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Sex Ed 101: How Much is Too Much?

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Updated on Apr 18, 2012

If you haven't yet heard of HB363, prepare yourself for a firestorm. The alphanumeric jumble refers to a piece of legislation recently vetoed in Utah, which gained controversy over its promise to make any sex education (other than abstinence-only) illegal. Though some parents were pleased by the prospect, others were up in arms at the thought that schools wouldn't have the chance to educate their kids about sex.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it's important to realize that sex education is one of the best tools available for preventing HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. As a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (published in the 2007 Journal of Adolescent Health) reports, teens who receive any kind of sex education—be it comprehensive or abstinence-only—are more likely to delay intercourse till after age 15. Affirms Serena Josel of Planned Parenthood, "Sharing medically accurate, age-appropriate information with our children from the time they are young is an important component of building a sexually healthy adult."

But what exactly, is "medically accurate, age-appropriate information?" The answer, of course, depends on you and your child. To decide which type of sex education is best for her, you need know what's out there beyond a few cautionary episodes of MTV's Teen Mom. Use the breakdown below of the three most popular forms to help you sort out the facts, weigh the pros and cons, and ultimately decide which type of sex-ed is best for your teen:

Abstinence Only Education

  • Details. Abstinence-only education teaches that the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is to "save" oneself for marriage. The curriculum avoids discussion of sexual activity among teenagers and abortion, so your child and her peers won't be offered the opportunity to openly talk about their options. Additionally, your teen won't be offered information about condom use, contraceptives or have the opportunity to discuss when sex might be right for her.
  • Pros. Teens who truly stick to abstinence run zero risk for pregnancy and infections. An abstinence-only approach also makes it clear that deciding to have sex is not something to be taken lightly, which can help your teen seriously consider if she's ready for the emotional impact losing her virginity may entail.
  • Cons. In a world where just under half of all high-schoolers are sexually active (the actual number is 46 percent, as reported in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), critics believe it's naïve and unrealistic to expect that kids will say "no" to sex. Additionally, a teen whose only learned about abstinence hasn't been properly informed about how to protect herself against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy, putting her at risk for both if she decides to sleep with her boyfriend. Alternately, teens who don't view intercourse as an option may be more likely to engage in other sexual activities (like oral sex) without being aware of the risks.
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