Studying Effects and Results
The main way that researchers determine whether or not a sexuality program is successful is by measuring behavioral changes after a program has been presented. Currently, the standard behavioral measures include vaginal intercourse, pregnancy, and contraceptive use (Remez, 2000). If the rates of vaginal intercourse increase after sexuality education, a program is judged to be ineffective. If, on the other hand, rates of intercourse and pregnancy decrease, a program is successful. So, what are the effects of sex education programs? Do sexuality education courses change people’s actual sexual behavior? It is difficult to measure and evaluate these behavioral changes after a sexuality education program, but it appears that there are some limited changes.
Comprehensive sexuality programs have been found to be the most successful at helping adolescents delay their involvement in sexual intercourse (Kirby, 2001) and help protect adolescents from STIs and unintended pregnancies (Starkman & Rajani, 2002; UNAIDS, 1997). In addition, sexuality education programs that teach contraception and communication skills have been found to delay the onset of sexual intercourse or reduce the frequency of sexual intercourse, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase the use of contraception (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2001). Abstinence-only programs, on the other hand, have not yielded successful results in delaying the onset of intercourse (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2001). Overall, there have been no published reports of abstinence-based programs providing significant effects on delaying sexual intercourse (Kirby, 2001). Although many who teach abstinence-only classes claim that these programs are successful, outside experts have found the programs to be ineffective and methodologically unsound (B. Wilcox et al., 1996).
Over the last few years, “virginity pledges,” whereby teens sign pledge cards and promise to remain a virgin until marriage, have become popular. The Add Health Study, which we discussed earlier in this chapter, found that teenagers who took a virginity pledge were less likely to become sexually active in the months that follow the pledge than students who didn’t take a pledge (Dailard, 2001). However, these types of programs have also been found to put teenagers at higher risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (Bruckner & Bearman, 2005).
Why do you think this might be? Researchers believe that it is because signing the pledge may make a teenager unable to accept the responsibilities of using contraception when he or she decides to engage in sexual intercourse. One study found that 88% of students who pledged virginity engaged in premarital sex, and when they did they were less likely to use contraception (Bruckner & Bearman, 2005; Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2005).
Some other questions deserve our attention before we end our discussion about sexuality education. Do you think that sex education should be concerned with the attitudes and values of the students who take these courses? Of course. But measuring attitudes or changes in attitudes and values is difficult at best. Behavioral changes are easier to measure, and this is why they are often the only measures used. Also, it’s important to realize that researchers need to measure long-term behavioral and attitude changes, not simply the short-term changes (Kirby, 1999). Do the students maintain the behavioral changes a month after a program? What about a year later? Two years? We need to track students in order to evaluate the behavioral changes. All of these are important questions that sexuality researchers need to address.
Overall, we do know that students of comprehensive sex education programs can increase knowledge levels, affect the attitudes, and/or change their behaviors (Dailard,
2001) . The most successful programs were those in which schools and parents worked together in developing the program. However, many effects of sexuality education programs may not be quantifiable. Programs may help students to feel more confident, be more responsible, improve their mental health, and increase their communication skills. We rarely measure for these changes.
It will be interesting to monitor the changes in sexuality education over the next few years. In 2001, Surgeon General David Satcher issued his Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health (U. S. Surgeon General, 2001). This report stressed the importance of finding “common ground” to promote sexual health and responsible sexual behavior. Since this report, many organizations have joined forces to support the Family Life Education Act, which is a new comprehensive sexuality education policy. This act would help ensure that sexuality education provides information not only about abstinence, but also about contraception and STIs. Abstinence is a key component of sexuality education, and supporters of this act believe that we need to help adolescents understand the consequences of sexual behavior. Your author is hopeful that in the future all sexuality education will be comprehensive and will help adolescents to understand themselves and their choices more fully.
In summary, childhood sexuality is an evolving phenomenon. Sexual knowledge and sexual behavior are common among children in today’s society, in which sexuality is so much a part of our culture. But knowledge does not necessarily mean that children must act on it; there are still very good reasons to encourage children and teenagers to think carefully about sexuality and to advise them to refrain from expressing their sexual feelings physically until the time is right for them.
What we do know is that a close and open parent-adolescent relationship that allows for open communication about sexuality has been found to decrease adolescent sexual behaviors and reduce the influence of peers with regard to sexual issues (Meschke et al., 2000). This is an important finding and is partially responsible for the later ages of first intercourse, fewer teenage pregnancies, and fewer numbers of sexual partners. Open communication about sexuality, along with a good, solid sexuality education, encourages this kind of responsible sexual behavior.