Debates about sex education have focused
on two different approaches: "safe sex" courses, which encourage
teens to use contraceptives, especially condoms, when having sex,
and abstinence education, which encourages teens to delay sexual
recent years, advocacy groups such as SIECUS (the Sex Information
and education Council of the United States) and Advocates for Youth
have promoted another apparent alternative, entitled "comprehensive
sexuality education" or "abstinence plus." These curricula
allegedly take a middle position, providing a strong abstinence
message while also teaching about contraception. In reality, this
claim is misleading. Comprehensive sexuality education curricula
contain little or no meaningful abstinence material; they are
simply safe-sex programs repackaged under a new, deceptive
abstinence programs teach that:
- 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;
- Sexual happiness is inherently linked to
intimacy, love, and commitment--qualities found primarily within
abstinence programs strongly encourage
abstinence during the teen years, and preferably until marriage.
They teach that casual sex at an early age not only poses serious
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. These programs
therefore encourage teen abstinence as a preparation and pathway to
healthy adult marriage.
contrast, comprehensive sex-ed curricula focus 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, the
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
treated primarily as a physical phenomenon; the main message is to
use condoms to prevent the physical problems of sexually
transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Comprehensive sex-ed curricula
ignore the vital linkages between sexuality, love, intimacy, and
commitment. There is no discussion of the idea that sex is best
Determining Parental Attitudes Toward
paper presents the results of a recent poll on basic issues
concerning sex education. The poll questions seek to measure
parental support for the themes and values contained in abstinence
curricula as well as support for the values embodied in
comprehensive sex education.
data presented are drawn from a survey of parents conducted by
Zogby International in December 2003. Zogby conducted telephone
interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,004 parents
with children under age 18. Parents were asked 14 questions
concerning messages and priorities in sex education; the questions
used were designed by Focus on the Family. The margin of error on
each question is plus or minus 3.2 percent points. The responses to
the questions showed only modest variation based on region, gender
of the parent, or race. The poll questions were designed to
reflect the major themes of abstinence education. The descriptions
of the messages contained in abstinence and comprehensive sex-ed
curricula in the following text are based on a forthcoming content
analysis of major sex-ed curricula conducted by The Heritage
exact wording of and responses to each of the 14 poll questions are
presented in Charts 1 through 14. Overall, the poll shows that
parents are extremely supportive of the values and messages
contained in abstinence programs. By contrast, very few parents
support the basic themes of comprehensive sex-ed courses. Responses
to the individual questions are discussed below.
"Sex Should be Linked to Marriage;
Delaying Sex until Marriage is Best"
abstinence education curricula stress a
strong linkage between sex, love, and marriage. The Zogby poll
shows strong parental support for this message.
Parents want teens to be taught that
sexual activity should be linked to marriage.
teens to be taught to delay sexual activity until they are married
or close to marriage.
47 percent of parents want teens to be taught that "young people
should not engage in sexual activity until they are married."
Another 32 percent of parents want teens to be taught that "young
people should not engage in sexual intercourse until they have, at
least, finished high school and are in a relationship with someone
they feel they would like to marry."
these two categories are combined, we see that 79 percent of
parents want young people taught that sex should be reserved for
Marriage or for an adult relationship leading to marriage. Another
12 percent of parents believe that teens should be taught to delay
sexual activity until "they have, at least, finished high school."
Only 7 percent of parents want teens to be taught that sexual
activity in high school is okay as long as teens use contraception.
(See Chart 1.)
