Comprehensive sex ed classes that emphasize healthy relationships and family involvement can encourage more middle school students to put off having sex, according to the results from a new study published in the Journal of School Health. The results have big implications for school districts that are trying to decide what type of health classes to offer to kids in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
The three-year study was conducted by researchers at the Wellesley Centers for Women, who wanted to figure out whether Get Real — a comprehensive sex ed program developed by Planned Parenthood — has an impact on middle schoolers’ sexual behavior. In order to do that, the researchers tracked a group of racially and economically diverse kids at 24 different schools in the Boston area, half of which implemented Get Real and half of which continued with their existing sex ed programs. Kids were periodically surveyed about their sexual activity.
The results were “quite strong,” according to the lead researchers on the project. The study found that 16 percent fewer boys and 15 percent fewer girls became sexually active by the end of eighth grade after participating in Get Real, compared to the kids who didn’t participate in that curriculum.
It’s particularly significant that Get Real helped both girls and boys delay sex. The previous research into other sex ed programs has been mixed, and hasn’t been able to demonstrate such clear results for both genders.
“It’s certainly a very important and positive contribution,” Sumru Erkut, one of the scholars at the Wellesley Centers for Women who led the research team, told ThinkProgress. “People clap their hands over a program that can reduce HIV infections by four percent. So these numbers can be put in that context… If we can make it more likely that 16 percent and 15 percent of boys and girls will delay sex, that’s wonderful.”
Get Real relies on what’s called a “social-emotional learning approach” to teach kids how to navigate relationships, giving them opportunities to practice their communication skills both in the classroom and at home with their parents. According to researchers, that’s the key. Although many of the schools in the control group did have sex ed curricula in place, and some of them had pretty rigorous standards for their health classes, Get Real still had more of an influence on whether middle schoolers delayed sex.
“It is this particular intervention that made a difference,” Ekrut said. “It’s pretty unique in that it emphasizes relationship skills, and it also has a very strong follow-through for the family activity programs.”
Plus, the study found that the sixth grade boys who completed Get Real’s take-home assignments, which have a big emphasis on getting parents involved with the subject material, were more likely to delay sex until after eighth grade. That’s because those family activities may help facilitate conversations that parents wouldn’t have known how to handle on their own.
“Research shows that parents tend to talk about sex earlier and more frequently with their daughters than their sons,” Jennifer Grossman, another Wellesley researcher and the lead author of the paper describing the study’s new findings, told ThinkProgress. Get Real may help start to shift that dynamic so boys are getting the same kinds of conversations. Grossman plans to further study the effects of family communication on teens’ sexual health behavior.
“The number one most critical takeaway is the fact that this curriculum works,” Jen Slonaker, the Vice President of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said. “This is exactly what we want our middle schoolers to be doing, we want them to be delaying sex… It epitomizes Planned Parenthood’s commitment to reduce unintended pregnancies.”
That’s a sharp divergence from the way that social conservatives typically construe Planned Parenthood’s sexual health programming. As the national organization — which is the largest sex ed provider in the country — has become a flashpoint in the fight over abortion rights, anti-choice lawmakers have argued that Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be allowed to provide sex ed in public schools. Republicans in Texas and Louisiana have even suggested that Planned Parenthood is attempting to convince teens to get pregnant so it can perform their abortions.
And more broadly, comprehensive sex ed still remains controversial in some areas. More than half of states in the country don’t even mandate that sex ed needs to be taught in school, and school districts can encounter a lot of resistance when they try to move toward overhauling their health classes on their own. Proponents of abstinence education argue that teaching students about sex is inappropriate and will spur them to become sexually active at an earlier age, even though that’s not what the research demonstrates.
Parents in states ranging from Nevada to California to Kansas have pressured schools administrations to remove certain sex ed materials from the classroom. But Planned Parenthood officials say those adults represent a small minority, according to national surveys that have consistently found overwhelming support for comprehensive sex ed.
“It’s so important for educators, administrators, and parents to remember that 95 percent of parents support sexuality education in high school, and 93 percent support sex ed in middle school. If a parent is supportive of this, they are not alone — they are the vast majority,” Slonaker pointed out. “There’s something reassuring about that.”
Planned Parenthood has already partnered with ETR, an organization that offers science-based health and education products, to distribute the Get Real curriculum materials more broadly. Thanks to the results from the new study, ETR has a pretty compelling pitch on its website: “Research Shows It Works! Students who receive Get Real are less likely to have sex.”