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Community Characteristics: The Best Predictors of “What Works” in Sex Ed?

Joan Marie Kraft et al, “Sex Education and Adolescent Sexual Behavior: Do Community Characteristics Matter?” Contraception (January 2012).

Although numerous studies have shown that sexuality education can delay sexual initiation and increase contraceptive use in adolescents, program impact seems to vary depending on a range of community characteristics. This study examines variations in the impact of sexuality education on risk behaviors according to certain community characteristics.1 Community characteristics assessed included percentage of residents 25 years or older with an Associate’s degree or more, median family income, and the percentage of men in the community who were unemployed. The authors used the term “least advantaged” and “most advantaged” to describe communities at the lowest and highest ends of the spectrum for these measures. The sample, drawn from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NFSG), included 2,247 males and females ages 15-19 who were neither married nor living with a partner. All adolescents participated in in-person interviews regarding their formal sexuality education history and community of residence.

Key Findings
87% of respondents reported receiving formal sexuality education in school, church, or through a community organization. In communities with the lowest percentage of Associate’s degrees, 75% of respondents reported receiving formal sex education by the age of 15, compared to 87% in communities with the highest percentage of Associate’s degrees. In communities in the middle quartiles on median family income and male unemployment, respondents were significantly more likely use contraception at first sex if they had received formal sexuality education Communities in the lowest quartile of residents with Associate’s degrees had twice the proportion of reports of sex by age 15 compared with communities in the highest quartile. In all communities there was a strong positive association between receiving formal sexuality education and waiting to initiate sex until after age 15.

This study supports the beneficial effects of formal sexuality education on 1) delay of sexual initiation and 2) contraceptive use by sexually active adolescents. The study also suggests that youth in the least-advantaged communities were significantly less likely than their more-advantaged peers to receive formal sexuality education. While formal sexuality education reduced self-reported youth sexual risk behaviors in all communities, the impact may have been more modest or wane over time in the least-advantaged communities. These results indicate that community type significantly affects the impact of any sexuality education program – in other words, informational content alone is insufficient to explain whether sexuality education “works” or not. The researchers point to previous studies to posit that socioeconomic status, geographical location, and religious views of the community can be significant factors affecting the impact of sexuality education upon teen learners.

Based on their findings, the authors suggest that different approaches to sexuality education – varying in intensity, length, and content- are necessary to reach adolescents in the most- and least-advantaged communities if the goal is to delay sexual initiation and increase contraceptive use.

Further research could explore how additional key community characteristics influence the behavioral impact of sexuality education. Researchers could also focus on the differences in successful sex education programs in those communities they describe as most- and least-advantaged.

1Kraft JM, Kulkarni A, Hsia J, Jamieson DJ, Warner L (2012). Sex education and adolescent sexual behavior: do community characteristics matter?” Contraception 86(3): 276-280. <>