Sex education is education about sexual behaviour (including sexual intercourse) and sexual reproduction in human beings, including the development of the embryo and fetus from conception to birth. It often includes topics such as sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid them, as well as methods of contraception.
Although some sort of sex education is part of many schools' curricula, it remains a controversial topic in several countries as to how much and at which age schoolchildren should be taught about contraception or safer sex, and whether moral education should be included or excluded (see sexual morality). In the United States in particular, the topic is the subject of much contentious debate.
The existence of AIDS has given a new sense of urgency to the topic of sex education. In many African nations, where AIDS is at pandemic levels, sex education is seen by most scientists as a vital strategy for preserving the health of citizens. Some international organizations such as Planned Parenthood[?] see worldwide benefit to sex education programs, such as the control of overpopulation and advancement of the rights of women.
One liberal viewpoint on sex education, historically inspired by sexologists like Wilhelm Reich and psychologists like Sigmund Freud and James W. Prescott, holds that what is at stake in sex education is control over the body and liberation from social control. Proponents of this view tend to see the political question as whether society or the individual should dictate sexual mores.
Sexual education may thus be seen as providing individuals with the knowledge necessary to liberate themselves from socially organized sexual oppression[?] and to make up their own minds. In addition, sexual oppression may be viewed as socially harmful. A more common approach to sex education is to view it as necessary to reduce risk behaviors such as unprotected sex, but these views sometimes go hand in hand. Additionally, proponents of comprehensive sex ed contend that education about homosexuality encourages tolerance, but does not "turn students gay" as some conservatives believe.
To another large and vocal group in the sex education debate, the political question is whether the state or the family should dictate sexual mores. They believe that sexual mores should be left to the family, and sex-education represents state interference. They also claim that some sex education curricula are intended to break down some preconceived notion of modesty and encourage acceptance of practices they deem immoral, such as homosexuality and premarital sex[?]. They cite web sites such as that of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality as examples.
Most parents in the U.S. feel that teenagers should remain sexually abstinent, but should have access to contraception. Ninety-five percent of adults in the United States and 85 percent of teenagers think it's important that school-aged children and teenagers be given a strong message from society that they should abstain from sex until they are out of high school. Almost 60 percent of adults also think that sexually active teenagers should have access to contraception. (Source: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (http://www.teenpregnancy.org/genlfact.htm)). A 1997 study found that about 48 percent of high school students are sexually active.
In the United States, some advocates have successfully worked toward the introduction of "abstinence only" curricula. Under such instruction, teens are told that they should be sexually abstinent until adulthood and/or marriage, and information about contraception is not provided. Opponents argue this approach denies teens needed, factual information and could lead to unwanted pregnancies and propagation of STDs.
Some curricula are advocated on the grounds that they are intended to reduce sexual disease or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but it is rare for a curriculum to be tested as to whether it is effective in its aims. A curriculum ostensibly aimed at reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy among high school students, which advocates the use of condoms, could potentially lower or raise the pregnancy rate. A successful curriculum could be adopted by other districts. Proponents of this view argue that that sexual behavior after puberty is a given, and it is therefore crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimized. They hold that conventional or conservative moralizing will put off students and thus weaken the message.
In turn, opponents object that curricula which fail to teach moral behavior actually serve to prevent children from making informed decisions; they maintain that curricula should include the claim that conventional (or conservative) morality is "healthy and contructive", and that value-free knowledge of the body may lead to unhealthy and harmful practices. If the curricula really had a practical intent, critics maintain, school districts would drop those which were ineffective in favor of effective ones.
The debate over teenage pregnancies and STDs has spurred some research into the effectiveness of different sex education approaches. In a meta-analysis, DiCenso et al. have compared comprehensive sex education programs with abstinence-only programs . Their review of several studies shows that abstinence-only programs not only did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy in partners of men who participated in the programs or in women who did, but that they actually increased it. Four abstinence programs and one school program were associated with a pooled increase of 54% in the partners of men and 46% in women (confidence interval 95% 0.95 to 2.25 and 0.98 to 2.26 respectively). The researchers conclude:
Also, in answer to the criticism of conservatives, a US review, "Emerging Answers", by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy examined 250 studies of sex education programs . The conclusion of this review was that "the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity". Regarding abstinence-only programs, the summary notes:
There is a movement separate from school-based programs to encourage sexual abstinence; scientific research on these programs indicates decreased use of contraceptives among participants (see sexual abstinence).