Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 7, October 10, 2004


Schools Need Sexuality Education Programs

Marsha Prophet Daria, Ph.D. & Kathryn J. Campbell, Ph.D.
Western Connecticut State University

In spite of the decrease in sexual intercourse and teen birth rates,  adolescents continue to need information and skills to help them make responsible decisions about sexuality (Ventura, Mathews & Curtin, 1999). This paper discusses the necessity for school-based sexuality education programs and describes essential characteristics of successful sexuality educators.  The roles of parents and school administrators in sexuality education programs are also considered.

Although sexual intercourse and birth rates among teenagers have declined, schools cannot afford to become complaisant about adolescent sexuality  (Ventura, Mathews & Curtin, 1999).  School-based sexuality education programs must continue to receive high priority for several reasons.  First, these programs give young people an opportunity to receive accurate information and explore their own values about sexuality in an environment that is supportive and non-threatening.  Secondly, these programs provide adolescents with opportunities to practice relationship refusal skills that enable them to avoid becoming coerced into sexual activity before they are ready.  Thirdly, they teach students about HIV and STDs and the roles that safe sex and abstinence play in the prevention of these diseases.  Finally, sexuality education programs encourage young people to become wise, sexually healthy adults (Donovan, 1998).

There is evidence that parents want sexuality education taught in schools (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000).  Some parents feel uncomfortable talking with their children about sexuality (Milton, 2001; Price, Kirchofer, Telljohann & Dake, 2003); others do not have enough specific facts about sexual issues themselves to adequately do the job (King, Parisi & O’Dwyer, 1993).  According to The Alan Guttmacher Institute (2004), a not-for-profit corporation for sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education.  Several states including those not mandating sex education place guidelines on how abstinence and contraception are taught.

While there are many models for the delivery of sexuality education, abstinence-only programs have received considerable attention in recent months, in large part because of the backing they have received from the Bush Administration.  In contrast to more comprehensive approaches to sex education, abstinence-only programs seek to prevent pregnancy, AIDS and other STDs by promoting abstinence, and they prohibit the mention of condoms or other methods of contraception in sexuality education classes.  The Bush Administration’s support for these programs has resulted in proposals for substantial increases in Federal funding (Bowman, 2004). Under Bush’s plan, abstinence-only programs would receive $270 million dollars in Federal funding beginning in 2005, more than double the $100 million spent at the beginning of Bush’s term (Bush advocates abstinence-only education, 2004).  Currently, California is the only state that has declined to receive Federal funding for abstinence-only programs (Sternberg & DeBarros, 2004).  In this political climate, states receiving money from the federal government are in jeopardy of losing funding if they attempt to endorse more comprehensive models of sexuality education. This is unfortunate given the controversy that exists concerning the effectiveness of the abstinence-only programs (Starkman & Rajani, 2002; Viadero, 2004).  More research comparing outcomes for students enrolled in abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexuality education programs is needed to help teachers, parents and school administrators make informed decisions about program design and implementation.

Essential Characteristics of Sexuality Educators
A thriving sexuality education program rests on the expertise of the teachers (Haignere & Culhane 1996).    Their knowledge, skills and attitudes determine whether or not adolescents will take the issue of sexuality education seriously. Teaching about sexuality can be difficult because the personal nature of the topic can arouse anxiety or create embarrassment.  For this reason, a sexuality educator must possess several key characteristics, including enthusiasm for and comfort with the subject matter, a thorough knowledge of human sexuality, respect for adolescents, clarity about his or her own personal values, the ability to accept the values and beliefs of others, and good group facilitation skills (Manley, 1986).

