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Sex Education Works, Study Shows

Teens Who Have Formal Sex Education Delay Sexual Activity, Researchers Find
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 20, 2007 -- Sex education is effective, increasing the chances that teens will delay having sexual intercourse at least until they reach age 15, according to a new study.

"We were encouraged that sex education is working," says Trisha Mueller, MPH, an epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta who led the study. "Sex education should continue to be implemented."

Study Details

Ninety-three percent of Americans support sex education in some form, and the teaching of it has become widespread in schools and other institutions, according to Mueller. Previous studies have produced conflicting results on whether sex ed works, Mueller says, yet few recent studies have looked at its impact using a large sample that is nationally representative.

That was the impetus for her study, in which she and her co-authors looked at a nationally representative sample of 2,019 teens, aged 15 to 19, who responded to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.

The teens were asked whether they had received any formal sex education instruction at school, at church, or through community organizations. They reported on whether they were instructed about how to say no to sex and whether they got information on birth control.

The study didn't try to prove which of the two approaches -- practicing abstinence or learning contraceptive skills as well as the value of delaying sexual activity -- is better, Mueller tells WebMD.

Teens also reported their age when they received the sex education and their age at first intercourse. Researchers categorized age at first sex as over 15 or under, to coordinate with the government's Healthy People 2010 goal of increasing the proportion of teens who abstain from sex until at least age 15.

Finally, the researchers compared those who had sex education before their first intercourse with those who had it after and those who had no sex education. They did not look at oral sex practices, Mueller says.

Study Results

Their major findings, published in the January issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health:

  • Teenage girls who received sex education had a 59% reduced risk of having sexual intercourse before age 15 compared with those who did not get sex education before their first intercourse.
  • For teenage boys, sex ed before first intercourse had a 71% reduced risk of having intercourse before age 15 compared with those boys who did not get sex ed before their first intercourse.
  • For high-risk groups, the benefit was even greater. African-American urban teenage girls who got sex ed before their first intercourse had an 88% reduced risk of having sex before age 15, Mueller says, compared with those who did not get the training.

Teenage boys who were in school or had graduated and had sex ed were about three times more likely to use birth control when they first had sex compared with those who were in school or had graduated and didn't get sex ed.

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