September 22, 2016

Why Sex Ed Doesn't Work

Teens have some pretty good reasons for giving their sexual education programs low marks.

Don't worry, kids, it's not just your school — from Brazil to New Zealand, teens gave an overwhelming thumbs-down to the sex education classes offered in their schools. They found them out of touch, irrelevant and woefully inadequate at answering the many sex-related questions that are on their minds.

These are the results of research that looked at 48 different studies worldwide over 25 years, mostly of students age 12 to 18, who have plenty of ideas on how to do a better job of teaching sex ed.

The potential for embarrassment is huge. That's one reason students don't want sex ed taught by teachers who'll be with them all year long.

Many of the students' complaints are the result of two key misconceptions: First, schools do not understand that sex is a special topic that requires special teaching. And second, schools find it hard to accept that some of their students are sexually active. This limits the type of information taught in sex ed classes.

Here's a sample of what the students have to say:

  • “All they ever do is talk about the dangers of sex and that, and nothing about the pleasure.”
  • “We discuss contraception and sex but not what to do when having sex. We don’t know.”
  • “They don’t really go into the whole relationships thing partly because I think they don’t want us to have relationships.”
  • “They didn’t talk about the emotional part of having sex. They didn’t really talk about how sex will affect you as a person and how it affects your emotions.”
  • “They didn’t really help you with your sexual feelings, they made you kind of feel bad about having them.”
  • “If your teacher who’s a grown up can’t talk about it, how are you [supposed to]?”
  • Kids do have questions they'd like answered, but the potential for embarrassment is huge. That's one reason students don't want sex ed taught by teachers who'll be with them all year long. They would prefer someone who's not from the school. They also have concerns about confidentiality. Most of all, they want someone with professional training who can talk about sex honestly and give meaningful answers to their questions.

    Sexual education courses tend to lack practical information, such as advice on what to do if you become pregnant and the risks and benefits of different types of birth control. And some students are upset by the lack of attention to LGBT issues.

    Too often, sex ed teachers present sex as a problem that needs to be solved. Sex isn't algebra, and students would strongly prefer their teachers to stop teaching it as if it were.

    For more details, see the study. It's in BMJ Open and is freely available.
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