Many conservatives believe that sex education causes teen-agers to have sex. Many liberals believe that such education causes teens to make more responsible decisions about sex. Most people believe that teen-agers are not particularly susceptible to advice about their personal relationships.
It turns out that most people are right about the latter premise. Analyses of two major national surveys on how sex education affects the sexual behavior of teen-agers show that a majority of American young people do receive some formal sex education during their teen-age years and that this education seems to have no influence on their decisions about becoming sexually active.
The studies were conducted by Johns Hopkins University and Ohio State University. Both were published in Family Planning Perspectives, the journal of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood. The source of the Ohio State material is a massive longitudinal study of youth being conducted by the U.S. Labor Department.
When a 15-year-old girl decides whether to initiate sexual activity, both studies found, prior sex education has a weaker influence on her decision than every other variable in her life. Much more influential on her decision are religion and family life. The Johns Hopkins research found that weekly church attendance reduces the odds that a teen-ager of any age will choose to be sexually active and that having a mother with 12 years or more of education and both parents in the home through the age of 14 reduce the odds that a girl will begin her sexual life at the ages of 14 through 16.
In the matter of teen-age pregnancy, the most serious aspect of early sexual behavior, both studies concluded that education about contraception can be effective. Teen-agers who received instruction about contraception were more likely to use it. Not only was sex education effective in promoting the use of contraception, it was the only factor in the teen-agers' lives that was found to significantly increase the likelihood that they would use contraceptives.
However, such education is probably too little and too late for a majority of young people. Fewer than half of teen-agers receive course instruction about contraception before they have intercourse for the first time. At the youngest ages studied, teens who were 15 and under at first intercourse, only about one in seven boys and one in three girls had been taught about contraception. Even among those teens who postponed their first sexual experience until they were 18, it was found that fewer than half had already had contraception education.
Although found to be effective in stemming the tide of teen-age pregnancy, contraception is also the most controversial public policy issue in sex education. Many more teen-agers receive instruction on "neutral" issues such as how the reproductive system works than receive lessons on contraception, and much contraception education is "passive"--providing information to teen-agers about types of contraceptives, but not about how to obtain them, the Ohio State study said.
A positive aspect of sex education found by both studies was that young women who have had courses about sex, pregnancy and contraception were more likely to talk to their parents about these issues.
The researchers emphasized that much more needs to be learned about how sex education can help teen-agers. The content and quality of classes vary across the country and are difficult to measure. Teen-agers themselves are difficult to measure; their sexual activity and the incidence of abortion are probably under-reported in existing studies.