Sex Matters: The Information Disconnect That Plagues America’s Youth

If you were asked to explain your experience with sex education, just what would it look like? Perhaps it would include the awkward “Miracle of Life” film from middle school biology. Or maybe it is a funny story including a banana or some other imagery reminiscent of a teen movie. For many students across the nation, however, there is no tale to recount, no jokes to be made, and worst of all, no lessons learned.

As I began my internship at Planned Parenthood of Western New York this semester I became quickly interested in sex education across the states. Despite the fact that the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world, there are little to no mandates for sex education at the federal, state, or local levels. For states that do provide sex education, many do not require that it be medically accurate or age appropriate for the student audience. In a strange and backwards methodology, some states mandate education on the science and symptoms of HIV and STDs, but not the means of contraction or prevention. And the pièce de résistance in this picture, Congress poured one-and-a-half billion dollars into abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs from 1996 to the 2009 fiscal year. Here is where the red flag really started to wave.

I believe this is an interesting time to look at sex education in theUnited States; reproductive rights and family planning institutions are under political attack at both the state and national level. Representatives voted in because of their constituents’ disapproval of the economic situation have continued to pursue moral agendas, nearly shutting down the federal government in the process. On the other end, with last year’s landmark healthcare reform Obama has drastically altered U.S. funding of sex education.

I will be looking at the recent changes to this funding scheme, setting the backdrop for the issue environment. However, it is of greater significance to look at the differences in state-mandated curricula, which continue to drive discrepancies in the sex education teens obtain in schools. While teen pregnancy rates have fallen every year but two since their all-time high in 1990, the variance of these rates across the states is alarming and indicative of a greater problem. I will be working to identify this problem. My study will be to prove or disprove the claim that states that use abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs have higher teen pregnancy rates than those states which provide a comprehensive curriculum. I look forward to working with you all and welcome any feedback or stories you wish to share.


About emilygargiulo

I am a senior at the University at Buffalo, expecting to graduate in May 2012. I am pursuing a double degree in Political Science and Pharmacology & Toxicology, and I am working towards a career in Public Health. My research topic will be looking at comprehensive sex education in the United States and trends in federal funding of sex education programs. I will be conducting an empirical study to test the hypothesis that states with lower levels of sex education mandated by the government are correlated with higher rates of teen pregnancy.
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2 Responses to Sex Matters: The Information Disconnect That Plagues America’s Youth

  1. Andrew says:


    Your topic choice is sure to attract a great deal of attention from everyone involved with the Fellows program, and I commend you for seeking out a less-traveled swath of policy terrain. As i understand it, your question is of a comparative nature. I envision an outline that looks at several states to see relationships between a state’s sex-education programs in public schools and the realities of teen pregnancy and/or sexual health concerns. The analysis would look at various programs in the USA; not abroad, which would open up the can of worms of greater statistical variation.

    Due to the partisanship that surrounds this issue, you will want to be careful about the parameters of your paper. Perhaps you look further at the data between 1996 and 2009 and then provide an objective policy solution of your own kind. This in turn could be compared to President Obama’s healthcare plan and/or various other proposals. I think you would find a discrepancy between what science advocates and what is politically feasible.

    If teen pregnancy rates are steadily declining from an apex in 1990, you need to explain why this research matters. Are their untold health costs or political costs that result from ineffective sex-education programs? As you well know, the bottom-line dollar amount is often a deciding factor in shaping American politics. Can we have better results for less money–i.e. the proverbial case of having cake and eating it too?

    I am by no means expert in this subject, but I hope these suggestions help to hone your focus. This promises to be a fascinating paper. The more you can attribute through citations and thereby remove yourself as the arbiter of right and wrong, the less subjective this sensitive subject becomes. Good luck!

  2. Thank you for your input. I think you honed in on some of my instinctual challenges- how do I go about measuring an area with such vast policy variation and how do I make feasible policy prescriptions- and some questions I had not yet considered- a monetary analysis of costs and benefits to justify this topic as an important one.

    One of the biggest reasons I was attracted to this topic was the lack of precise policy prescriptions and, worse yet, the lack of oversight in the effectiveness of abstinence-only education despite the high funding devoted to it. States mandates are both rare and vague, and often not mandates at all but suggestions for schools. Then within the parameters of sex education, some state curricula are biased or include inaccuracies. How can this compare and be weighed against a thorough curriculum, to both fall under the broad category of “sex education”? This are questions you have reinforced, that I will have to be very mindful of throughout my study.

    Also, I refrained from pointing out that the two years in which we saw a rise in teen pregnancy rates were two of the four years for which we have the most recent data- 2006 and 2007. Even as some may shrug these years off to a fluke, after which we resumed our decline in 2008 and 2009, I think it would be deceiving if we took this to be the whole picture. This is ultimately a question of the equality in our federal systems as some states sorely neglect this major public health concern. (Here too, I must be careful in objectively highlighting this problem.)

    I will be looking more into the costs of comprehensive sex education in relation to that spent on alternative programs and/or the result of their inefficiencies. This is a valuable point in proving cause for care and putting forth meaningful prescriptions. Thanks again, I look forward to working with you.

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