When discussing the sexuality education young people receive, many people refer to two distinct schools of thought: comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In reality, however, most schools in the United States teach programs that fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum and programs are often called by a variety of different names.
In 2002, other researchers asked students what formal instruction they had received in sexuality education topics and found that one-third of teens had not received any formal instruction about contraception. More than 20 percent of both males and females reported receiving abstinence instruction without receiving instruction on birth control, and only 62 percent of sexually experienced female teens reported receiving instruction about contraception before they first had sex.
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A recent study of health education programs conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health, however, provides some insight into what is being taught in America’s classroom. The study found that 86 percent of all high schools taught about abstinence as a the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, 82 percent taught about risks associated with multiple partners, 77 percent taught about human development topics (such as reproductive anatomy and puberty), 79 percent taught about dating and relationships, 65 percent taught about condom efficacy, 69 percent taught about marriage and commitment, 48 percent taught about sexual identity and sexual orientation, and 39 percent taught students how to correctly use a condom.
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In 1991, SIECUS convened the National Guidelines Task Force, bringing together experts in the fields of adolescent development, sexuality, and education. The task force identified six key concept areas that should be part of any comprehensive sexuality education program: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture.
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Whether or not there is a state course or content mandate in place, local administrators may establish their own mandates. These local mandates may expand upon but cannot violate state mandates. If a state mandates that schools provide information on contraception and STD prevention, a local community cannot choose to implement a solely abstinence-only- until-marriage program that does not contain this information. In contrast, if a state prohibits schools from providing contraception and STD prevention information in favor of an abstinence-only-until-marriage message, schools cannot choose to include that information in their programs. (To find out laws and policies around sexuality education in a particular state, see )
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The following terms and definitions provide a basic understanding of the types of sexuality education programs that are currently offered in schools and communities. Remember, however, that names can be deceiving. It is important to look past labels and find out what young people in your community really are, or are not, learning in their sexuality education programs.
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On the local level, decisions are made by school boards, administrators, and teachers. Many districts have also created special advisory committees to review the materials used in school health and sexuality education courses. Most often these committees make recommendations to the school board which the board can either accept or reject. Teachers, clergy, public health officials, parents, and students often serve on such advisory committees.