Findings from the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed that roughly half of US adolescents receive sex education that meets the minimum standard according to national public health goals. Young people of color were especially unlikely to receive adequate sex education — Black and Hispanic males were less likely than White males to learn about safe sex topics (sexually transmitted infections, HIV, or birth control) before their first sexual encounter.
Studies suggest that sex education fosters an understanding of sexual consent, reduces sexually abusive behavior, and encourages actions that lower the likelihood of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Yet the standards of sex education programs vary greatly across schools in the United States.
Researchers Laura D. Lindberg and Leslie M. Kantor made use of nationally representative data to explore trends in sex education across the US. The researchers were particularly interested in examining how the receipt of sex education might differ by gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and place of residence. The data came from two cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a household survey of US residents. Lindberg and Kantor focused on data from respondents who were between the ages of 15 and 19. This left samples of 4,134 youth in 2011–2015 and 3,812 youth in 2015–2019.
The survey included several questions regarding whether or not the respondents had received formal sex education (e.g., from school, church, community center) before the age of 18. The respondents were asked whether they had been instructed on specific topics such as obtaining birth control, condom use, and STIs.
Alarmingly, only around half of the respondents (49%–55%) received sex education that met the objectives outlined by Healthy People 2030, a national initiative to improve US public health. A lack of education about birth control methods was particularly evident.
Youth were more likely to learn about abstinence than other forms of birth control — while 79%–84% of youth said they had been taught about how to say no to sex and 58%–73% said they were taught about waiting until marriage, only 40%–53% had learned about where to get birth control, and 54%–60% had learned about how to use a condom.
Adolescents with greater religious attendance were especially likely to be taught about waiting until marriage and especially unlikely to be taught about contraception. Queer males were less likely to learn about STIs/HIV or where to get birth control compared to their straight peers.
The findings also revealed significant racial/ethnic differences. Black and Hispanic males were less likely to learn about STIs/HIV, birth control methods, or where to obtain birth control before their first sexual encounter. While 57% of White male teens received instruction on all four topics that were set as objectives by Healthy People 2030, less than half of Black (45%) or Hispanic (47%) male teens did. Hispanic females were less likely to have been educated about waiting to have sex compared to non-Hispanic females. Black females were less likely to learn about where to obtain birth control before their first sexual experience compared to White females.
“Disparities in receipt of sex education likely underlie some of the documented race-ethnicity differentials in sexual health knowledge,” Lindberg and Kantor say. “This inequity leaves youth of color more vulnerable and results in racial and ethnic differences in the rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” The study authors call for a “greater equity focus into sex education policies and programs.”
Alarmingly, when the researchers compared their findings to estimates from earlier rounds of the NSFG survey, it appeared that teens today are less likely to be taught about critical sex education topics compared to 25 years ago. The authors note that current federal efforts are insufficient to ensure better sex education across America.
The study, “Adolescents’ Receipt of Sex Education in a Nationally Representative Sample, 2011–2019”, was authored by Laura D. Lindberg and Leslie M. Kantor.