Two national surveys reported yesterday that sex education classes often fail to address topics that parents, students and teachers believe are important to young people's understanding of sexuality.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., found that parents of public secondary-school students wanted sex education classes to teach a wide range of subjects: Abstinence training won the support of 97 percent of the parents in the survey, but similarly high percentages of parents also wanted schools to teach how to deal with the emotional consequences of sex, how to talk to parents about sex and relationships, and how a student should seek help in cases of sexual assault.
The instruction of such controversial topics as homosexuality, abortion and how to use birth control won support of more than 75 percent of the parents surveyed.
"The main issue, simply put, is that parents want sex education to do it all," said Tina Hoff, a Kaiser Family Foundation spokeswoman.
However, a sizable minority of students reported that their schools do not teach the communication skills that the parents in the poll overwhelmingly claimed to value. Only about 60 percent of students said their classes had talked about what to do if they or a friend are sexually assaulted, how to talk to parents about sex and relationships, or how to talk to a partner about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.
The study suggested that many students would like to learn more about these skills: For example, 43 percent said they need more information about how to talk to parents about sex and relationships.
A second survey released yesterday, by the Alan Guttmacher Institute of New York, reported that 23 percent of sex education teachers in public secondary schools taught abstinence as the sole method of preventing pregnancy and venereal disease in 1999, up from 2 percent in 1988.
Among those teachers, 89 percent said such courses should include instruction on where to find birth control, and 82 percent said sex education classes should teach how to use a condom, the study said.
The Guttmacher study said this trend was at odds with the beliefs of many sex education teachers. Opponents of abstinence-only education said the surveys confirmed their prior findings on the subject.
"Americans overwhelmingly support comprehensive sexuality education, which includes abstinence as well as medically accurate information about sexuality and contraception," said Tamara Kreinen, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Supporters of the abstinence-only approach questioned the fairness of the surveys and said they doubted that the results represent Americans' true attitudes toward sex education.
"We're not just talking about the birds and the bees these days - we're talking about teaching kids how to have sex, and that's overstepping the bounds of education," Heather Cirmo, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council in Washington.