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“Just Say No” Isn’t The Sex Ed Your Child Needs

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In the September issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, there is a position paper from the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine on Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage (AOUM) programs that should get every parent thinking about what kind of sex education their kids are receiving in school. Unfortunately, the intention of waiting until marriage to have sex often fails. With the age of marriage rising in the US, most people have sex for the first time as an adolescent or young adult. In fact, research demonstrates that AOUM programs don't delay the first time a young person has sex. In many communities across the US, abstinence-only programs have replaced more comprehensive ones and this is problematic, as we understand that AOUM programs have the following impact[1]:

  • May be harmful to sexual minority youth: this type of education is mostly heteronormative and may stigmatize other sexualities as deviant. This can increase suicide risk, isolation/loneliness, HIV risk, substance abuse, and violence among sexual minority youth
  • Reinforces gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness: this can lead to risky sexual behavior, including reduced likelihood of condom and other contraceptive use
  • Ignores the realities of adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse: these adolescents cannot easily choose abstinence and may be made to feel guilty about their experiences
  • Ignores sexually-experienced adolescents: AOUM programs don't always provide complete and accurate information about contraception, legal rights to health care, or ways to access reproductive health services - which is something these adolescents need
  • Stigmatization of students who are already pregnant or parenting

Overall, AOUM programs do not include correct information about contraception, and don't require the use of scientifically accurate data. When it comes right down to it, kids need precise information about sex to protect their health and prevent future risk-taking behavior. When they don't receive this type of information, they risk the following:

  •  Early sexual activity
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sexual dysfunction

Abstinence can be an appropriate choice for many kids, especially if they feel that they aren't ready for sex. However, it's a choice that should be made after receiving complete and medically accurate information. Given that comprehensive, not AOUM, sexuality programs have been shown to delay initiation of sex and reduce risky sexual behaviors, the time is now for the US government to completely abandon AOUM policies.

[1] Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policies and Programs: An Updated Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. J Adolesc Health 2017;61(3):400-403.

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Topics: communication Sex Talk safe sex family education

Written by Leah Millheiser, MD

Dr. Leah Millheiser is the Chief Scientific Officer of Aytu Women's Health, LLC. At Stanford University Medical Center, Dr. Millheiser is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program. In addition, she is a Fellow in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. As a sexual medicine expert, Leah devotes her career to treating all aspects of female sexual health. She has a particular interest in the sexual wellness of cancer survivors. In her gynecology practice, she takes care of women across the lifespan, from adolescence to menopause and beyond.

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