Time For Honesty: “Comprehensive” Sex Education’s Dismal Outcomes

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Valerie Huber President/CEO, Ascend
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After decades of declaring that so-called “comprehensive” sex education works, pro-teen-sex advocates are understandably quiet about new findings recently released by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  That’s because the research results of President Obama’s legacy Teen Pregnancy Program (TPP) are dismal.

Actually, worse than dismal. After nearly a billion dollars, more than 80% of students in these “comprehensive” programs fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not in the program. Teens in some TPP-funded projects were even more likely to begin having sex, more likely to engage in oral sex, and more likely to get pregnant than their peers who weren’t in the classes.

Those aren’t the sort of results that make good headlines for programs touted as “effective.” Proponents of TPP have called the program “evidence-based” from the start. Now that the actual evidence has been published, they are awkwardly and noticeably silent.

Ever since President Obama’s 2010 budget took $100 million away from sexual risk avoidance education (SRA) to begin the TPP program, the authoritative narrative has been that the TPP program was “evidence-based” and communities were guaranteed positive results if they implemented one of the curricula on the HHS-approved list. These curricula were deemed as national models for replication and HHS posted this promise on its own website.

Unsuspecting school administrators believed the rhetoric and in the interest of the students put in their charge, brought these supposedly “evidence-based” programs into their schools. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students were exposed to this questionable instruction.  It turns out that that was a bad idea.

Most of the curricula on the “evidence-based” list merely prepared them to experiment with sex as a kind of expected teen right-of-passage. In fact, 1 in 4 teens say that the message provided makes them feel pressured to have sex. Some curricula even suggest “showering together” is a safe alternative to sex.

Yet research protocols related to over-generalization of results were ignored, and claimed success for programs that didn’t actually reduce students’ risk. Plus, they didn’t account for conflict of interest on the part of those who conducted the research. Yet, 75% of all the programs on the HHS list of “effective” curricula were evaluated by the program developer or publisher. Curricula remained on the list, even when it was clear that similar programs made students more likely to engage in risky sexual practices.

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and reaching one half million students, these new findings should finally put a stop to the narrative that these programs are “proven effective.”

Applying public health messaging to the too-contentious sex education debate is long overdue. The healthiest message for youth is one that gives youth the skills and information to avoid the risks of teen sex, not merely reduce them. This is the kind of message we give to youth when we encourage them not to smoke, to exercise more, and to avoid underage drinking.

And it is a message that is relevant in 2016, since the majority of teens have not had sex — far fewer than 20 years ago.

Normalizing teen sex was never a good idea and the results on the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program’s “comprehensive” sex education initiative proves the point. As Congress prepares to make final funding decisions regarding sex ed for next year, the results of this research should cause us to rethink sex education priorities.

Sex ed must be based on public health, not subjective values.  When we know more, we can do better. We now know a lot more about the effectiveness of “comprehensive” sex education. And now, we can – and must – give students something better.

Valerie Huber is the President of Ascend.