abstinence should be emphasized as much as, or more than, teaching about contraception. Only 8 percent believe that promoting contraception is more important. Regrettably, government spending priorities directly contradict parental priorities. Currently, the government spends at least $4.50 promoting teen contraceptive use for every $1.00 spent to promote teen abstinence.

The new poll shows an apparent divergence between abstinence education and parental attitudes in only one area: Some 75 percent of parents want the schools to teach teens about both abstinence and contraception. Abstinence curricula in general do not teach about contraceptive use, except to explain contraceptive failure rates. However, schools that teach about abstinence usually also teach the basic biological facts about reproduction and contraception in a separate class such as health. This arrangement has widespread parental support. Some 56.4 percent of parents believe that abstinence and contraception should not be taught in the same class. This figure includes 21.7 percent who believe that contraceptive use should not be taught at all and another 35 percent who believe abstinence and contraception should both be taught, but in separate classes. Only 39.9 percent of parents believe that abstinence and contraception should be taught together in the same class.

Overall Findings
Parents show strong (in many cases, nearly unanimous) support for the major themes of abstinence education. Overall, the values and objectives of the overwhelming majority of parents can be met by providing teens with a strong abstinence program while teaching basic biological information about contraception in a separate health or biology class. This arrangement appears to be common in schools where abstinence is taught.

By contrast, only a tiny minority (less than 10 percent) of parents support the values and messages taught in comprehensive sex-ed curricula. Since the themes of these courses (such as "It's okay for teens to have sex as long as they use condoms") contradict and undermine the basic values parents want taught, these courses should be deemed unacceptable, even if combined with other materials.

Robert E. Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy, Melissa G. Pardue is Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy, and Shannan Martin is Research Assistant in Welfare Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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