Sex Education in America

An NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School Poll

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The vast majority of Americans agree sex education should be taught in schools.

hide captionA new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government finds the vast majority of Americans agree that sex education should be taught in schools.

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The debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government finds that only 7 percent of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools. Moreover, in most places there is even little debate about what kind of sex education should be taught, although there are still pockets of controversy. Parents are generally content with whatever sex education is offered by their children's school (see Parents Approve sidebar), and public school principals, in a parallel NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School survey, report little serious conflict over sex education in their communities nowadays. Nearly three-quarters of the principals (74 percent) say there have been no recent discussions or debate in PTA, school board or other public meetings about what to teach in sex ed. Likewise, few principals report being contacted by elected officials, religious leaders or other people in their communities about sex education.

However, this does not mean that all Americans agree on what kind of sex education is best. There are major differences over the issue of abstinence. Fifteen percent of Americans believe that schools should teach only about abstinence from sexual intercourse and should not provide information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception. A plurality (46 percent) believes that the most appropriate approach is one that might be called "abstinence-plus" — that while abstinence is best, some teens do not abstain, so schools also should teach about condoms and contraception. Thirty-six percent believe that abstinence is not the most important thing, and that sex ed should focus on teaching teens how to make responsible decisions about sex.

Advocates of abstinence have had some success. Federal funds are now being made available for abstinence programs; in his State of the Union address President Bush called for an increase in the funding. And in spite of the fact that only 15 percent of Americans say they want abstinence-only sex education in the schools, 30 percent of the the principals of public middle schools and high schools where sex education is taught report that their schools teach abstinence-only. Forty-seven percent of their schools taught abstinence-plus, while 20 percent taught that making responsible decisions about sex was more important than abstinence. (Middle schools were more likely to teach abstinence-only than high schools. High schools were more likely than middle schools to teach abstinence-plus. High schools and middle schools were equally likely to teach that abstinence is not the most important thing.)

Parents Approve

Although there may be some disconnect between the breadth of sex education Americans want taught and what is actually taught in many places, parents whose children have taken sex ed generally like their school's program. Read more.

In many ways, abstinence-only education contrasts with the broad sex ed curriculum that most Americans want — from the basics of how babies are made to how to put on a condom to how to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Some people thought that some topics were better suited for high school students than middle school students, or vice versa, but few thought any of the topics suggested were inappropriate at all. The most controversial topic — "that teens can obtain birth control pills from family planning clinics and doctors without permission from a parent" — was found to be inappropriate by 28 percent of the public, but even there, seven out of 10 (71 percent) thought it was appropriate. The other most controversial topics were oral sex (27 percent found it inappropriate) and homosexuality (25 percent). (See Table 1 in the Survey Tables sidebar.)

Poll-Based Stories on NPR

listen All Things Considered, Feb. 24, 2004: NPR's Brenda Wilson reports on differing views between white and non-white evangelical Christians when it comes to sex education.

listen Weekend Edition Saturday, Feb. 7, 2004: NPR's Wade Goodwyn looks at the political implications of emphasizing abstinence in sex education.

listen All Things Considered, Feb. 5, 2004: NPR's Wade Goodwyn profiles an abstinence-only lecture at a Dallas middle school.

listen Weekend Edition Saturday, Jan. 31, 2004: NPR's Margot Adler reports on why parents think their daughters are better prepared for sexual issues than their sons.

listen Morning Edition, Jan. 30, 2004: Forty percent of adults say abstinence even includes abstaining from passionate kissing. Sanovia Jackson of Youth Radio talks with her girlfriends and finds out they have a different view.

listen Talk of the Nation, Jan. 29, 2004: A discussion on the survey results.

listen All Things Considered, Jan. 29, 2004: NPR's Joseph Shapiro profiles a more comprehensive sex ed class at a Maine high school.

Interestingly, in a separate question about what schools should teach about homosexuality, only 19 percent said schools should not teach about it at all. For the most part, Americans want teachers to talk about homosexuality, but they want them to do so in a neutral way. Fifty-two percent said schools should teach "only what homosexuality is, without discussing whether it is wrong or acceptable," compared with 18 percent who said schools should teach that homosexuality is wrong and 8 percent who said schools should teach that homosexuality is acceptable.

