According to AVERT, an organization whose purpose is to avert the spread of HIV and AIDS, sex education is “the process of acquiring information and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. Sex education is also about developing young people's skills so that they make informed choices about their behaviour . . . “. One reason for citing AVERT’s definition is to put the importance of sex education in context. In earlier times, sex education was considered important in preventing teenage pregnancy. Now sex education has an additional purpose: to prevent life-threatening diseases, HIV and AIDS as well as STDs.
The paper’s purpose, however, is not to discuss the importance of sex education. It assumes that as a given. Instead, the purpose is to discuss the time in a child’s development that it might begin and what instructional approach might be taken. Sex education in the schools, at least in the United States, typically occurs at the secondary level, middle school, junior high, or even high school. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2006, public school districts were tended to require pregnancy prevention to be taught in high schools than in elementary or middle schools (86% vs. 27% and 70%, respectively). Similarly, public school districts tended to require instruction on STI prevention in high schools (87%) than in elementary or middle schools (33% and 77%, respectively).
But there are convincing arguments that sex education is better begun earlier, as early as 3rd or 4th grade. As Stone and Church (382) state, it is important to give information while it merely anticipates events, before it gets mingled with the emotional upheaval of adolescence. Another reason is that sex is too integral a part of life to be offered, without preparation or buildup, as specifically adolescent subject matter. This gives the subject a more exotic and mysterious aspect than is healthy (Rew, 57-58).
As to the content of sex education, it might be a good idea to look at what is done in the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates among developed countries. (According to the Guttmacher Institute, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate in 2008 was 68 in 1,000, double that in Canada and triple that in the Netherlands.)
Van Loon and Wells, who compare the Netherlands with the United Kingdom, state that sex education in the Netherlands is more effective because of the pragmatic approach of the Dutch national government, which gives most of the decision-making to professionals in the field. In contrast, the debates concerning teenage sexuality and sex education in the UK have been highly adversarial and ideological, ignoring sexual health expertise in favor of a moral agenda. The U.S. seems to operate similarly to the UK. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2006, over 80% of U.S. high school health education courses taught abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
It has been suggested (Van Loon and Wells) that the Dutch ‘culture of openness’ not only affects relationships between adults and children, but also between parents, teachers and sexual health professionals. They cite as evidence for openness as an effective approach a U. S. study in which a school-based sex education program that subsequently involved parents as part of an ‘enhanced curriculum’ resulted in a reduction of sexual risk behavior by the teenagers involved. Getting the parent involved is not far-fetched. According to the Guttmacher Institute, at least 70% of teenagers report talking with a parent about sex, on topics ranging from how to say no to sex to condom use and other birth control methods.
“Sex Education That Works”. AVERT: Averting HIV and AIDS. n.p. 2011. Web. 30 Sept.2012.
Stone, L. Joseph and Joseph Church. Childhood & Adolescence. 3rd ed. 1973. New York: Random House. Print.
Guttmacher Institute. Facts on American Teens’ Sources of Information About Sex. n.p. Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012
Rew, Lynn. Adolescent Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Theory, Research, and Intervention. 2005. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Print.
van Loon, Joost. Deconstructing the Dutch Utopia. Family Education Trust, 2003. Web.