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Shannon Donohoe and Erica Peterson/Medill

Chicago residents have very different opinions on their sex education.

Sex ed is lacking, but which programs are at fault?

by Shannon Donohoe and Erica Peterson
June 04, 2008


Data from the Illinois Campaign for Responsible Sex Education. Erica Peterson/Medill.


Shannon Donohoe/Medill


Shannon Donohoe/Medill

Are all types of sex ed created equal?

The different types of sex education, as defined by the Illinois Campaign for Responsible Sex Education:

Abstinence-Only Education: teaches abstinence as the only acceptable sex option for teenagers. The programs usually don’t include information about the benefits of using contraception and condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: the same as abstinence-only education, but stresses abstinence until marriage.

Abstinence-Centered Education: the same as abstinence-only education.

Comprehensive Sex Education: teaches that abstinence is the best and most effective way to avoid STDs and pregnancy, but also teaches about safe sex to reduce the risk of pregnancies and STDs.

Abstinence-Based Education: the same as comprehensive sex education.

Abstinence-Plus Education: another term meaning comprehensive sex education.

To receive federal Title V funding, states are required to use the money to find education that:

A. has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

B. teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;

C. teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems;

D. teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

E. teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

F. teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society;

G. teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and

H. teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

As of 2005, programs are required to give all eight points (A-H) equal emphasis. 

Source: U.S. Dept. of Human Services

So, why would states refuse federal money?

As of June 2008, 17 states have refused Title V federal funding, including three of Illinois’ neighbors: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

The impetus behind Wisconsin and Minnesota’s decision to stop accepting Title V funds was changes to the funding guidelines in 2005. Although the eight points of the program remained the same (see previous sidebar), now states were required to equally implement all of the points.

“In 2005, [the funding became] more restrictive,” said Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute. “States had to develop programs that put equal emphasis on each point of the eight-point definition.”

Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, said the state wanted to be sure their teenagers were taught about contraceptives and STDs in ways that are not necessarily included in the federal guidelines. 

“Obviously our goal is to prevent adolescent pregnancy and reduce the risk of STDs, and abstinence is the best way to do that,” she said. But “[teenagers] need to have the ability to have [comprehensive] education as well.”

Minnesota was using Title V to contribute to a statewide teenage pregnancy prevention program called Education Now and Babies Later, but when the guidelines changed in 2005, it meant that ENABL could no longer be funded by that source. “There are aspects of A to H that we emphasize more,” said Maggie Diebel, director of the Community and Family Division at the Minnesota Department of Health. Emphasizing all points equally would have gone against the program’s purpose.

Iowa is the most recent state to pull away from Title V. In April 2007, Governor Chet Culver signed legislation instructing the Iowa Department of Education to have health education standards based on research and scientifically based programming, according to Jo Lerberg, the program manager of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The state legislation and Title V couldn’t coexist, she said. Although the state legislation is a move towards comprehensive sex education, she added that “nothing shall keep schools from offering abstinence-only, as long as they have programs that meet the [state's] criteria.” 

Years ago, sex was a topic broached by uncomfortable parents, telling their young ones about the miracle of life and the birds and the bees. Today, it’s a subject taught in various ways in most high schools to squirming students just waiting for the bell to ring. The debate rages on in the government, communities and schools, and no one can agree on what kind of sex education teenagers should be taught in public school.

Even statistics don’t have the answer. Teenage sexual activity has been declining since 1991 and the percentage of sexually active teenagers using condoms has been increasing, but a recent survey shows that numbers have leveled off since 2003. Although the 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests more needs to be done in the sexual education arena, it doesn’t offer any answers about what kind of sex education programs are more beneficial for teenagers.

Proponents of comprehensive sex education programs, which teach about condoms, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, point to the increased funding for abstinence education as the cause behind the discouraging statistics. Abstinence educators argue that comprehensive sex education programs are still much more numerous in the United States, and thus are to blame for sluggish progress.

One reason everyone is interested in sex education is because it has evolved. When it comes to sex, it’s not just the birds and the bees anymore.

