The State of Sexual Health Education for Kids: A Parents' Guide

by Alisha Bridges Patient Advocate

For the 2017 budget, President Barack Obama proposed that all funding for abstinence-only sexual health education be cut completely, which would eliminate 10 million dollars of federal funding for such programs. The odds of the budget cut being granted are slim, but it raises questions on the future of sexual health education for teens.

The proposed cut also starts the conversation of what parents should do to ensure the sexual health of their children.

The most common sexual health education programs include sexual risk avoidance (SRA, better known as abstinence programs), sexual risk reduction (SRR, most commonly known as comprehensive sexual health education), and personal responsibility. Some of the abstinence- based programs are shying away from the traditional name of “abstinence education” due to the stigma behind the word “abstinence.” It is assumed by some that abstinence programs do not discuss birth control, but those are the old ways of the curriculum, and now these programs include the discussion of contraception.

So with that being said, what’s the real difference between SRA and SRR programs, and which program is most effective? The issue is controversial. According to Valerie Huber, vice president and CEO of Ascend (formerly known as National Abstinence Education), there is no evidence that abstinence programs don’t work because they’re still being researched. She said that it takes at least 10 years of data to confirm if such a program works, while abstinence programs have only been monitored for the last seven or eight years. But according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit organization founded by a medical director of Planned Parenthood, “scientific evidence simply does not support an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach.”

Although traditionally abstinence programs push for no sex until marriage, that is not to say that other programs don’t encourage the same type of behavior. Both programs teach teens about contraception, how to avoid teen pregnancy, relationships, decision-making, abstinence, sexual transmitted diseases, healthy choices, and more. You can check out a description for each option here: SRA, SRR.

Leslie Kantor, PD.D., MPH, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a SRR program, said in a telephone interview, “Abstinence programs have not been proven effective.” But there are others, including Huber, who think that SRR programs give the message that “sex is okay as long as you use a condom.” She disagrees with the perception that SRA programs don’t give the full spectrum of sexual health education when it comes to condoms.

“A lot of people don’t realize we give medically accurate information about contraception, but we do so without normalizing contraception,” said Huber in a telephone interview.

The scoop on sexual health in the U.S.

Although statistics from reveal teen pregnancy rates have declined considerably over the past few decades in the United States, our teen pregnancy rate is still among the highest when compared to other countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2014, nearly 250,000 babies were birthed by teen mothers between the ages of 15-19. The CDC also reports that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have increased over the last decade, with half of the 20 million people diagnosed with STDs each year aged 15-24. Looking at these rates, sexual health among teens is a topic that needs to be at the forefront of discussion for adolescents.

When is a good time to have ‘the talk’ with kids?

According to Dr. Kantor, it’s imperative that the conversation about sex starts at home.

“One thing parents need to be aware of when you look across the country is, young people are receiving less sex education than they did 10 years ago,” she said.

“Young people need education throughout their lives which is age and developmental appropriate on a wide range of topics.”

Ms. Huber agrees.

“We don’t think there is any age that is too young to answer questions that children might have about sex,” she said. “But do so in an age-appropriate manner.”

Both officials stressed that having a talk with your children on sexual health issues is not a “one- time thing,” but should be a continuous discussion. A study found that “Forty-two percent of parents say they’ve talked to their teens ‘many times’ about how to say no to sex, only 27 percent of teens agree [that their parents did].” This finding reveals that there is a disconnect between parents and teens concerning the conversation about sex. Ms. Huber advises parents to be the first line of defense when it comes to advocating for a healthy life among teens. “It’s very important that parents talk to their own children. Children want to hear their parents talk about this.”

The truth is the conversation should involve more than the “just say no” to sex concept. The discussion should include facts on pregnancy, STDs, in addition to healthy relationships, risky behavior, and an assessment of how your child views concepts they hear on the radio, see on television, and experience with friends.

ow to be a parent advocate for sexual healt
Whichever sexual health program you decide is best for your children, you can become a parent advocate and have a voice in the type of education your child receives at school. Here are a few steps:

  1. Be aware of what type of sexual health education is being provided in your child’s school. “Parents need to be involved and knowledgeable on what is being taught in their local school,” Huber said. This can be done by a simple phone call or email to the school.

  2. Join your school’s health advisory board. Many schools have an advisory board that is responsible for the decisions made about programs such as sexual health education. If you have time, join the committee and become an influence on the decisions made in regards to health for not only your child, but also for other children.

  3. Contact your local government officials. If you want to see a change, write and email or make a phone call,” to the members of Congress from your state, Dr. Kantor said. While officials stand on a different side when it comes to what sexual health program is the best for youth, Ms. Huber agreed with reaching out to Congress. “Polices that are passed in Congress do have a trickledown effect on what is then taught in your children’s schools. It’s really important for parents to weigh in to their members of Congress.”

Resources for Parentet’s Talk Month

Tips for Parents on Talking to Kids About Sex

Parents Tool Kit

Alisha Bridges
Meet Our Writer
Alisha Bridges

Alisha Bridges has dealt with psoriasis since 7 years old after a bad case of chicken pox triggered her disease to spread on over 90% of her body. For years she hid in shame afraid of what people would think of such a visible disease. She has suffered from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks due to psoriasis. Years ago Alisha wrote a letter entitled “My Suicide Letter.” The letter was not about actually killing herself but killing parts of her like low self-esteem, fear, and shame so she could truly live to her fullest potential. This proclamation catapulted her into psoriasis and patient advocacy. Following this letter she created a blog entitled Being Me In My Own Skin where she gives intimate details of what it’s like to live with psoriasis. Alisha is a community ambassador for the National Psoriasis Foundation and has served her community in countless ways to help give a better understanding of what’s it’s like to live with psoriasis. Her life motto is the following: “My purpose is to change the hearts of people by creating empathy and compassion for those the least understood through transparency of self, patient advocacy, and dermatology.” Alisha is also a Social Ambassador for the HealthCentral Skin Health Facebook page.