What the public really thinks about sex ed in schools

December 1, 2006

To hear social conservatives tell it, you might suppose that parents and the public generally favor abstinence-only sex education in schools and oppose imparting explicit information to school children about contraception and the role of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted disease (STDs). But you'd be wrong.

According to a recent public opinion poll, approximately 82% of adults in a nationally representative sample support programs that teach both abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancy and STDs, and 68% favor teaching young people how to use condoms properly. Furthermore, about half the respondents are specifically opposed to abstinence-only programs, and more than half believe such programs are not effective in preventing unintended teen pregnancy (Bleakley et al: Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006;160:1151).

Actually, the findings are nothing new; they simply reinforce what surveys in various parts of the country have shown for many years. Yet, in the years since the current administration took office, federal funding for abstinence-only programs has been plentiful while funds for comprehensive sex education are exceedingly scarce.

It seems that the abstinence-only advocates in the administration are out of step with the public at large, regardless of political persuasion. Since that is the case, the authors of the study suggest, the time may be at hand for a new set of public officials to capitalize on a rare opportunity to bring policy into line with scientific evidence and public preference.