The United States, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world, isn’t exactly known for its top-notch sexual health resources. But a new study suggests that our country’s sex ed has gotten even worse in recent years.
Even fewer teens are now getting basic sex ed information, like formal instruction about how to use birth control, according to researchers at the Guttmacher Institute who compared sexual health data over a seven-year period.
The researchers compared data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during two of the agency’s survey periods: the 2006–2010 survey and 2011–2013 survey. These surveys included questions for teens about whether they ever received formal sex education materials—like how to prevent sexually transmitted infections, how to say no to sex, how to put on a condom, and how to use different methods of contraception—before they turned 18.
In the 2006-2010 survey period, 70 percent of girls and 61 percent of boys said they had received some information about birth control methods. But in the later survey period, those numbers dropped to 60 percent among girls and 55 percent among boys.
As time passed, fewer girls also reported receiving any formal education on how to prevent STDs and how to say no to sex. These declines were particularly acute in rural areas of the country, where teens already struggle with higher rates of unintended pregnancies.
The study’s lead researcher, Laura Duberstein Lindberg, characterized the declines in sex ed instruction as “distressing.” She also pointed out that this data fits into a bigger pattern in the United States. Over the past two decades, the number of teens receiving formal instruction about birth control has been steadily declining, and abstinence-only classes that don’t include accurate information about sexual health have persisted.
“The United States is moving in the wrong direction,” said Leslie Kantor, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest sex ed provider. “Sex education can make a real difference in adolescents’ overall health and well-being. The fact that young people are being deprived of information critical to their sexual health is unacceptable.”
Only 21 states and the District of Columbia currently require sex education and HIV education to be taught in public schools. An even fewer number, 18, explicitly require information about contraception in the classroom. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 states mandate that schools should focus on lessons about abstinence.
There’s a lot of evidence that providing teens with accurate information about sex ed helps them make healthier choices. Sex ed classes are actually linked to a delay in sexual activity—suggesting that, instead of spurring teens to become more sexually active, talking to them about sex actually helps them make more thoughtful decisions about their bodies.
“We need to right the ship, get back on track, and make sure all students receive quality sex education that prepares them to make informed and healthy decisions,” said Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit group focusing on the reproductive health issues that are important to young people.