Two programs, two very different worlds

Comprehensive sex education is inclusive and usually abstinence-based.

Comprehensive sex ed teaches that abstinence is the best and most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. However, the programs also teach about contraception and safe sex, in the hope of helping teenagers make responsible choices, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank on sexual and reproductive health issues,

“Young people should be encouraged to delay sexual activity,” said Heather Boonstra, senior public policy associate at Guttmacher. “That’s a healthier option for them, but they should be given the tools they need.”

Abstinence-only education emphasizes abstaining from sex and does not necessarily include information about contraception. According to Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, abstinence programs emphasize empowerment and purity and stress the emotional aspects of sex.

The comprehensive programs that include information about contraception and other safe sex practices promote teen sex, she said.

“[Comprehensive sex education programs are] sending the message that if you’re abstinent and you’re a virgin, you won’t stay a virgin,” Unruh said.

Sex & the city…and state…and country

With the politicization of sexual education, the government now has a say. It funds abstinence-only programs, but schools can find other funding if they prefer to teach comprehensive sex education.

The federal government doles out money to abstinence-only education in two ways. Under the Social Security Act, Title V funding is given directly to state governments, while Community-Based Abstinence Education Program funding goes to individual programs.

Fifty million dollars has been budgeted for Title V annually since 1998, and the government has given out an average of $42.4 million each year, but none of it for comprehensive sex ed. States are required to match three dollars for every four dollars they receive in funding.

The Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, the other federal funding source, has been around since 2001 and has distributed more than $519 million in grants to organizations that offer abstinence-only programs to schools and other community organizations.

Although 17 states have so far refused Title V funding, Illinois accepts $1.6 million per year through the program. The funds go directly to the Illinois Department of Human Services, which then allocates the money to 30 community-based organizations that provide abstinence education throughout the state.

Sex education of any kind is optional in Illinois, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The decision whether to offer abstinence-only programs and use federal funding is up to the individual school districts, according to a DHS spokesman.

There is no federal funding specifically earmarked for comprehensive sex education, Boonstra said. However, there is federal funding for programs that promote HIV prevention and awareness and establish family planning clinics, and sometimes that money can be funneled into school sex education.

Chicago, for example, has funded its sex education programs in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Family Life and AIDS Education program, according to a CPS representative. Since April 2006, Chicago public schools have been required to teach comprehensive sex education.

Sex education in the digital age

Leaving no stone unturned, the Internet has now entered the sexual education ring. In one corner are Web sites offering frank sex information, while in the other corner are purity-based Web sites and online support groups. No matter what a teen’s sex education is like, information to support or discredit any program is available online.

Heather Corinna has been running the Web site Scarleteen for the past 10 years with the goal of providing accurate, honest sex information for teenage girls. She says a good portion of her site’s traffic comes from users who have had abstinence-only education. “That’s a pretty typical [situation] for them to voice,” she said. They find their way to her site because they’re seeking more information.

“The best thing I can say about [abstinence-only education] is that it’s not helpful. The worst I can say is that it’s harmful on a million different levels,” Corinna said.

Rutgers University also runs a teen sex information site and print magazine. At Sex, Etc. a teenage staff writes articles about sexual health, body image, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, among other topics.

“The best way to take care of teens is to make sure they have real, honest information about sex,” said Managing Editor Lucinda Holt. “The more teens know about sex, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, teens in comprehensive sex education can find abstinence empowerment and support online if they aren’t receiving it in school.

Yvette Thomas, the CEO of a purity-promoting clothing line called Wait Wear, launched a social networking site June 2 for those who choose abstinence. My Generation Pure Life aims to “connect individuals and organizations to promote a message of abstinence and chastity together,” Thomas said. In only a few days, 30 men and women had signed up.

As long as sex education is optional in Illinois public schools, the type and quality of sex programming will vary throughout the state. Regardless of strong feelings about abstinence-only or comprehensive sex education, experts agree that some type of teenage sex education is important.

“We don’t just throw teens into cars and say ‘Ta-da! You can drive!’” Boonstra said. Teenagers can’t be expected to navigate their sex lives without some sort of similar guidance.