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The heart of the sex-education debate

At this point in the decades-long struggle, both abstinence education and comprehensive sex education use similar methods to reach adolescents and influence their behavior.
At this point in the decades-long struggle, both abstinence education and comprehensive sex education use similar methods to reach adolescents and influence their behavior.
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Arguments about sex education reflect a culture war, but it is one most families may be totally unaware of. The war is generally carried on between advocates from two different sides — one arguing for “abstinence education” and the other for “comprehensive sex education.” Decades of research findings are used to argue for one over the other, though there is evidence that both types can be effective (if only for a year) in positively influencing sexual behavior.

Often what is totally lost in the argument is the heart of the divide between them — that is, how each actually views sexual intimacy. Researcher Matt Evans, who has been involved in evaluating the effectiveness of sex-education programs for more than a decade, summarizes the difference this way: Those who advocate for abstinence education view sexual intimacy as sacred, a divine gift reserved for marriage. Those who advocate for comprehensive sex education view sexual intimacy differently — as a natural urge that can, will and even should be explored and expressed, so long as it is consensual and doesn’t lead to teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

One paradigm places sexual intimacy squarely in the context of how it impacts others, especially marriage and children. The other paradigm, as described by Kristin Luker, "are all for sex within marriage," but they view marriage "as just one among many acceptable options." Where comprehensive sex-education focuses on sexual-risk reduction, abstinence education focuses on sexual-risk avoidance.

At this point in the decades-long struggle, both abstinence education and comprehensive sex education use similar methods to reach adolescents and influence their behavior. And both groups feel their desire is to help teens be happy and reach their fullest potential, unhampered by the potential problems of inappropriate sexual activity. But the underlying view of sexual intimacy influences every aspect of how sexual decision-making is talked about. And that is why parents should care about, know about and have a say in the assumptions that underlie how sexual intimacy is taught to their children.

Consider, for example, how each might approach teaching about contraception. An underlying view of sexual intimacy as sacred, or reserved for marriage, would approach contraception by teaching of its appropriate use in helping a couple know when and how to best care for children. A different view of sexual intimacy would approach contraception by teaching how it can prevent some of the natural consequences of sexual intimacy (including pregnancy and STDs) while still allowing an individual to explore natural sexual urges. Whether or not contraception is talked about is not really the issue. How it is talked about and what purpose it is given is the real issue.

If the paradigm used to teach youths about sexual intimacy focuses only on how they can safely explore their sexual urges, they will never understand how their sexual behaviors now will impact their capacity to realize their deepest dreams. Helping them reach their dreams requires dispelling two pervasive lies: First, in spite of what the culture tells them, sexual intimacy before marriage does not lead to better marital quality. Over and over again research studies have exposed the lie that “testing out sexual compatibility” leads to happier marriages. Premarital sexual relations, particularly with someone other than one’s spouse, have consistently been linked to divorce.

Second, keeping sexual desires and expression within the bounds of marital intimacy does not limit happiness and relationship quality. It expands it profoundly. In spite of everything Hollywood might proclaim, the highest quality of sexual intimacy is experienced within marriage, and particularly for married, religious couples. Reserving sexual relations for marriage enables youths to obtain what they truly desire, happier marriages and more fulfilling sexual relations.

Sex education matters. The underlying view that sexual intimacy is sacred, with great power to bless or harm depending on when it is expressed, also matters. When taught from a paradigm that recognizes the tremendous power of sexual intimacy to deepen joy and strengthen relationships through its use in marriage, our youths will be better prepared to make decisions that will help them secure those dreams.

Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University who lives in Salt Lake City.