Should Sex Ed Teach Abstinence? Most Americans Say Yes

Research Releasesin Family & Kids•September 5, 2017

This article is part of Barna’s back-to-school series exploring brand new research on education, from parents’ expectations and college trends to students’ schedules and school violence.

Sexual norms and attitudes have changed dramatically in American culture over the years, and today’s young people face opportunities and choices their forbears may not have imagined. With the ease of access to sexually explicit material today, and research showing the reluctance of parents to have candid conversations with their kids, young people are often left to their own devices (sometimes literally) when it comes to navigating the complex world of sex and sexuality. The role of sex education is as important as ever, but the debate among American adults about the right approach to sex education—particularly between teaching safe-sex vs. abstinence—has been ongoing. So how do Americans see their responsibility to educate and equip teens to make choices about sex? A Barna study, conducted in partnership with Ascend, uncovers what adults, particularly Christian ones, believe about the best approaches to sex education.

Millennials See Teen Sex Differently
When asked whether they personally believe it’s OK for teens to have sex, assuming the sex is consensual and a contraceptive is used, 37 percent of all adults affirm such sexual activity among teens—and males much more so than females (46% and 28%, respectively). Sexual behavior is a topic on which generations predictably disagree, and Millennials really stand apart. Among Millennials, more than half (54%) feel consensual, safe sex among teens is OK.

While seven in 10 adults (71%) believe sex education classes should primarily use practical skills to reinforce waiting for sex, a smaller majority of Millennials agree (57%). This compares to much higher rates among Gen X (74%), Boomers (75%) and Elders (85%). The other 43 percent of Millennials believe sex education should communicate that teen sex is OK, so long as young people consent and use contraception. Overall, only 29 percent of adults agree with this approach. Additionally, Millennials (38%) are more likely to say federal funding should be used to support this point of view compared to Boomers (9%) and Elders (6%).

71% of adults believe sex ed should primarily use practical skills to reinforce waiting for sex. Click To Tweet

Family Status Shapes Perspectives
Those with children under 18 (77%) strongly believe sex education should support a message of waiting, while those without minor children still favor this idea albeit to a lesser degree (68%). Even so, parents who are actively raising children are more likely to say teen sex is OK (48% vs. 31% of those not raising children). Given that Millennials and Gen X are most likely to currently have children under 18, these statistics indicate that young parents may struggle with the tension between their broader progressive values and a desire for their own children to be selective.

Married people (80%) and those who have been divorced (76%) are most likely to say the primary message of sex education should reinforce waiting, in contrast with the 57 percent of those who have never been married and 58 percent of those who have ever cohabited. Nearly all married (91%) and divorced (92%) people also believe it’s at least somewhat important that teens be encouraged to avoid sex. Among those who have never been married, three-quarters (73%) agree. It’s possible the experience of commitment in marriage fosters a less lenient view of sexuality, or that holding stringent perspectives encourages people to pursue marriage.

Faith Influences Sex Education Approaches
Faith is the single most powerful factor influencing adults’ views of teen sex and sex education. When asked what primary message sex education classes should offer, 78 percent of self-identified Christians and 86 percent of practicing Christians agree it should be a message that uses practical skills to reinforce waiting for sex. By comparison, 52 percent of non-Christians agree. The group most enthusiastic about this approach is evangelicals, with 94 percent in agreement. Church activity makes a difference as well. Among weekly church attenders, 84 percent agree that sex education should encourage teens to wait. This presents a marked contrast with those who attend monthly (79%) or less often (63%).

Faith is the most powerful factor influencing adults’ views of sex ed. Click To Tweet

When considering federal funding for sex education approaches, the highest percentage of Americans (43%) believe the two approaches should receive equal funding: telling teens they’re allowed to be sexually active as long as contraception is used, and giving teens skills to help them hold off on sex. Among those who endorse one view or the other, 37 percent say most funding should go to the latter approach, while one in five (20%) supports the former. Practicing Christians are more likely to support funding for abstinence, with half (51%) favoring this approach and only 9 percent saying federal funding should support a message that condones safe sex. For evangelicals, the preference is very strong, with 80 percent advocating abstinence. This dramatically outweighs all other groups: non-evangelicals (47%), notional Christians (34%), people of other faiths (34%) and those of no faith (21%).

Facts About Teens’ Habits Change Responses
When questions about sex education are framed within the context of information about teens’ habits and concerns about at-risk behavior, people’s views become slightly more conservative. For example, when informed that the majority of teens are not sexually active, and that fewer are sexually active today compared to teens 20 years ago—facts that surprised two-thirds of respondents (65%)—77 percent indicate that a message that reinforces waiting for sex should be the primary approach to sex education. Before they received this information, 71 percent held this view. Women are more influenced by this knowledge, shifting from 72 to 82 percent who advocate for a message of waiting. All generational groups became more favorable of this message, with the biggest difference emerging among Millennials, who moved from 57 percent to 64 percent.

65% of adults were surprised that teens are less sexually active today than 20 years ago. Click To Tweet

When reminded that the Centers for Disease Control describes teen sex as “at-risk behavior,” like smoking and drinking alcohol, the vast majority (84%) claim it’s important to encourage teens to avoid sex. Three percent say they are unsure. Without that information, only 53 percent had said teens should be encouraged to wait to participate, and 11 percent were unsure. One thing all Americans are well aware of: it’s vital to teach teens that condoms offer limited protection against STDs, and other contraceptives offer none. Eighty-one percent of adults and a majority of all segments say this is very important.

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About the Research
Interviews with U.S. adults included 1281 web-based surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted November 4-16 of 2016. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

About Barna
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

Photo by on Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2017

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