A majority of Americans (55 percent) believes that giving teens information about how to obtain and use condoms will not encourage them to have sexual intercourse earlier than they would have otherwise (39 percent say it would encourage them), and 77 percent think such information makes it more likely the teens will practice safe sex now or in the future (only 17 percent say it will not make it more likely).

When it comes to the general approach to teaching sex and sexuality in schools, Americans divide almost evenly. Respondents were asked to choose which of two statements was closer to their belief: (1) "When it comes to sex, teenagers need to have limits set; they must be told what is acceptable and what is not." Or (2) "ultimately teenagers need to make their own decisions, so their education needs to be more in the form of providing information and guidance." Forty-seven percent selected the first statement; 51 percent selected the second. Parents of seventh and eighth graders were more likely to choose the first statement (53 percent) than the second (45 percent); parents of high school students were evenly divided. Conservatives were much more likely to choose the first statement over the second (64 percent to 32 percent), as were evangelical or born-again Christians (61 percent to 35 percent). Liberals and moderates were more likely to choose the second statement over the first (61 percent to 37 percent for liberals and 56 percent to 42 percent for moderates).

Historically, the impetus for sex education in schools was teaching children about avoiding pregnancy and keeping them safe from sexually transmitted diseases, but many parents say they are more worried about the effects of sexual activity on their child's psyche. Asked what concerns them most about their 7th-12th grade children ever having sexual intercourse, 36 percent of parents said "that they might have sexual intercourse before they are psychologically and emotionally ready." That compares with 29 percent who said their biggest concern was disease (23 percent said HIV/AIDS and 6 percent said other sexually transmitted diseases) and 23 percent who said pregnancy.

Moreover, given a list of problems teens might face, nearly half (48 percent) of all Americans chose as the biggest problem "use of alcohol and other illegal drugs," which was double the number who chose any sex-related problem (9 percent said unwanted pregnancy, 8 percent said getting HIV/AIDS, and 4 percent said getting other STDs).

Just as the initial impetus for sex education in schools came from health advocates, the historical impetus for abstinence education has come from evangelical or born-again Christians. In general, evangelical or born-again Christians have very different views from other Americans about sex and sexuality. Eighty-one percent of evangelical or born-again Christians believe it is morally wrong for unmarried adults to engage in sexual intercourse, compared with 33 percent of other Americans. Likewise, 78 percent of evangelical or born-again Christians believe that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; 46 percent of other Americans believe this. Moreover, such Christians are much more likely to believe that school-age children should abstain from almost any kind of arousal: 56 percent include passionate kissing among the activities they should abstain from; 31 percent of the rest of the population say that. (See Table 2 in the Survey Tables sidebar.)

Evangelical or born-again Christians also have different views on many questions about sex education. Twelve percent of them say sex education should not be taught in schools — a small number, but three times the percentage found among non-evangelicals (4 percent). Moreover, more than twice as many evangelicals as non-evangelicals (49 percent to 21 percent) believe the government should fund abstinence-only programs instead of using the money for more comprehensive sex education. And on what should be taught in sex ed classes, evangelicals are much more likely than non-evangelicals to think certain topics are inappropriate. (See Table 3 in the Survey Tables sidebar.)

Interestingly, there are some differences between white and non-white evangelicals — not on questions about sex or sexuality, but on questions about sex education. On some sex education questions, non-white evangelicals are closer to non-evangelicals than they are to white evangelicals. For instance, while 23 percent of non-Latino white evangelicals believe it is inappropriate for sex ed classes to teach where to get and how to use contraceptives, only 13 percent of non-white evangelicals believe this, compared with 8 percent of non-evangelicals. (The other items in Table 3 were asked of half-samples of the survey, and there were not enough non-white evangelicals in the half-samples to make accurate comparisons.) Likewise, asked about the best method to teach sex ed, 27 percent of non-Latino white evangelicals prefer abstinence-only. Fewer than half as many non-white evangelicals (12 percent) prefer abstinence-only, which is in line with non-evangelicals (10 percent).

