Where did you first learn about sex? From a parent? From a teacher in school? From friends? On the internet? Was the information you learned accurate?
I think most of us would agree that the best time to learn about sex is before you start having it, but millions of adolescents and young people – especially those in low-resource environments – don’t have access to quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services. Many of them are pressured into sex before they are ready, putting them at risk of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.
To help prevent this, public health experts recommend offering comprehensive sexuality education (sex ed) in schools. But people have a lot of questions.
At what age should children start learning about sex?
What do they need to know and when?
Does teaching kids about sex encourage them to start having sex earlier than they might otherwise?
Fortunately, there is evidence about what effective sex ed programs look like, and we can now answer many of these questions.
Back in 2009, the United Nations released its first guidance document on comprehensive sex ed. The purpose of this guide was to help government officials to develop and implement effective school-based programs by providing them with the best available evidence about what young people should know about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Recently, a revised and updated version of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education was released. The new addition is more inclusive than the original, covering a wide variety of concepts and topics from relationships, gender, social norms, and values, to sexual behavior and reproductive health. The information is broken down by age groups, starting with age 5 and continuing to late teens.
The authors of this document reviewed the best available research and compiled some key findings on effective, comprehensive sex ed programs. We encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself, but if you’re short on time, here are some highlights (see p. 29-30):
- Sex ed “does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behavior or STI/HIV infection rates.”
- Sex ed “has positive effects” on young people. It increases knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, sexuality, and risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV).
- Abstinence-only sex ed is ineffective at reducing or delaying sexual activity among students.
- Programs that encourage students to reflect on, question, and challenge social and cultural norms related to gender, and to adopt more equitable attitudes about gender, are more effective than those that don’t.
- Sex ed is most effective when community-based services are available and tailored to youth, such as condom distribution, training health providers to offer youth-friendly services, and involving parents and teachers.
Although not all policymakers find this evidence convincing, one small African country is leading the charge for comprehensive sex ed. The Government of Burundi, concerned about high rates of teenage pregnancy and the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, is taking steps to improve access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for in-school and out-of-school young people.
They partnered with CARE, Cordaid, Rutgers, and UNFPA, and received funding from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Burundi to implement the Menyumenyeshe program (translation: “be informed and inform others”), designed to provide comprehensive sex ed, to make sexual and reproductive health services more accessible and friendly to youth, and to promote supportive attitudes toward youth accessing these services in their communities.
Adolescents and youth represent about one-third of the population of Burundi, and their education and health status will impact their country and communities for years – and decades – to come.
Comprehensive sex ed programs help to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to make responsible choices in their lives, but too often the needs of youth are neglected by those with the power to implement these programs. Fortunately, young people around the world are speaking up, advocating for themselves, and claiming their rights to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services. Adults would do well to support them in these efforts. Youth, after all, are not just the future; they are the present.