Monday Memo — Sex Ed Research Surprises Experts

If you’re a parent with kids, don’t miss this one! One of my favorite minds in current public policy is Jon Imbody. I found the title of his recent blog “That awkward moment when sex ed research paralleled common sense and parental preference” intriguing and encouraging. I think you will also:

Jonathan Imbody

A Congressional staff briefing in March, presented by ASCEND, offered legislators research and common sense reasons to change direction in sex education program funding.

For years, liberals/progressives/people mad at the church have been railing against any approach to sex ed that veers off the party line that teens are going to have sex no matter what, so just break out the condoms on bananas instructions and the explicit curricula.

If you can’t stop them from having sex, might as well teach them how to have all kinds of sex.

Never mind that research shows that to provide a significant measure of protection against certain sexually transmitted infections and diseases, condom use requires not only manufacturing perfection (no breakage or leaks) but also methodological consistency (careful and systematic application every single time).

How many teenagers do you know who might be described as careful and systematic at any time, much less late at night in the heat of passion?

Maybe that’s why so many parents prefer the educational approach now known as Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA). They know what their teens are actually like, and besides recognizing the personal and health risks of sexual activity, they also give their teens a lot more credit for the capacity to make good choices than do liberal-leaning sex ed curriculum developers.

SRA education also parallels public health strategies employed in programs designed to prevent smoking and alcohol abuse. Imagine an anti-smoking program that assumed teens were going to smoke anyway, so let’s encourage them to smoke cigarettes with filters.

As with most common-sense, parental-preferred programs, SRA education has faced intense opposition in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration insisted that research and SRA were incompatible and instead funneled millions into the controversial, “comprehensive” sex ed approach that pleads agnosticism as to whether or not teen sex is good or bad.

The funding disparity between that approach and actually teaching teens how to postpone sexual activity in 2014 reached 20 dollars for “comprehensive” sex ed for every one dollar of SRA education.

That turned out to be a terrible gamble.

In this press release, ASCEND, a terrific organization that courageously has stood strong for SRA education in the face of tremendous opposition, summarizes what happened when the U.S. government shoveled your tax dollars with reckless abandon into “comprehensive” sex education:

HHS Report Shows Lack of Effectiveness for “Comprehensive” Sex Ed

Five years and more than a half billion dollars later, it appears that what were promised as effective models for sex education curricula simply are not.

In a blow to the heavily-funded federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP), new research shows dismal results for youth served in the program. Begun in 2010, the TPP program was called “evidence-based” by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and communities were guaranteed positive results if they implemented one of the curricula on the HHS-approved list, as shown by this quote found on the HHS website:

Evidence-based programs can be expected to produce positive results consistently.1 

But the findings of the newly released research shows the promise was mostly inaccurate.

According to researchers who worked on the evaluation project, “most of the programs had small or insignificant impacts on adolescent behavior.2 A closer look at the research findings reveals that this summary may be a generous assessment of the results, since some youth actually fared worse when they were enrolled in some of the funded projects.

Compared with their peers who were in the program, teens in some TPP-funded projects were:

  1. more likely to begin having sex,
  2. more likely to engage in oral sex, and
  3. more likely to get pregnant.

In fact, more than 80% of students in these programs fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not in the program.

Valerie Huber, president/CEO of Ascend, responded to the TPP results:

“For years, we have been concerned that objective research protocols were ignored when making the ‘evidence-based’ promises for TPP. As a result, school administrators and community stakeholders were led to believe that if they wanted their youth to thrive, they must implement curricula from the TPP ‘evidence-based’ list. Many well-intentioned decision makers did just that, but now they learn that this decision may have been ill-advised – and that their students may be at increased risk as a result.

“This research gives us serious reason to pause – ask the hard questions – and be willing to amend what messages we are giving vulnerable youth. It’s time to bring honesty and transparency to the entire issue of sex education. The fact is that the sexual risk reduction approach, typified in the TPP program, holds no claim on successful models that guarantee sexual health for youth.”

The lessons from public health tell us two things that should inform sex education policies, beginning today:

  1. The healthiest message for youth is one that gives youth the skills and information to avoid the risks of teen sex, not merely reduce them. This is a message that is relevant in 2016, since the majority of teens have not had sex, far fewer, in fact, than 20 years ago.Therefore, we need to be more intentional with finding the best ways to help youth achieve this optimal health outcome.
  2. TPP programs overwhelmingly normalize teen sex – a message that 1 in 4 teens say makes them feel pressured to have sex.4 The recently-released TPP research appears to confirm this felt sexual-pressure. As a society, we must normalize sexual delay and make it a realistic expectation.

Huber suggests one more consideration:

“Sex education posturing and policies should not be about winning or losing a debate. Policies must be about increasing the chances that all youth can obtain optimal sexual health and a brighter opportunity for a healthy and successful future.  Nothing less is acceptable.”

A summary of the findings from HHS can be found here.

  1. HHS, Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) website. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  2. (2016). Special issue of American Journal of Public Health explores impacts of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. American Journal of Public Health: September 2016. 106 (S1):S9-S15. Retrieved on October 14, 2016.
  3. CDC (2016) YRBS. Atlanta: Author. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  4. (2015). Teens speak out. Ventura: Barna Research.
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