Sex education is a broad term used to describe education about human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, reproductive health, emotional relations, reproductive rights and responsibilities, contraception, and other aspects of human sexual behavior. Common avenues for sex education are parents or caregivers, school programs, and public health campaigns.
Sex education may be taught informally, such as when someone receives information from a conversation with a parent, friend, religious leader, or through the media. It may also be delivered through sex self-help authors, magazine advice columnists, sex columnists, or through sex education web sites. Formal sex education occurs when schools or health care providers offer sex education.
Sometimes formal sex education is taught as a full course as part of the curriculum in junior high school or high school. Other times it is only one unit within a more broad health class, home economics class, or physical education class. Some schools offer no sex education, since it remains a controversial issue in several countries, particularly the United States (especially with regard to the age at which children should start receiving such education, the amount of detail that is revealed, and topics dealing with human sexual behavior, eg. safe sex practices, masturbation, premarital sex, and sexual ethics).
In 1936, Wilhelm Reich commented that sex education of his time was a work of deception, focusing on biology while concealing excitement-arousal, which is what a pubescent individual is mostly interested in. Reich added that this emphasis obscures what he believed to be a basic psychological principle: that all worries and difficulties originate from unsatisfied sexual impulses.
When sex education is contentiously debated, the chief controversial points are whether covering child sexuality is valuable or detrimental; the use of birth control such as condoms and hormonal contraception; and the impact of such use on pregnancy outside marriage, teenage pregnancy, and the transmission of STIs. Increasing support for abstinence-only sex education by conservative groups has been one of the primary causes of this controversy. Countries with conservative attitudes towards sex education (including the UK and the U.S.) have a higher incidence of STIs and teenage pregnancy.
The existence of AIDS has given a new sense of urgency to the topic of sex education. In many African nations, where AIDS is at epidemic levels (see HIV/AIDS in Africa), sex education is seen by most scientists as a vital public health strategy. Some international organizations such as Planned Parenthood consider that broad sex education programs have global benefits, such as controlling the risk of overpopulation and the advancement of women's rights (see also reproductive rights).
According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 93% of adults they surveyed support sexuality education in high school and 84% support it in junior high school. In fact, 88% of parents of junior high school students and 80% of parents of high school students believe that sex education in school makes it easier for them to talk to their adolescents about sex. Also, 92% of adolescents report that they want both to talk to their parents about sex and to have comprehensive in-school sex education.
Sex education in Africa has focused on stemming the growing AIDS epidemic. Most governments in the region have established AIDS education programs in partnership with the World Health Organization and international NGOs. These programs have been undercut significantly by the Global Gag Order, an initiative put in place by President Reagan, suspended by President Clinton, and re-instated by current President Bush. The incidences of new HIV transmissions in Uganda decreased dramatically when Clinton supported a comprehensive sex education approach (including information about contraception and abortion). The gag order refuses government funding for any efforts that promote condom and contraception use in addition to abstinence and monagamy. According to Ugandan AIDS activists, the Global Gag Order will undermine community efforts to reduce HIV prevalence and HIV transmission. The plight of Uganda is indicative of AIDS "prevention" efforts across the continent, and the sharp decrease in AIDS transmissions in an era of comprehensive sex education vs. current rates of new infections clearly elucidates which system is more effective.
Egypt teaches knowledge about male and female reproductive systems, sexual organs, contraception and STDs in public schools at the second and third years of the middle-preparatory phase (when students are aged 12–14). There is currently a coordinated program between UNDP, UNICEF, and the ministries of health and education to promote sexual education at a larger scale in rural areas and spread awareness of dangers of female genital cutting.
In Japan, sex education is mandatory from age 10 or 11, mainly covering biological topics such as menstruation and ejaculation.
In China, sex education traditionally consists in reading the reproduction section of biology textbooks. However, in 2000 a new five-year project was introduced by the China Family Planning Association to "promote reproductive health education among Chinese teenagers and unmarried youth" in twelve urban districts and three counties. This includes discussion about sex within human relationships as well as pregnancy and HIV prevention.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation and the BBC World Service ran a 12-part series known as Sexwise, which discussed sex education, family life education, contraception and parenting. It was first launched in South Asia and then extended worldwide.
In Scotland, the main sex education program is Healthy Respect, which focuses not only on the biological aspects of reproduction but also on relationships and emotions. Education about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases are included in the program as a way of encouraging good sexual health. In response to a refusal by Catholic schools to commit to the program, however, a separate sex education program has been developed for use in those schools. Funded by the Scottish Government, the program Call to Love focuses on encouraging children to delay sex until marriage, and does not cover contraception, and as such is a form of abstinence-only sex education.
For example, a 1999 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that most U.S. sex education courses in grades 7 through 12 cover puberty, HIV, STIs, abstinence, implications of teenage pregnancy, and how to resist peer pressure. Other studied topics, such as methods of birth control and infection prevention, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, and factual and ethical information about abortion, varied more widely.
Two main forms of sex education are taught in American schools: comprehensive and abstinence-only. Comprehensive sex education covers abstinence as a positive choice, but also teaches about contraception and avoidance of STIs when sexually active. A 2002 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 58% of secondary school principals describe their sex education curriculum as comprehensive.
