Sex Education Vs. Abstinence Education: Part 2

Sex Education

Sex education is an issue of much debate, as people on both sides struggle to decide how to address adolescent sexuality. To shed some light on the issue, interviewed educators from either side of the debate. In this section, we spoke to Abby Rosenstein, program manager of School Health Equity at Advocates for Youth, an organization that promotes policies and programs that support young people’s sexual health and rights. Advocates for Youth was founded as the Center for Population Options in 1980 and works in partnership with youth at the local, state, national and international levels to improve young people’s health and lives.

While many believe educating teenagers about sex can lead to risky behavior, others believe schools have a duty to provide students with the information to make responsible decisions. Recently, The Huffington Post summarized a report by the Centers for Disease Control that found Mississippi — the state with the strictest abstinence-only education laws — has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, at more than 60 percent above the national average. Is there a correlation? What exactly is the best approach to educating students about sex? There may be no definitive answer.

See what Abby had to say about sex education, and click here to learn about the other side of the debate from Julie Mayfield, director of the abstinence education group Rel8. Tell us about the work you do promoting policies and programs that help implement effective sex education.

Abby Rosenstein: I support education and health agencies, community-based organizations and youth activists in working for school policies and programs that strengthen comprehensive sex education, access to youth-friendly sexual health services and school environments for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) youth. I provide training, technical assistance, resources and support to state and local partners, and I work with other national organizations to advance our shared goals. What is an exemplary sex education program? How is it implemented? What kinds of practices and attitudes does it promote?

AR: Exemplary sex education provides honest, accurate sexual health information and builds skills among young people to make healthy, informed decisions. It provides young people with information about their bodies and their health, and skills to think critically, negotiate confidently and build healthy and mutually respectful relationships throughout their lives. It is inclusive of all young people and their families; it does not stigmatize GLBTQ people, teen parents, single parents or sexually active youth. Great sex education requires well-trained educators who are knowledgeable, comfortable and interested in teaching about sexuality to young people.

As a partner in the Future of Sex Education Project, Advocates for Youth helped develop the National Sexuality Education Standards, which details the essential, minimum core content and skills that youth should demonstrate by the end of elementary, middle and high school. The Standards were published as a special publication of the Journal of School Health in 2012. What is your response to the argument that it is the parents’ --- not the schools’ --- job to talk about sex with their children? How should schools work with parents? How does your organization work with parents?

AR: Parents are the first and most important sex educators in their children’s lives and are important communicators of values around sexuality. Every October, Advocates for Youth sponsors Let’s Talk Month, a national initiative to encourage and support parent-child communication about sexuality.

Not all parents are facile communicators about sexuality, but all young people need information and skills to make decisions about sexuality throughout their lives. Schools are an important venue for providing information and building skills important for healthy sexuality, including negotiation skills, disease prevention and accessing community health information and resources. Advocates for Youth supports laws that exist in almost every state that allow parents or guardians to opt their children out of school-based sex education. How do you respond to the accusation that sex education “promotes sex?” How do you disentangle “promoting sex” from educating youth?

AR: Sex education teaches information and skills that help young people make healthy, informed choices about their sexuality. According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47.4 percent of high school students have had sex, including 63.1 percent of high school seniors. Ninety-five percent of people in the United States have sex before marriage. Sexuality is a normal and healthy part of life, and young people need comprehensive sex education whether they have sex as teens, as young adults or as newlyweds. Access to condoms and contraception does not cause young people to have sex anymore than access to umbrellas causes rain. It is a violation of young people’s rights — and poor public health practice — to withhold information from young people about skills and resources that can keep them healthy. The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would ensure the promotion of sex education nationally, has been in the senate since 2007. Until sex education receives the same kind of federal funding as abstinence education, what can be done to increase visibility and promote responsible safe sex practices on a national scale?

AR: For years, in response to the voices of advocates across the country, champions in Congress introduced the REAL Act, which would have created the first federal funding stream for comprehensive sex education across the states. Years of youth-led advocacy for the REAL Act led Congress to establish the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Through PREP, states may apply for federal funding to implement comprehensive sex education programs. Thirty-three states applied for PREP in the first year, and even more applied the following year. President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative also provides funding for community-based organizations to implement evidence-based programs to prevent teen pregnancy.

Many of Advocates’ state and local partners who worked hard to advocate for these funding streams are involved with implementing PREP and Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative programs in their states and communities. Current federal advocacy efforts center around the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, first introduced by Senator Lautenberg and Representative Lee in November 2011. The bill:

  • Recognizes young people's right to sexual health information — the first time federal legislation has ever done so;
  • Prepares young people to make informed, responsible and healthy decisions about relationships and sexual health by including a comprehensive range of topics, such as promoting safe and healthy relationships, and preventing unintended pregnancy, STDs (including HIV), dating violence and bullying;
  • Includes grants for comprehensive sex education programs for adolescents and young people in college;
  • Requires all funded programs must be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual youth;
  • Highlights the importance of, and provides resources for, teacher training to ensure that our nation's sex educators have the tools they need to provide the best comprehensive sex education possible to our nation's youth.


Advocates supports youth activists across the United States who bring voice and leadership to the issue of comprehensive sex education at the local, state and national level. Young people continue to show leadership in promoting comprehensive sex education in their high schools, on their college campuses, at their state capitols, on Capitol Hill, at the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, at the United Nations and more.  

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