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.
Abstinence Plus Education
- Details. This method promotes abstinence as the best option, but also offers information on contraceptives and STI testing should teens decide to engage in sex. Plus, the curriculum welcomes discussion about tricky sexual subjects, including abortion and HIV.
- Pros. The emphasis on abstinence makes it clear that avoiding intercourse is the only 100 percent reliable way to prevent pregnancy, and that having sex is something that always carries a risk, even if teens protect themselves with birth control and condoms. If your child decides not to stick to abstinence after sex ed, at least she'll have an understanding of how to contraception works, so she can avoid any unintended consequences.
- Cons. Since abstinence is touted as the best option, a high-schooler who decides to lose her virginity may feel guilty, and want to keep it a secret. As a result, she'll be less likely to ask for condoms, birth control or help when she needs it.
- Details. The goal of comprehensive sex-ed is to get your kid as much knowledge as possible, and urge her to protect herself if she decides sex is right for her. Detailed information about contraceptives and STI testing is offered, as well as open dialogue about how to decide if she's emotionally ready for sex.
- Pros. If your teen decides to have sex, she's well-versed in how to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Having a clear understanding of the risks involved can make her more cautious and better prepared if she does decide it's the right time for her. Case in point: a recent report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy actually cites Teen Mom as a major contributor to 2009's dramatic drop in teen birthrates. A comprehensive education may also make your teen feel more comfortable talking about sex, and less awkward about asking you or other trusted adults for advice.
- Cons. In having sex information so readily available, your teen may begin to think sex is something that everyone's doing, or that it isn't a big deal. As a result, she may feel pressured to have sex before she's physically or emotionally ready. Additionally, regardless of how well teens protect themselves, having sex always carries the risk of STD's or unwanted pregnancy.
In addition to thinking through the options above, learn which type of sex ed is offered at your teen's school. If you're unhappy with the current curriculum, consider supplementing the school's teachings at home, or asking other parents if they're interested in pushing for a change. Regardless of which option you choose, the important thing is that you have a plan in place. In showing your teen that you've done your research and thought through the options, you're already one big step closer to teaching her to be responsible about sex.