These parental values are strongly
reinforced by abstinence education programs, which teach that sex
should be linked to Marriage and that it is best to delay sexual
activity until marriage. By contrast, comprehensive sex-ed programs
send the message that teen sex is okay as long as contraception is
used; the underlying permissive values of these programs have
virtually no support among parents.
teens to be taught that sex should be linked to love, intimacy, and
commitment and that these qualities are most likely to occur in
91 percent of parents want teens to be taught this message about
sexuality. (See Chart 2.)
is a predominant theme of all abstinence curricula. By contrast,
comprehensive sex-ed programs do not discuss love, intimacy, or
commitment and seldom mention marriage. Casual sex is not
criticized; sex is presented largely as a physical process; and the
main lesson is to avoid the physical threats of pregnancy and
disease through proper use of contraception. Comprehensive sex-ed
programs do not present sexuality in a way that is acceptable to
teens to be taught that it is best to delay sex until
68 percent of parents want schools to teach teens that "individuals
who are not sexually active until Marriage have the best chances of
marital stability and happiness." (See Chart 3.)
theme is strongly supported by abstinence programs, all of which
urge teens to delay sexual activity until marriage. It is ignored
completely by comprehensive sex-ed courses, which do not criticize
casual sex and seldom mention marriage.
General Support for abstinence
poll shows overwhelming parental support for other abstinence
themes as well.
teens to be taught to abstain from sexual activity during high
91 percent of parents support this message. (See Chart 4). However,
for most parents, this is a minimum standard; 79 percent want a
higher standard taught: abstinence until you are married or near
marriage. (See Chart 1.)
abstinence curricula strongly encourage abstinence at least through
high school, and preferably until marriage. By contrast,
comprehensive sex-ed curricula do not encourage teens to delay sex
until they have finished high school; most do not even encourage
young people to wait until they are older.
teens to be taught that abstinence is best.
96 percent of parents support this message. (See Chart 5.)
abstinence curricula obviously support
this theme. Comprehensive sex-ed programs may claim to support this
message, but in reality they do not. They teach mainly that
abstinence is the "safest" choice, but that teen sex with
protection is safe. Their overall message is that abstinence is
marginally safer than safe sex. Beyond this, they have little
positive to say about abstinence.
"Sex at an Early Age, Sex with Many
Partners, and Casual Sex Have Harmful Consequences"
Parents believe that sex at an early age,
casual sex, and sex with many partners are likely to have harmful
consequences. They want teens to be taught to avoid these
teens to be taught that the younger the age an individual begins
sexual activity, the greater the probability of harm.
93 percent of parents want teens taught that "the younger the age
an individual begins sexual activity, the more likely he or she is
to be infected by sexually transmitted diseases, to have an
abortion, and to give birth out-of-wedlock." (See Chart 6.)
abstinence programs strongly support this
message; they teach teens to delay sex until they are older,
preferably until they are married. Comprehensive sex-ed programs
teach about the threat of unprotected sex, not about the harm
caused by sex at an early age. They do not urge young people to
delay sex until they are older; voluntary sex at any age is
depicted as okay as long as "protection" is used.
teens taught that teen sexual activity is likely to have
psychological and physical effects.
79 percent of parents want teens to be taught this message. (See
abstinence curricula clearly teach this
message; comprehensive sex-ed curricula do not. Comprehensive
sex-ed curricula focus on encouraging condom use; they do not
criticize or discourage teen sex as long as "protection" is
schools to teach that teens who are sexually active are more likely
to be depressed.
67 percent of teens who have had sexual intercourse regret it and
say they wish that they had waited until they were older. (The
figure for teen girls is 77 percent). Sexually active teens are far more
likely to be depressed and to attempt suicide than are teens who
are not sexually active. Nearly two-thirds of parents support
the message that sexually active teens are more likely to be
depressed; a quarter of parents oppose it. (See Chart 8.)
abstinence curricula inform teens about
the basic facts of regret and depression; comprehensive sex-ed
curricula ignore this topic.
Parents want sex
education to teach that the more sexual partners a teen has, the
greater the likelihood of physical and psychological
90 percent of parents want this message taught to teens. (See Chart
abstinence curricula emphasize the harmful
effects of casual teen sex; comprehensive sex-ed curricula do
teens taught that having many sexual partners at an early age may
undermine one's ability to develop and sustain loving and committed
relationships as an adult.
85 percent of parents want teens to be taught that "having many
sexual partners at an early age may undermine an individual's
ability to develop love, intimacy and commitment." (See Chart 10.)
