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Sex Education

How should sex education be handled? What should the content of sex education include? Should sex education be taught in school? What age should sex education be taught?  This article addresses these questions.

The debate on sex education focuses on three critical questions: how to provide sex education; what the contents should be; and when it should begin. This article reviews the topic, so read on.

How Should Sex Education Be Handled?

One of the long-standing arguments over sex education is who should provide it. For many years, there was a strong pull between parents who wanted to instruct their children themselves, passing on the values that they associated with sexual behavior, rather than having this intimate subject presented in a public setting with an academic approach.

However, a 2004 poll by National Public Radio, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Kaiser Family Foundation found that the opposition to sex education instruction in schools now stands at only seven percent.

For the 26% of respondents who said that their middle or high-school aged child had not had sex education in school, 42% said that this was due to sex education not being offered by the school, while 18% said that the course was not offered for their child’s grade. Only 8% of those children who did not experience a school sex education course missed the opportunity because parents forbade participation.

What Should the Content of Sex Education Include?

The same poll established that 74% of principals report a lack of dissension or even discussion about the content of sex education. Nevertheless, the topic does not have complete agreement. There are a number of topics that fall within the field of sex education on which there is difference of opinion about whether they should be presented in a course.

The topic that raised the largest negative response was the ability of teens to obtain birth control pills without parental permission. Twenty-eight percent of respondents found this to be an inappropriate topic. Twenty-seven percent of respondents found oral sex to be an inappropriate topic, and 25% branded homosexuality inappropriate as a topic.

While 46% of Americans think that an approach should include information both about abstinence and other methods to foster safe sex and birth control, notably condoms and contraception, 15% believe that an abstinence-only approach is best.

Other topics that Americans are divided on with 5% or more opposed to their instruction as topics for school sex education include:

  • masturbation
  • how to put on a condom
  • abortion
  • how to obtain and use contraceptives
  • how to make personal, responsible choices about sex
  • how to talk about sex with a girlfriend or boyfriend
  • waiting for marriage for sexual intercourse
  • the psychic and emotional results of sexual activity for teens
  • birth control

Timing for Sex Education

When sex education should first take place and which topics should be discussed when are also topics on which people feel strongly. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator John McCain ran a commercial accusing Senator Barack Obama of being in favor of providing kindergartners with “comprehensive sex education,” an accusation that The New York Times said “seriously distort[s] the record.” But even if the McCain campaign had to retract the commercial, the suggestion could still be damaging because people feel strongly about the appropriate timing for sex education.

This is shown in the distinction between what the public in the above mentioned survey said were appropriate subjects for high school students in a sex education class, but not for middle school. The topics with the least support for middle school sex education-sixth, seventh, and eighth grade-instruction include the following at the top of the list:

  • obtaining birth control pills without parental permission
  • oral sex
  • putting on a condom
  • homosexuality and sexual orientation
  • how to obtain and use contraceptives

The survey did not discuss sex education for students below middle school, that is, 6th grade.


National Public Radio (NPR) “Sex Education in America” reporting

The New York Times, “Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy”