Vriezen: Comprehensive sex education is vital in schools


Photo Illustration: Bryan Langfeldt/Iowa State Daily

Condoms are one of the only forms of contraception that protect against most sexually transmitted infections.

Claire Vriezen

With the battle over Planned Parenthood’s funding at an end — for now — Americans are left either rejoicing the sustained government aid or bemoaning the continued support of an organization culturally defined by abortion. 

With 35 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services [updated from funding] going toward providing contraceptives and another 35 percent towards STI testing and treatment, one can make quite a strong argument for its positive impact in the community. 

But what often gets pushed aside in conversations surrounding Planned Parenthood and its services is why they are so needed in the first place.  Despite only making up a quarter of sexually active individuals, teens and young adults account for almost 50 percent of new STI reports. Additionally, America continues to lead the rest of the developed world in teen pregnancy rates, despite the past two decades showing a general downward trend of teen pregnancies, births and abortions. 

While Iowa seems to have a well rounded, comprehensive sex education program, my home state of Minnesota follows a “comprehensive, technically accurate, and updated curriculum that includes helping students to abstain from sexual activity.” We were taught about various types of contraception, but abstinence was stressed in my sophomore health class, and the state policy itself doesn’t specify teaching contraception use.   

Obama’s push for comprehensive sex ed funding was apparent in the 2010 budget, allowing $190 million for “progressive” sex education, but $50 million is still open to state use for abstinence-only programs. 

Funding for non-abstinence based programs is certainly a step in the right direction, but abstinence-only messages continue to be emphasized by schools and private organizations alike, and only thirteen states dictate school programs must be “medically accurate.” 

Abstinence is a wonderful method for pregnancy and STI prevention — in theory. In practice, the entire concept depends on the will-power of the individuals and their ability to remain consistent with the chosen method.

When any contraception method is evaluated, it is given an effectiveness rate for both “perfect use” and “typical use.” Perfect use, obviously, is the effectiveness this method would have if it were implemented without user error or other success-influencing factors. Typical use rates reflect real-life scenarios and human fallibility. While abstinence is a 100 percent effective method with perfect use, some studies that have followed up on those pledging abstinence in high school report up to a 60 percent failure rate

Why on earth would we emphasize a method with such a high failure rate? Even a condom will result in over 86 percent effectiveness in typical use ⎯ more than double the hypothesized effectiveness of abstinence.

But wait, doesn’t teaching comprehensive sex ed mean that young adults will start becoming even more sexually active? Apparently not.  Quite a bit of research has been done on the subject, and it seems to point to the fact that comprehensive sex education programs don’t lower the age of first sexual activity, or increase the frequency or number of partners young adults have. In actuality, these comprehensive programs have been linked to a decrease in sexual activity. 

So what does this have to do with college students? It would seem that this issue is beyond us. We have already passed through the awkward gauntlet of high school sex ed classes and are older and wiser. Right? The problem is that these policies may still affect us as we move further into adulthood. 

Coming out of high school, nearly half of students will have had intercourse. By age 19, around 70 percent of teens will have had intercourse. With high teen STI rates and questionable school programs around the country, it is likely that partners we may have during our adult years didn’t practice safe sex and may carry an infection or disease. 

Even if you came from a school that provided an accurate comprehensive sex education, or even if you choose to abstain from sexual activity for personal reasons, the probability that you may encounter a sexual partner with little or inaccurate knowledge of STI risks is high enough to be troubling. Simply the fact that an estimated 65 million Americans carry at least one infection is reason enough to care about the education people are given.  

Though we have put our high school years behind us, teaching comprehensive and accurate information about sex to youth is key in protecting the future health of not only those who choose to participate in sexual activity, but those who choose to wait, as well. 

The more people of any age know about STI prevention and contraception, the more the sexual health of everyone is safeguarded. 

To imagine a world where the unmarried are abstinent is a fantasy, as is the idea that abstinence will always work. It shouldn’t matter what your own personal decisions are regarding your sexual activity. Providing proper sex education will protect the health of students, and perhaps even your own health.