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Compulsory sex education in schools?

Published:Sunday | September 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor

As society becomes more sexually permissive, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teenage pregnancies continue to rise, it is mooted that sex education should be compulsory in schools. This has been an age-old debate, and those who support compulsory sex education believe it provides a level playing field to cover all aspects of human sexuality. Even in light of the damning statistics of increased STIs and unplanned pregnancies, the issue is still controversial for some educators and parents.

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, abstinence, contraception, STIs and other aspects of human sexual behaviour. Common avenues for sex education are parents or caregivers, school programmes and public health campaigns (

'Sexuality education' is another term used for sex education which promotes education about all aspects of sexuality, including information about family planning, reproduction (fertilisation, conception and development of the embryo and foetus, through to childbirth). It also includes information about all aspects of one's sexuality, including image, sexual orientation, sexual pleasure, values, decision-making, communication, dating, relationships, STIs and how to avoid them, and birth-control methods.

Children and teenagers may learn about aspects of human sexuality informally through conversations with parents, friends, religious leaders, or through the media. Information may be gleaned from magazine advice columnists, sex columnists, or through sex education websites.

Raging hormones

Formal sex education takes place in the school system and it may be taught as a full course as part of the curriculum in junior high or high schools during the years of puberty and raging hormones. In some instances, sex education is attached to subjects like biology and the health sciences and to social-hygiene classes called 'homemaking', 'character building', or 'moral or spiritual values'. These classes were frequently sex segregated, although sex education specialists debated this issue. In other instances, sex education is not offered in the school system because of the concern by conservatives who hold the firm belief that sex education would encourage promiscuity.

Sexual permissiveness

How does this argument hold up in a permissive society? A permissive society is one in which social norms are becoming increasingly liberal with accompanying deviant behaviour. Characteristics of a sexually permissive society include increasing sexual freedom with more participation in sexual activities which were previously considered unacceptable or even criminalised, such as bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM), fetishes, and homosexuality. Sexual permissiveness includes viewing violent and sexual material such as movies, music, art and literature increases, and censorship of these and other arts decreases. As societies become more sexually permissive, the power of religious groups decreases and there is a rise in secularism.

The reluctance to introduce compulsory education in schools in Jamaica and other countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom is based on whether imparting sexual education is valuable or detrimental. Some persons express concern about the introduction in schools 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.

Peer pressure

There is increasing support for abstinence-only sex education. The reality is that children and teens are experimenting with sex out of curiosity and or peer pressure. Countries with conservative attitudes towards sex education (including the United Kingdom and the United States of America) have a higher incidence of STIs and teenage pregnancy.

The AIDS epidemic has given a new sense of urgency to the topic of sex education. In African nations, where AIDS is at epidemic levels, sex education is seen by most scientists as a vital public health strategy. Sex education in Africa has focused on stemming the growing AIDS epidemic. Most governments in the region have established AIDS education programmes in partnership with the World Health Organisation and international non-governmental organisations.

Abstinence-only programmes

What can we learn from other countries with open sexual-education programmes? The debate over teenage pregnancy and STIs has spurred some research into the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education programmes with abstinence-only programmes. Their review of several studies shows that abstinence-only programmes did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy for women who participated in the programmes, but rather increased it.

Finland: Sexual education is usually incorporated into various obligatory courses, mainly as part of biology lessons (in lower grades) and later in a course related to general health issues. The Population and Family Welfare Federation provides all 15-year-olds with an introductory sexual package that includes an information brochure, a condom and a cartoon love story.

France: Sex education has been part of the school curriculum since 1973. Schools are expected to provide 30-40 hours of sex education, and distribute condoms to students in grades eight and nine. In January 2000, the French government launched an information campaign on contraception on TV and radio and distributed five million leaflets on contraception to high school students.

Germany: Sex education has been part of school curricula since 1970. Since 1992, sex education is, by law, a governmental duty. It normally covers all subjects concerning the growing-up process, body changes during puberty, emotions, the biological process of reproduction, sexual activity, partnership, homosexuality, unwanted pregnancies and the complications of abortion, the dangers of sexual violence, child abuse, and sexually transmitted infections. Sometimes other aspects such as sexual positions. Most schools offer courses on the correct usage of contraception.

A sex survey by the World Health Organisation concerning the habits of European teenagers in 2006 revealed that German teenagers care about contraception. The birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds was very low - only 11.7 per 1,000 population, compared to the UK's 27.8 births per 1,000 population, and - in first place - Bulgaria's 39.0 births per 1,000.

Sweden: Sex education has been a mandatory part of school education since 1956. The subject is usually started between ages seven and 10, and continues up through the grades, incorporated into different subjects such as biology and history.

United States: Almost all US students receive some form of sex education at least once between grades seven and 12. Many schools begin addressing some topics in grades five and six. However, what students learn varies widely, because curriculum decisions are so decentralised. Many states have laws governing what is taught in sex-education classes or allowing parents to opt out. Some state laws leave curriculum decisions to individual school districts.

A 1999 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that most US sex-education courses in grades seven through 12 cover puberty, HIV, STIs, abstinence, implications of teenage pregnancy, and resisting 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.

Comprehensive sex education

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 per cent 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 on contraception. In the Kaiser study, 34 per cent of high-school principals said their school's main message was abstinence-only.

Professional support

Proponents of comprehensive sex education include the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Paediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American College Health Association, argue that sexual behaviour after puberty is a given, and it is, therefore, crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimised. They also claim that denying teens such factual information leads to unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Where do you stand on the question - should sex education be compulsory in Jamaican schools?

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