Characteristic #1 Feel comfortable with the subject matter
The success of a sexuality education program depends on how the teacher views its place in the classroom.  The comfort of the teacher is vital because it impacts which sexuality topics will be taught (Harrison & Hillier, 1999).  Information should be enlightening, non-threatening and presented in an enthusiastic manner.  Researchers surveyed 97 teachers about their receptiveness and comfort with teaching sexuality education and the extent to which they were comfortable using nontraditional teaching strategies (Haignere & Culhane,1996). Two statements were assessed to determine teachers’ comfort levels while teaching sexuality education.  In response to the statement, “I feel comfortable discussing non-sexual ways of displaying affection with my students,” 61.6% of teachers agreed (35.2%) or strongly agreed (26.4%).  About a third (30.8%) of respondents were impartial and 7.7% of respondents either disagreed (5.5%) or strongly disagreed (2.2%).  The second statement, “I am uncomfortable talking explicitly about the correct way to use condom,” showed 16.5% of respondents either agreed (11%) or strongly agreed (5.5%).  Over 70% of respondents showed a high level of comfort by answering disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Some teachers feel that talking about sexuality education is too risky.  They are afraid of professional backlash, not being able to change minds, the threat of public outcry, possible legal harassment, and alienation (Harrison, Hillier & Walsh, 1996; Klitsch, 1993).  Not educating about sex may leave young people with limited knowledge or distorted information, both of which can lead to unhealthy sexual practices.

Characteristic #2 Have appropriate knowledge of, and training in, human sexuality
A sexuality educator must be knowledgeable about sexual anatomy and physiology.  If adolescents perceive a teacher as not being personally and professionally prepared, pandemonium and tumultuous discussions may occur.  For some teachers, the content taught in sexuality courses is new information.  Lack of appropriately trained educators can obstruct the implementation of sexuality programs.  It is this very issue that causes concern among some teachers when sexuality education programs are proposed or when a particular topic within the content is discussed.  To assure that school-based sexuality programs are being properly implemented, teachers must be adequately trained and given up-to-date resources (Milton, 2001).  They also need good pedagogical skills, and an understanding of child and adolescent development pertaining to sexuality.

Characteristic  #3 Show respect for adolescents
Adolescents’ opinions and feedback are essential to a good sexuality program because they are the ones who have specific knowledge of the issues and fears that they live with.  Most sexuality education programs are created based on content that adults think should be included and they ignore the input of adolescents (Rodriquez, 2000). Teachers who show regard for adolescents’ views are more effective in helping them make educated choices about their sexuality. Adolescents must see sexuality instruction as being beneficial.  This discernment is crucial if they are to take sexuality seriously.

Characteristic #4 Be clear about one’s own values and accepting of the values and beliefs of others
Teachers have to remain mindful of how they present sexuality information to students.  It is imperative to give open and honest answers without stating one’s own religious beliefs, ethics, or values (Greenberg, 1989). Teachers’ values are imparted to adolescents through their body language, silence, and role modeling (Harrison & Hillier, 1999).  They must put aside personal feelings about sexuality and present subject matter in an objective way.

Characteristic  #5 Possess good group facilitation skills
Good sexuality educators possess the ability to lead discussions while not being judgmental and moralistic (Greenberg, 1989).  In an environment that encourages open communication, adolescents are able to express their feelings about sexuality and are inspired to make responsible decisions.  This does not mean that controversial perspectives cannot be presented. Good teachers are able to question students to get their input about sensitive topics. Strategies used to facilitate sexuality discussion include role-plays, small-group exercises, trips, whole-group discussions, interactive video games, and homework with parents (Gingiss, 1992).

The roles of parents and school administrators
Parental involvement and support are critical to the success of sexuality education programs.  Most school districts give parents the opportunity to choose whether or not they want their children to participate in sexuality education.  It is important for schools to organize information nights where parents are able to review materials used in the sexuality education curriculum. Parents need ample opportunity to ask questions about the content and learn skills to help them talk to their children about sexuality (Milton, 2001).

There must be a commitment from the administration of the school as well.  The administration is responsible for providing support to both teachers and students. They can act as a public relations contact to the media, community, and other concerned parties about the program’s content.  Administrative coordination should be utilized so that continuous teacher training takes place, and current resources are available.

School-based sexuality education programs are necessary to help adolescents make informed decisions about sexuality issues.  These programs encourage good health practices and potentially save lives. To ensure that sexuality education programs are effective, school administrators have to provide continuous staff development sessions for teachers and give them current resources. Teachers must feel comfortable teaching about sexuality and comfortable answering adolescents’ questions about sexuality issues. Parents play an important role in a successful sexuality education program.  They should be included in the process and given an opportunity to ask questions and review materials.


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