Abstinence-only sex education tells teenagers that they should be sexually abstinent until marriage and does not provide information about contraception. In the Kaiser study, 34% of high-school principals said their school's main message was abstinence-only.
The federal government plays a large role in which form of sex education is taught in public schools. In 1996, Congress passed a law to fund abstinence-only sex education. The federal government only funds abstinence-only sex education.
The difference between these two approaches, and their impact on teen behavior, remains a controversial subject in the U.S. Teenage birth rates had been dropping in the U.S. since 1991, but a 2007 report showed 3% increase from 2005 to 2006. From 1991 to 2005, the percentage of teens reporting that they had ever had sex or were currently sexually active showed small declines. However, the U.S. still has the highest teen birth rate and one of the highest rates of STIs among teens in the industrialized world. Public opinion polls conducted over the years have found that the vast majority of Americans favor broader sex education programs over those that teach only abstinence, although abstinence educators recently published poll data with the opposite conclusion.
Proponents of comprehensive sex education, which include the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American College Health Association, argue that sexual behavior after puberty is a given, and it is therefore crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimized; they also claim that denying teens such factual information leads to unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
On the other hand, proponents of abstinence-only sex education object to curricula that fail to teach their standard of moral behavior; they maintain that a morality based on sex only within the bounds of marriage is "healthy and constructive" and that value-free knowledge of the body may lead to immoral, unhealthy, and harmful practices. Within the last decade, the federal government has encouraged abstinence-only education by steering over a billion dollars to such programs. Some 15 states now decline the funding so that they can continue to teach comprehensive sex education. Funding for one of the federal government's two main abstinency-only funding programs, Title V, was extended only until December 31, 2007; Congress is debating whether to continue it past that date.
The impact of the rise in abstinence-only education remains a question. To date, no published studies of abstinence-only programs have found consistent and significant program effects on delaying the onset of intercourse. In 2007, a study ordered by the U.S. Congress found that middle school students who took part in abstinence-only sex education programs were just as likely to have sex (and use contraception) in their teenage years as those who did not. Abstinence-only advocates claimed that the study was flawed because it was too narrow and began when abstinence-only curricula were in their infancy, and that other studies have demonstrated positive effects.
Another viewpoint on sex education, historically inspired by sexologists like Wilhelm Reich and psychologists like Sigmund Freud and James W. Prescott, holds that what is at stake in sex education is control over the body and liberation from social control. Proponents of this view tend to see the political question as whether society or the individual should teach sexual mores. Sexual education may thus be seen as providing individuals with the knowledge necessary to liberate themselves from socially organized sexual oppression and to make up their own minds. In addition, sexual oppression may be viewed as socially harmful.
To another group in the sex education debate, the question is whether the state or the family should teach sexual mores. They believe that sexual mores should be left to the family, and sex-education represents state interference. They claim that some sex education curricula break down pre-existing notions of modesty and encourage acceptance of practices that those advocating this viewpoint deem immoral, such as homosexuality and premarital sex. They cite web sites such as that of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality as examples. Naturally, those that believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are a normal part of the range of human sexuality disagree with them.
Many religions teach that sexual behavior outside of marriage is immoral, so their adherents feel that this morality should be taught as part of sex education. Other religious conservatives believe that sexual knowledge is unavoidable, hence their preference for curricula based on abstinence.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, (LGBT) youth, and those with other sexual practices, are often ignored in sex education classes, including a frequent lack of discussion about safer sex practices for manual, oral, and anal sex, despite these activities' different risk levels for sexually transmitted diseases.
Some people do not agree with comprehensive sexual education that references or discusses such practices, believing that including this additional information might be seen as encouraging homosexual behavior. Proponents of such comprehensive curricula hold that by excluding discussion of these issues or the issues of homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgenderedness, feelings of isolation, loneliness, guilt and shame as well as depression are made much worse for students who belong or believe they may belong to one of these categories, or are unsure of their sexual identity. Supporters of including LGBT issues as an integral part of comprehensive sexuality education argue that this information is still useful and relevant and reduces the likelihood of suicide, sexually transmitted disease, 'acting out' and maladaptive behavior in these students. In the absence of such discussion, these youths are said to be de facto forced to remain in the closet, while youths are left without guidance on dealing with their own possible same-gender attractions and with their LGBT classmates.
Supporters of comprehensive sex education programs argue that abstinence-only curricula (that advocate that youth should abstain from sex until marriage) ignore and marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are often unable to marry a partner due to legal restrictions. Proponents of abstinence-only education often have a more conservative view of homosexuality and bisexuality and are against them being taught as normal, acceptable orientations or placed in equal footing to heterosexual acts/relations, and so they generally do not see this as a problem. Supporters of comprehensive programs feel that this is a major problem as it could lead LGBT youth to feel even more alienated and ashamed of their sexual orientation.
Also, a U.S. review, "Emerging Answers", by the National Campaign To Prevent Teenage Pregnancy examined 250 studies of sex education programs. The conclusion of this review was that "the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity".