William L. Jeffries IV, Brian Dodge, Frank C. Bandeira, et al., “Beyond Abstinence-Only: Relationships between Abstinence Education and Comprehensive Topic Instruction,” Sex Education (2010).
Researchers analyzed data from 199 Florida public school teachers to determine which topics were covered during instruction in human sexuality.1 Topics that conformed to Federal “Title V Section 510 A-H Guidelines” were classified as “abstinence-only” instruction.2Topics that conformed to the SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education were classified as “comprehensive” instruction.3 The data was gathered via teacher self-reports using a mailed paper survey, and a random sample of 1,800 teachers from across the state were asked to participate. Of the 1,800 who were mailed paper surveys, 462 responded. The researchers used only the data reported by Florida teachers who taught sexuality topics in the 2005-2006 school year and had no missing data on abstinence-only and comprehensive topic questions.
- Only 19% of the teachers were health teachers. The largest cohort (32%) taught Family and Consumer Science, and the next-largest cohort (24%) taught science.
- Half of the teachers were older than age 50, and 77% identified as ‘white non-Hispanic’.
- Nearly half of all teachers covered all eight abstinence-only topics, and more than half covered “most” comprehensive topics.
- The odds of teaching comprehensively increased as teachers taught more of the abstinence-only A-H topics.
According to the researchers, “surprisingly few studies have examined the content [of] teachers’ instruction on sexuality education topics.”4 Studies of comprehensive sexuality education versus abstinence-only-until-marriage education tend to focus on outcomes (i.e. age of sexual debut, rates of condom use, pregnancy rates) rather than the specific instructional content. The purpose of this study was to determine whether a sample of teachers in Florida, a leading recipient of Federal Title V abstinence dollars, were providing more comprehensive sexuality instruction beyond the limited A-H topics favored by that state’s conservative policymakers.
Policy advocates sometimes frame comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage education as polar opposites. This reflects the sound-bite culture of the legislative process, in which proponents of any approach have three minutes to deliver the simplest possible talking points to legislators with no training in human sexuality or even public health. The result is that the points of overlap between abstinence-only-until-marriage education and more comprehensive approaches escape analysis. The researchers have attempted to find those points of overlap.
Still, the researchers did not ask teachers about specific messages or methods they used in teaching the 34 comprehensive topics selected from the SIECUS Guidelines. Teachers indicated only “yes” or “no” for comprehensive topics such as abortion, masturbation, sexual dysfunction, HIV/AIDS, sexual assault, gender roles, etc. The actual messages they provided for each topic, and the teaching activities they used, remain unknown.
For the eight Federal A-H items, teachers also indicated only “yes” or “no” as to whether they covered each item. However, each of these eight items is a message. For example, item D states that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.”
Perhaps more significant is the demographic makeup of their randomly-selected sample of public school teachers, half of whom were older than age 50 and identified as white non-Hispanic. In a state with an adolescent population nearly 50% Black, Hispanic, or “other” (including Asian, Native American, or multi-racial), the sexuality education teaching force appears to be unreflective of the population of learners.5 Future research should try to determine whether the racial and ethnic mismatch of teachers and learners has any impact on how topics are prioritized and taught, as well as on the specific teaching methods and messages.
1 Jeffries WL, Dodge B, Bandiera FC, Reece M (2010). Beyond abstinence-only: relationships between abstinence education and comprehensive topic instruction. Sex Education 10(2):171-185.
2 Social Security Administration. Compilation of the Social Security Laws: Separate Program for Abstinence Education.<http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/ssact/title05/0510.htm>
3 National Guidelines Task Force (2004). Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten - 12th Grade, 3rd Edition. NY: SIECUS. <http://www.siecus.org/_data/global/images/guidelines.pdf>
4 Jeffries et al., 181.
5 National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Race/Ethnicity among adolescents aged 12-18, 2009. Florida Adolescent Profile. <http://nccp.org/profiles/FL_profile_54.html>