Other interesting findings from the survey:

Adult Americans define abstinence broadly. The survey asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "Abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children." Sixty-two percent of Americans agreed with the statement, which is a principle that must be taught in federally funded abstinence education programs; 36 percent disagreed. Regardless of respondents' answer to that question, they then were asked how they were defining the word abstinence when they answered it. Did they include abstaining from sexual intercourse? Oral sex? Intimate touching? Passionate kissing? Masturbation? A large percentage of Americans said yes to all of those, with 63 percent thinking abstinence included abstaining from intimate touching, 40 percent thinking it included abstaining from passionate kissing, and 44 percent thinking it included abstaining from masturbation. (See Table 2 in the Survey Tables sidebar.) As suggested earlier, born-again or evangelical Christians (of all races) were more likely to say yes to the last three than other Americans.

Parents think their daughters are better prepared to deal with sexual issues than their sons. In the course of this survey, parents of children in grades 7 through 12 were asked a number of questions about one of their children (if they had more than one in that age group, the child was chosen randomly). One of those questions was, "How well prepared do you feel your (x-grade) child is to deal with sexual issues — very prepared, somewhat prepared, not very prepared, or not at all prepared?" Sixty percent of parents said their daughter was very prepared; only 36 percent said the same of their son. Interestingly, fathers (60 percent) were as likely as mothers (59 percent) to say their daughter was very prepared. However, fathers (23 percent) were much less likely than mothers (45 percent) to say their son was very prepared. (Whether the child had attended sex education in school made no difference in parents' assessments.) In answering the question about what worries parents most about their child ever having sexual intercourse, parents of girls (41 percent) were more likely to place psychological well-being as their top concern than were parents of boys (31 percent). Parents of girls were not more likely than parents of boys to choose pregnancy or disease.

There is no double standard regarding how long Americans think boys or girls should wait to have sex, but adults don't think either boys or girls will actually wait that long. Forty-seven percent think girls should wait until they are married to have sexual intercourse, and 44 percent think boys should wait until they are married; the difference is not statistically significant. Nearly nine out of 10 (89 percent), though, don't think girls will wait that long; the number is similar for boys (91 percent). The responses were similar when people were asked about oral sex; they said boys and girls should wait, but probably won't. Again, there was little difference between people asked about boys and those asked about girls. About one out of six people said that boys (16 percent) and girls (18 percent) should never experience oral sex, but they also were likely to say that it was not a realistic expectation.

Methodology

The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School National Survey on Sex Education is part of an ongoing project of National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Representatives of the three sponsors worked together to develop the survey questionnaire and to analyze the results, with NPR maintaining sole editorial control over its broadcasts on the surveys. The project team includes:

From NPR: Marcus D. Rosenbaum, Senior Editor; Susan Davis, Associate Editor; Ellen Guettler, Assistant Editor

From the Kaiser Family Foundation: Drew Altman, President and Chief Executive Officer; Matt James, Senior Vice President of Media and Public Education and Executive Director of kaisernetwork.org; Mollyann Brodie, Vice President, Director of Public Opinion and Media Research; and Rebecca Levin, Research Associate

From the Kennedy School: Robert J. Blendon, a Harvard University professor who holds joint appointments in the School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government; Stephen R. Pelletier, Research Coordinator for the Harvard Opinion Research Program; John M. Benson, Managing Director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program; and Elizabeth Mackie, Research Associate

The results of this project are based on two nationwide telephone surveys: a survey of the general public and a survey of school principals. The survey of the general public was conducted among a random nationally representative sample of 1,759 respondents 18 years of age or older, including an oversample of parents of children in 7th through the 12th grade, which resulted in interviews with 1001 parents. Statistical results for the total survey were weighted to be representative of the national population. The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points for total respondents and plus or minus 4.7 percentage points for parents. The survey of principals was conducted among 303 principals of public middle, junior and senior high schools across the country. Schools were randomly and proportionally selected from a national database of public schools by type of school (middle, junior and senior high). Statistical results were weighted to be representative of public middle, junior and senior high schools in the United States based on geographic region and type of residential area (urban, suburban, non-metropolitan). The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 6 percentage points for total respondents. For results based on subsets of respondents the margin of error is higher.

Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted the fieldwork for both surveys between September and October 2003. Note that sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll.

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