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National Polls Provide Insight into Views on Sexuality Education

On January 31, 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released two nationwide polls on sexuality education, both conducted in the fall of 2003. The first poll surveyed 303 middle, junior, and senior high school principals from across the country.1 The second poll surveyed 1,759 respondents ages 18 or older, including 1,001 parents of children in grades seven through 12.2

Forty-six percent of Americans agree with the statement that "Abstinence from sexual intercourse is best for teens, but some teens do not abstain, so sex ed classes should provide information about condoms and other contraception." Thirty-six percent of Americans agree with the statement that "Abstinence from sexual intercourse is not the most important thing. Sex ed classes should focus on teaching teens how to make responsible decisions about sex." Only 15 percent of the American public believes that sex education classes should only teach abstinence and should not provide information about how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptive methods.

Survey of Principals

In the survey of 303 principals, 69 percent said that sexuality education is currently required in their schools. Only 13 percent of surveyed principals reported an increasing amount of debate regarding sexuality education in the last few years.

Thirty percent of principals in public middle and high schools where sex education is taught said that their schools teach abstinence-only (only 15 percent of Americans believed that only abstinence should be taught). Just under one half (47 percent) of these principals reported that their schools taught about abstinence and contraception and 20 percent reported that their schools taught that responsible decision-making about sex was more important than abstinence.

Approximately one-fifth (19 percent) of principals surveyed said that the federal government’s abstinence-only-until-marriage funding had had a great deal or some influence on their sexuality education curricula. Thirty-six percent of principals stated that more students were beginning to be involved with abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations.

Principals overwhelmingly felt that their schools were spending the right amount of time on sexuality education (70 percent). However, how much time is spent on sexuality education varied by school: 65 percent of surveyed principals said that their school spent several class periods or special sessions on sexuality education, 19 percent spent half or a quarter of a semester on sexuality education, and only two percent spent a whole year on sexuality education.

Twenty-nine percent of principals said that parents or guardians must give permission in order for their children to attend sexuality education class. In contrast, 44 percent stated that in their schools, parents or guardians are notified of sexuality education classes but do not have to sign a permission slip and 24 percent said that in their schools, parents or guardians are not notified.

Among principals working in schools that have taught sexuality education within the past two years, 39 percent said that their schools "have organized programs and efforts to promote tolerance and understanding about all sexual orientations." More than half (58 percent) agreed with the statement, "There has been no organized effort by the school to talk about sexual orientation."

Survey of American Public, including Parents

The overwhelming majority of the American public (90 percent) believes that it is very or somewhat important for sex education to be a part of a school’s curriculum. Most found it appropriate for sexuality education classes to include information on HIV/AIDS and STDs (98 and 99 percent), how to use and where to obtain contraceptives (86 percent), waiting to engage in sexual intercourse until older (95 percent), masturbation (77 percent), abortion (85 percent), homosexuality and sexual orientation (73 percent), and oral sex (72 percent). The most controversial topic, which still had the support of a solid majority (71 percent), was whether instruction should include information about how teens can obtain birth control pills from family planning clinics or doctors without permission of a parent.

More than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents supported the statement that, "The money [from the federal government] should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information of how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives." Only 30 percent supported the statement that, "The federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose."

Respondents believed that giving teens information about safe sex would be more likely to encourage teens who are sexually active to have safe sex. Sixty-five percent were concerned "that not providing information about how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception might mean more teens will have unsafe intercourse."

In addition, parents felt that sexuality education classes in schools had a positive impact on their conversations with their children regarding sexuality. Eighty-two percent of parents agreed with the statement "sex education in school makes it easier for me to talk to my child about sexual issues." Further, 85 percent disagreed with the statement, "I feel relieved that my child is receiving sex education at school so that I don’t have to talk to my children about some of these sensitive issues."

"These results confirm what we have known for years," said William Smith, director of Public Policy at SIECUS. "Parents and the public overwhelmingly want and support comprehensive sexuality education for young people but the ever-increasing funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage have created an environment in which we withhold vital information from those who are most in need of it."

View the survey results in their entirety.