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Survey says (again): People overwhelmingly support sex ed

By Zach Eisenstein, Communications Manager

When it comes to sex education in schools, opponents have long touted it as “controversial.” However, a recent national survey says otherwise.

Earlier this year, GfK, an international market research organization, conducted a survey on behalf of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The survey assessed how likely voters feel about sex education and federally-funded programs to prevent unintended teen pregnancy.

The results confirmed what we already know to be true: people overwhelmingly support sex education. In addition, most people also support federal dollars being used to fund programs that reduce unintended pregnancy among young people.

What does “overwhelming support” look like? Eighty-nine percent of likely voters think it is important to have sex education in middle school and a whopping 98% of likely voters think it is important to have sex education in high school.

Beyond viewing sex education as important, respondents also agreed that sex education should cover a range of topics including birth control, STIs and HIV, puberty, consent, healthy relationships, sexual orientation, and abstinence.

Finally, the survey shows that most people support federal funding for programs to prevent unintended teen pregnancy including The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). There was very little support for federally funded programs that focus only on encouraging teens to delay sex until they are married.

To further break down the survey results, we spoke with Amelia Holstrom, the Associate Director of Evaluation, Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Read our interview with Amelia below:

Why did y’all conduct this study in the first place?

Last year, we published a study on support for sex education among parents, and wanted to supplement that research with findings on support among a different group of influencers — likely voters. Currently the federal government is trying to divert funds from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP)—which supports programs that have been proven to help prevent unintended pregnancy among teens— to promote abstinence-only programs (also known as “sexual risk avoidance”). Our research shows the majority of likely voters support continuing funding for TPPP. And the current administration is acting in direct opposition to that support.

What was the most surprising finding?

Honestly, not much. Our findings echo previous research that show overwhelming support for sex education in both middle and high school; support for including a range of essential topics—including consent, birth control, and sexual orientation; and support for federal funding for evidence-based programs. When you ask parents, just as when you ask likely voters, the message is clear: they want young people to get age-appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships—without being shamed or judged.

How can partners, advocates, and/or the public use this information?

People can use this study to highlight the overwhelming support for sex education and federal funding for evidence-based programs. Here are some ways to help highlight this support:

  • Be clear that sex education covers a comprehensive set of topics and, ideally, is taught at every grade level.
  • If your organization or community leaders have expressed interest in exploring “sexual risk avoidance,” make sure they understand that these programs are not sex education and are ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—just with a new name.
  • Share this information with decision makers such as school board members, administrators, and leadership in your own organization. Use this information to advocate for sex education in your community, schools, and local youth-serving organizations.
  • Share this information with parents and young people already advocating for sex education in your community to further develop and support local champions.
  • Share this information with your state and local representatives to highlight your support for sex education. It’s important that politicians hear from their constituents that they want young people to have accurate information about their bodies and their health.

Can you tell us about the national sample of respondents — who they are and how they were chosen? We noticed that some groups (I.E. AAPI and Indigenous / Alaska Native communities) were not represented. What does this say or how does this impact our understanding of support for sex education among these communities?

We partnered with GfK to conduct the survey and sampled from their KnowledgePanel. The panel is built using address-based sampling which, as a method, is typically more successful at targeting traditionally harder-to-reach populations. Panelists who were 18 and older were invited to participate in the study. Once invited, they were asked “How often do you vote in elections?” Those who answered “Always,” “Nearly Always,” or “About half the time” were considered likely voters and eligible for the study. The final sample is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population on gender, age group, race/ethnicity, census region, education, household income, and language proficiency.

 Unfortunately, we cannot break out the results by racial group other than for White, Black, and Hispanic. Respondents who identify as AAPI or Indigenous / Alaska Native are grouped in the “Other – Non-Hispanic” category. This speaks to an opportunity to be more intentional about recruiting larger samples of racial and ethnic groups beyond White, Black, and Hispanic. This is an important area of focus moving forward as we work to ensure that all people–regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other identifying factor–are fully included in the conversation surrounding support for sex education.

 What, if anything, can these survey results tell us about the future of sex education in this country?

Young people have the right to the information and skills they need to protect their health.  These survey results demonstrate overwhelming support for sex education that provides information about a range of topics including both abstinence and birth control. Sex education in school should not be a controversial issue. Unfortunately, the current administration is trying to increase funding for so-called “sexual risk-avoidance” programs, which are, in truth, abstinence-only programs. These results make clear that is not what likely voters want.

 The future of sex education in this country will be determined at all levels of decision making from classrooms to school boards to school districts to state houses all the way up to the federal government. There is an opportunity to advocate for this popular issue at all levels of government and in our communities because young people deserve the information and skills that empower them to stay healthy and make informed decisions.

If you were to conduct another similar survey, would there be anything you’d change in the next go-round? If so, what?

In a similar survey I would like to try to better understand support for inclusion of LGBTQ topics and creating LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms and schools. These results show strong support for all seven topics included, but sexual orientation had the lowest level of support in both middle and high school. I think it is important for us to learn more about why support for this topic is lower than the others, so that we can strengthen existing advocacy efforts for sex education that is LGBTQ-inclusive.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes! Planned Parenthood has great resources for parents and trusted adults to talk with the young people in their lives about sex and relationships. The Future of Sex Education (FoSE) has a downloadable toolkit for those who want to start advocating for better sex education in their schools: Why is sex education so important? Advocates for Youth has great resources to learn more about sex education in their Sex Education Resource Center. Answer offers training and capacity building for professionals teaching (or who want to teach) sex education. ETR also offers professional development and training on sexual and reproductive health as well as a range of adolescent health topics.

 For even more data on sex education support, check out the latest SIECUS resource, On Our Side: Public Support for Sex Education.