Most Teens Don’t Receive Formal Sex Education Until After They’ve Already Started Having Sex

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According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that surveyed teen girls between the ages of 15 and 17, most young women don’t receive formal sexual health instruction until after they’ve already become sexually active. Federal health researchers warn that “this represents a missed opportunity” to ensure teens are receiving the medically accurate information they need to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

Even though the teen birth rate has been declining for the past several decades, and continues to hit record lows, the United States still has one of the highest rates in the developed world. The CDC is particularly worried about unintended pregnancies among younger teens between the ages of 15 and 17, since they’re at greater risk for “poor medical, social, and economic outcomes” after giving birth.

Nonetheless, federal researchers found that this population isn’t necessarily hearing the right information about sexual health. About a quarter of them said they had never discussed the issue with their parents. And although about 91 percent of teen girls said they received some kind of sex ed instruction in school before they turned 18, just six in ten said that included information on both birth control and how to say no to sex. And a staggering 83 percent said they had already started having sex before they heard anything about the topic in class:

cdc sex ed

CREDIT: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Considering the fact that there aren’t currently any national standards for comprehensive sex education classes in public schools, the results are perhaps unsurprising. Just 18 states and the District of Columbia mandate that sex ed courses need to cover information about birth control. Instead of providing teens with medically accurate information, many school districts rely on an “abstinence-only” model that imparts shame-based messages about sexuality to youth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National Education Association all endorse comprehensive sex ed programs. But, thanks to social conservatives who falsely claim that teaching kids about sex will spur more of them to become sexually active, there’s still considerable resistance to adopting these policies.

Although conservatives tend to deride efforts to overhaul human sexuality curricula as inappropriate attempts to implement “kindergarten sex ed,” the CDC’s research underscores the point that teaching kids about their bodies can’t wait until senior year of high school. Other data on the subject has confirmed that the majority of teens have had sex by the time they turn 18, and messages about abstinence don’t convince them to make different choices.

But the CDC’s research also reveals one of most persistent issues with the way American society as a whole approaches teen births. The most effective sex ed programs involve targeting messages to both boys and girls, since they each have an equal role in practicing safe sex and using contraception. But many of the country’s teen pregnancy prevention campaigns focus on blaming girls for their bad choices without putting the same weight on boys’ responsibility, giving the false impression that teen pregnancy is just a female problem. Focusing public health research solely in terms of the kind of sex ed that girls are learning furthers this framework.