Another 78 percent of parents want teens to be taught that "having
many different sexual partners at an early age may undermine an
individual's ability to form a healthy Marriage as adult." (See
These are major themes of abstinence
programs. They teach that teen sexual relationships are inherently
short-term and unstable and that repeated fractured relationships
can lead to difficulties in bonding and commitment in later years.
This perspective is accurate; women who begin sexual activity at an
early age will have far more sexual partners and are less likely to
have stable marriages as adults. Comprehensive sex-ed curricula ignore
this topic completely.
"What's More Important, abstinence or
Parents believe that abstinence should be
given emphasis that is more than, or equal to, that given to
contraception. Some 44 percent of parents believe that teaching
about abstinence is more important than teaching about
contraception; another large group (41 percent) believe that
abstinence and contraception should be given equal emphasis. Only 8
percent believe that teaching about contraception is more important
than teaching about abstinence. (See Chart 12.)
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.
Parents Overwhelmingly Reject Main Values
and Messages of Comprehensive Sex Education
Despite the claims of advocacy groups such
as SIECUS and Advocates for Youth, comprehensive sex education
curricula contain weak to non-existent messages about abstinence.
These programs focus almost exclusively on (1) explaining the
threat of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and (2)
encouraging young people to use contraception, especially condoms,
to combat these threats. Many of these curricula appear to be
written from a limited health perspective. Sexuality is treated as
a physical process (like nutrition), and the goal is to reduce
immediate health risks.
While comprehensive sex-ed curricula do
not explicitly and directly encourage teen sexual activity, they do
not discourage it either. As long as "protection" is used, teen
sexual activity is represented as being rewarding, normal, healthy,
and nearly ubiquitous. While "unprotected" sex is strongly
criticized and discouraged, "protected" teen sex is presented as
being fully acceptable. There is little or no effort to encourage
young people to wait until they are older before becoming sexually
active. By presenting "protected" teen sex activity as commonplace,
fulfilling, healthy, and unproblematic, comprehensive sex-ed
courses send a strong implicit anti-abstinence message to
new poll of parental attitudes shows that less than 10 percent of
parents support the main values and messages of comprehensive sex
education programs. Specifically:
teaching that teen sex is okay if condoms are used.
comprehensive sex-ed curricula, "protected" teen sex is neither
criticized nor discouraged. These courses explicitly or implicitly
send the strong message that "it's okay for teens in school to
engage in sexual intercourse as long as they use condoms." Only 7
percent of parents support this message; 91 percent reject it. (See
At a minimum,
parents want teens to be taught to abstain from sexual activity
until they have finished high school.
91 percent of parents want teens to be taught this minimum
standard; most want a far higher standard. But comprehensive sex-ed
curricula do not teach that teens should abstain until they have
finished high school; in fact, these courses do not provide any
clear standards concerning when sexual activity should begin. For
the most part, they do not even encourage young people to wait
until they are vaguely "older;" they are simply silent on the
sex-ed courses are silent on vital issues such as casual sex,
intimacy, commitment, love, and marriage.
Charts 1 through 11 show, parents overwhelmingly support the main
themes of abstinence education and want these topics to be taught
to their children. These themes are conspicuously absent from
comprehensive sex-ed. These courses therefore fail to meet the
needs and desires of most parents.
Should abstinence Programs Teach About
"Safe Sex" or Contraception?
poll shows an apparent divergence between abstinence education and
parental attitudes on only one issue: Some 75 percent of parents
want teens to be taught about both abstinence and contraception.
