Sex education influences teens’ knowledge, activity


Colin King

How we learn about sex and relationships

By Sports & Health Reporter

Let’s talk about sex. Young adults learn about sex from a handful of different sources, but research suggests teachers rather than parents are now the most common givers of “the talk” for adolescents.

New research published March 5 in the British journal BMJ Open reveals the most common resource for sexual education of teens is sexual education in schools. 

The research, compiled through the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, was conducted from 2010–2012 and surveyed more than 3,400 young people ages 16–24 about their source of information and their sexual habits.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University College London and NatCen Social Research contributed to the two studies. One analyzed sources of information and the source’s impacts on sexual health, and the other examined the effects of education on sexual patterns of British young adults. 

According to the study, 41 percent of females and 39 percent of males reported sexual education in school as their main source of information,  while 24 percent of respondents from both genders said their friends were their main source of information. Others reported parents, siblings, health professionals and the Internet as their main source. Those who received most of their information from the school reported having sex for the first time at a later age, according to Wendy Macdowall, co-author and lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“There appear to be additional benefits to learning mainly from school for young women, as they were also less likely to have experienced sex against their will or feeling distressed about their sex life, though this was not the case for men,” Macdowall said in an emailed statement. “They were also less likely to report unsafe sex or having ever been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection.”

The influence of school sexual education on young adults can be utilized, according to Macdowall. 

“[Widespread quality] sex education in schools would help to eliminate the current lottery so that all young people can expect good quality sex and relationships education taught by trained teachers,” Macdowall said in the email. 

The study also reports that 41.6 percent of men and 46.8 percent of women desired more psychosexual information than they had received. According to the study, 68.1 percent of men and 70.6 percent of women thought they did not know enough about sex when they first engaged in sexual activity. The research stresses the need for improved sexual education both from the school and students’ parents, according to John Santelli, the department chair and professor of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“[Parents] put [the sex talk] off sometimes and then when somebody becomes romantically involved, there’s sort of a catch-up game,” Santelli said. “That’s probably why the Internet is so important today, because young people can get information pretty rapidly.”

The U.S. equivalent to the British survey, The National Survey for Family Growth, is performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Santelli.

“I think the trends over time and the information is very interesting,” Santelli said. “There’s some other interesting things, particularly compared to U.S. data. The area where [Britain] is not making progress is in the communication between adolescents and parents. Those numbers seem to be dropping, which is interesting. You see much higher numbers about parental discussions with their teenagers in the U.S. The other big notable is that they see fairly low rates of Internet use. What we’re seeing in the U.S. is the use of the Internet to get sexual information.”

 Answer, a program in coordination with Rutgers University, serves as a resource through their website and magazine, Sex, Etc., for teens who have questions about sexuality. Answer also trains teachers to provide comprehensive sexual education, according to Director of Communications Lucinda Holt. 

“[Answer makes] sure educators are prepared to provide the information that young people need,” Holt said. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, well parents will do it.’ If you ask some adults specific questions about sexuality, they may not know the answers, so we need someone who is actually trained to provide high-quality sexual education for young people.”

Sexual education in schools is only required by 22 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Eighteen states and D.C. require curriculums to include information about contraception, whereas 39 states require abstinence to be taught in schools. Holt equated the importance of sexual education to other academic subjects taught in school.

“If you aren’t educated about [sex], it’s not like you’re going to turn 18 and magically know it all,” Holt said. “We educate small children about numbers so they are able to build on it and are able to do more complicated functions when they get older. It’s the same with sexual education. Small children need to learn  about what it means to be a good friend or how to respect another person’s boundaries so that when you’re older and learning about relationships, you can relate to a partner in a way that’s respectful.”