Public health officials have been worried for some time over a sharp increase in the rates of sexually transmitted disease in Utah, including among teenagers, which many experts believe can be traced to a deficiency in sex education both in the home and as a part of formal schooling. A recent look in-depth at the issue by the Deseret News detailed the contentious debate over just what kind of education about sexuality is appropriate, and whether there is a clear answer to what type of curriculum is most effective.
Regardless of one’s point of view, the evidence suggests rates of sexually transmitted disease, as well as rates of teenage pregnancy, are correlated to how much teenagers know about sexual behavior. There is evidence that both abstinence-based curricula and what is referred to as “comprehensive” sex education can be effective. However, because of differences in individual backgrounds and cultural orientations, it is not possible for a “one-size-fits-all” program to attain a desired degree of effectiveness among all kids.
From a public health point of view, too much time is wasted in the debate over whether abstinence-based schooling is better or worse than curricula devoted to the physiological components of sexuality and related health issues. It is certainly a hot-button topic that is a subject of almost perennial debate in school district boardrooms and in the halls of the Utah Legislature. State law now leans toward an abstinence-based approach, allowing teachers, for example, to discuss contraception but not to discuss where to get it or how to use it. A bill before the Legislature last year to implement comprehensive sex education was voted down, largely out of concerns that responsibility for delivering such information belongs to parents, not teachers.
Indeed, there is clear evidence that what information children receive about sex from their parents is a huge determinant in whether they are likely to engage in risky behavior. But statistics related to STD rates might suggest that teenagers are not receiving the kind of information at home, or in school, that would serve as an effective deterrent. Data from 2014 show that while the age group of people between 15 and 24 years old accounts for 16 percent of the population, that group accounts for 63 percent of all reported cases of chlamydia, and 38 percent of gonorrhea cases in Utah. The numbers also indicate the overall rates of STDs among adolescents and young adults have been climbing steadily for a decade.
There are concerns that a comprehensive sex education curriculum would amount to a “how to” guide and promote sexual experimentation. On the other side of the debate, there are legitimate concerns that promoting abstinence will only go so far, and that not all teens will refrain from experimenting, regardless of what kind of education they have received. The issue is of such importance that educators and policy leaders should focus on creating programs that are not judged on whether they tend to promote or deter sexual behavior, but on how effective they are in protecting the health of Utah teenagers.