Except for describing the likely failure rates of various types of
birth control, abstinence curricula do not teach about
However, the fact that abstinence
programs, per se, do not include contraceptive information does not
mean that teens will not be taught this material. abstinence and
sex education are seldom taught as stand-alone subjects in school;
they are usually offered as a brief part of a larger course, most
typically a health course.
addition, sex education is usually taught not once, but in multiple
doses at different grade levels as the student matures. When
students are taught about abstinence, in most cases, they will also
receive biological information about reproduction and contraception
in another part of their course work. By 11th or 12th grade, some
91 percent of students have been taught about birth control in
There is no logical reason why
contraceptive information should be presented as part of an
abstinence curriculum. Not only would this reduce the limited time
allocated to the abstinence message, but nearly all abstinence
educators assert that it would substantially undermine the
effectiveness of the abstinence message.
general, parents tend to agree that abstinence and contraceptive
instruction should not be directly mixed. As Chart 14 shows, some
56 percent of parents believe either that contraception should not
be taught at all or that, if both abstinence and contraception are
taught, they should be taught separately. (Some 22 percent believe
that contraception should not be taught, while 35 percent want the
two subjects taught separately.)
Although most parents want teens to be
taught about both abstinence and contraception, there is no strong
sentiment that these topics must be combined into one curriculum.
The stronger a parent's support for abstinence, the less likely he
or she is to want abstinence and contraception merged into a single
fact that 75 percent of parents want both abstinence and
contraception taught to teens should not, in any way, be
interpreted to mean support for comprehensive sex-education.
Comprehensive sex-ed curricula are focused almost exclusively on
promoting contraceptive use and contain little or no mention of
abstinence, yet only 8 percent of parents believe that schools
should give greater emphasis to contraception than to abstinence.
(See Chart 12.)
Moreover, parents have reservations
concerning the type of contraceptive education these curricula
contain. While 52 percent of parents want schools to provide "basic
biological and health information about contraception," only 23
percent want schools "to encourage teens to use condoms when having
sex, teach teens where to obtain condoms, and have teens practice
how to put on condoms." (See Chart 13.) The latter aggressive type
of contraceptive promotion is typical of comprehensive sex-ed
curricula, though it lacks wide support among parents.
general, parents want teens to be taught a strong abstinence
message as well as being given basic biological information about
contraception. The polls suggest that most parents would be
satisfied if young people were given a vigorous abstinence course
and were taught about the basics of contraception separately. This
is probably the typical situation in most schools where authentic
abstinence is taught. On the other hand, extremely few parents (7
percent to 8 percent) would be happy if abstinence education were
to be replaced by comprehensive sex-ed.
newly released poll shows strong (in many cases, nearly unanimous)
support for the major themes of abstinence education. abstinence
programs provide young people with the strong, uplifting moral
messages desired by nearly all parents.
Multiple evaluations show that abstinence
programs are effective in encouraging young people to delay sexual
effectiveness of these programs is quite remarkable, given that
they typically provide no more than a few hours of instruction per
year. In those few hours, abstinence instructors seek to counteract
thousands of hours of annual exposure to sex-saturated teen media,
which strongly push teens in the opposite direction.
parents not only want vigorous instruction in abstinence, but also
want teens to be taught basic biological information about
contraception. Such information is not contained in abstinence
curricula themselves but is frequently provided in a separate
setting such as a health class. 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 common in schools where
abstinence is taught.
recent years, groups such as Advocates for Youth and SIECUS have
sought to eliminate funding for abstinence or to replace abstinence
education with comprehensive sex-ed. This is always done under the
pretext that comprehensive sex-ed contains a strong abstinence
message and, thereby, renders traditional abstinence superfluous.
In reality, comprehensive sex-ed curricula have weak to nonexistent
abstinence content. Replacing abstinence education with these
programs would mean eliminating the abstinence message in most U.S.
schools; nearly all parents would object to this change.
a tiny minority (less than 10 percent) of parents support the
values and messages taught in comprehensive sex education
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 their children to be
taught, these courses would be unacceptable even if combined with
popular culture bombards teens with messages encouraging casual
sexual activity at an early age. To counteract this, parents want
teens to be taught a strong abstinence message. Parents
overwhelmingly support abstinence curricula that link sexuality to
love, intimacy, and commitment and that urge teens to delay sexual
activity until maturity and marriage.
Regrettably, this sort of clear abstinence
education is not taught in most schools. As a result, the sexual
messages that parents deem to be most important are not getting
through to today's teens.
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