Overview of Approaches to Sex Education

Comprehensive vs. Abstinence-Only

boy and girl holding hands

Anakin Tseng/Getty Images

When it comes to sex education, there are two predominant approaches: comprehensive and abstinence-only.

Comprehensive Sex Education

While these programs promote abstinence, they also include teaching and instruction about available contraceptive methods. These programs also may explore the context for and meanings involved in sex, operating from the premise that many teenagers will become sexually active, and include discussions about contraception, condom use, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV.

Abstinence-Only Education

These programs promote sexual abstinence and do not acknowledge that many teens will become sexually involved. Though they include discussions of morals, values, character building, and, sometimes, “how to say no” skills, they do not teach about contraception or condom use, nor include conversations about abortion, and usually introduce the topics of STDs and HIV only as reasons why teens should remain abstinent.

Federal Funding

Federal law does not require sex education in schools. Yet, over the years, Congress has created three programs (all of which are abstinence-only programs) that provide federal funding for sex education:

  • The Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA)
  • Targeted abstinence-only funding through 1996 Welfare Reform legislation
  • The Special Projects of Regional and National Significance: Community-Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE) grant program

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act was signed into law by President Clinton. At the time, ultra-conservative legislators inserted an obscure policy add-on into this “must-pass” piece of legislation. This provision received little attention. Called the Abstinence-Only Curriculum Welfare Reform Act of 1996, it allocated $50 million annually (for five years) for states to use toward abstinence-only programs. The legislation also obliges that, among other things, these programs teach:

  • “A mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.”
  • “Abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children.”
  • “Sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

The Pro-Abstinence-Only Sex Education Movement

The Bush Administration pushed the pro-abstinence-only movement to a new level. As soon as President George Bush took office, he created a new program: Community Based Abstinence Education grants. During the Bush Administration, funding for abstinence-only education more than doubled, from $80 million in 2001 to $200 million in 2007. Bush promoted these programs even though there was no evidence to conclude that abstinence-only curriculum represents the “typical” American’s wish for what should be taught in schools or the real-life challenges faced by the “average” American teenager. In 2006, the teenage pregnancy rate increased for the first time in more than a decade; it rose by 3%. The teen abortion and birth rates increased as well. When President Obama came into office, he began to cut Title V abstinence-education funds from the federal budget. At that time, 25 states had already begun rejecting this money—16 because they didn't agree ideologically or weren't seeing any positive results from these abstinence-only programs.

How States Are Regulating Sex Education

According to the Guttmacher Institute, most states have now adopted laws governing STD and sex education:

  • 20 states and the District of Columbia require that both sex education and HIV/STD education be provided.
  • 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate that, when provided, sex and HIV/STD education programs meet certain general requirements.
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV/STD education; of these states, 13 mandate only HIV/STD education.
  • When providing sex education and/or HIV/STD education, 37 states and the District of Columbia insist that school districts either notify parents (22), require parental consent (2), or allow parents to remove their children from instruction (35).

Additionally, when sex education is being taught in school:

  • 37 states require abstinence information be provided (26 states want it stressed whereas 11 states only require that it is covered).
  • 18 states and the District of Columbia require that birth control information is taught.
  • 12 states insist discussion of sexual orientation be included.
  • Sex education discussions should include information about skills for avoiding being pressured into having sex (20 states and DC); on making healthy decisions around sexuality (20 states); and instruction on how to talk to family members, especially parents, about sex (11 states).
  • 18 states require that instruction to include the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage.
  • 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy.
  • When HIV/STD education is provided: 20 states require information on condoms or contraception, and 39 states require that abstinence is included.

What the Research Says

Research has clearly demonstrated that comprehensive sex education programs are the only ones that show results. Teens exposed to this sex education delay having sex, usually have fewer sexual partners, and are more likely to use birth control if having sex. On the other hand, research has also revealed the shortcomings of abstinence-only education. There has been no evidence to show that these programs lower teenage sexual activity; in fact, teens exposed only to abstinence education are more likely to have misconceptions about condoms and condom use and are just as likely as teenagers who have had no sex education (not even abstinence-only) to have sex, have the same number of partners, and to have unprotected sex.

Parent and Teen Thoughts

When polled by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, it appears that a large percentage of teens (64%) indicated that they desired more information about BOTH contraception and abstinence. 76% of parents had the same wish for their teens. It also seems that most parents adopt a common sense approach toward preventing early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. Most American parents clearly prefer that their teen practice abstinence; they also believe that teens should understand that sex should be associated with a meaningful and serious commitment. That being said, many parents also realize that some teens will still choose to have sex (even when abstinence is stressed). Because of this, a lot of parents also believe that teens should be provided information about the benefits and limitations of contraception as well as be taught where they can seek appropriate health services.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Chris Collins, C., Alagiri, P., & Summers, T. (March 2002). "Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education". University of California, San Francisco.

  • Guttmacher Institute. (February 2012). "STATE POLICIES IN BRIEF: Sex and HIV Education."

  • Guttmacher Institute. (January 2010). "U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Birth, and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity."

  • Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., Quay, L., Wheeler, J. & Clark, M. (April 2007). "Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs: Final Report." Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

  • Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases." Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
  • The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2002). "With one voice 2002: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy." Washington, DC: Author.