A new US study found that the sexual behaviour of teenagers is linked to whether or not they have had formal school sex education.

The study is available as an early online issue of the January 2008 imprint of the Journal of Adolescent Health, and was conducted by lead author and epidemiologist Trisha Mueller and colleagues, from the Division of Reproductive Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta, Georgia.

The purpose of sex education is to give young people information and skills to make healthy and informed decisions about sex, wrote the authors.

Mueller and colleagues looked at data from a survey of teenagers to examine the link between exposure to formal sex education in school and three sexual behaviours: whether the young person had ever had sexual intercourse, how old they were when they first had sexual intercourse, and the method of birth control they used at first intercourse.

The data came from the nationally representative 2002 National Survey of Family Growth and covered 2019 never-married male and female participants aged 15 to 19 years.

The researchers did not differentiate between sex education that advocates abstinence and sex education that teaches about contraception. Both approaches were classed as sex education.

The results showed that:

  • Receiving sex education was significantly linked with not having had sexual intercourse among males.
  • Receiving sex education was significantly linked with postponing sexual intercourse until the age of 15 among males and females.
  • For males this figure was 71 per cent more likely to postpone and for females the figure was 59 per cent more likely to postpone sex until the age of 15.
  • Males who had received sex education in school were 2.77 more likely to use birth control the first time they had sexual intercourse.
  • No links were found between receiving sex education and birth control use in females.
  • These patterns differed by sociodemographic group.
  • For example, sex education was linked to a 91 per cent reduced chance of African-American female school students having sexual intercourse before they were 15.

The authors concluded that:

“Formal sex education may effectively reduce adolescent sexual risk behaviors when provided before sexual initiation.”

“Sex education was found to be particularly important for subgroups that are traditionally at high risk for early initiation of sex and for contracting sexually transmitted diseases,” they added.

Mueller said in a press statement that:

“Sex education seems to be working,” and “it seems to be especially effective for populations that are usually at high risk”.

Mueller said that earlier studies had used data from the 1970s through to the early 1990s and had not found a significant link between sex education and delaying sex in teenagers.

While the authors speculate that perhaps sex education has caused the changes in sexual behaviour reported in the survey, it is important to note, because of its design, the study is not saying that sex education caused the changes in behaviour, it can only suggest there is a strong link.

Claire Brindis, an interim director of the Philip R Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies base at the University of California at San Francisco, said in a press statement sex education is important because children and teenagers still believe myths about sex.

“Some still believe you can’t get pregnant if you’re standing up or doing it for the first time or if your boyfriend is drinking a lot of Mountain Dew,” said Brindis.

Brindis explained that:

“A lot of sex education is about the plumbing, teaching them about anatomy and physiology, what a condom looks like.”

However, she suggested that what young people really need help with is what to do in different situations, for instance “in the back seat” or “at a party”.

They need help with “What do I do in that setting?” suggested Brindis.

“The association between sex education and youth’s engagement in sexual intercourse, age at first intercourse, and birth control use at first sex.”
Mueller TE, Gavin LE, Kulkarni A.
J Adolesc Health 42(1), 2008.
Volume 42, Issue 1, Pages 89-96 (January 2008).

Click here for Abstract.

Sources: journal Abstract, Newswise press release.

Written by: Catharine Paddock