Sex education in Georgia: Failing the grade and students

Andrea Swartzendruber, a postdoctoral fellow in the Behavioral Sciences and Health Education Department at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, takes on sex education in Georgia. Sex ed is a course that ought to be health based, but often is influenced by politics and ideology.

Her research focuses on adolescent sexual health and reducing HIV and STI disparities. She has 18 years of experience in HIV and STI research and prevention programs, including six years as a public health advisor in the Global AIDS Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She earned her doctorate in Reproductive, Perinatal, and Women’s Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2010, she authored a commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for a national sexual health strategy.

By Andrea Swartzendruber

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new report showing that more than two-thirds of Georgia schools fail to teach all of the recommended sexual education topics.

Even relative to other Southern states, education about condom use was particularly low in Georgia, according to the CDC report. Perhaps this is no real surprise, however, given the CDC recently announced that Georgia ranks fourth in the nation for syphilis and ninth for Chlamydia. Georgia also ranks fourth for HIV diagnoses and 13th for teen pregnancies.

Georgia law mandates that sexual and HIV education emphasize abstinence until marriage, but it does not preclude providing students with comprehensive knowledge and skills for avoiding sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Local school systems decide how and what information to share.

October 8, 2015: DeKalb uses a comprehensive- based curriculum known as FLASH, which is endorsed by healthcare advocates. The school system dropped the controversial, abstinence based curriculum know as "Choosing the Best" 12 years ago after parents criticized the program for not fully informing students. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

Despite a consistent need for sexual education across the state, what students in Georgia get is anything but.

For example, DeKalb County schools use an age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual education curriculum designed to support students to make healthy decisions: abstain from sex, use protection when they do have sex, seek health care when they need it, communicate effectively with their families, and respect others’ decisions not to have sex. The curriculum adheres to the Characteristics of Effective Sex Education Programs and is aligned with the National Health Education Standards for Sexual Health and the National Sexuality Education Standards.

In contrast, roughly half of Georgia school systems use the controversial “Choosing the Best” sex education curriculum which teaches students the risks of condom use rather than the importance of using condoms consistently and how to use a condom correctly.

Bartow County uses the “Choosing the Best” curriculum and specifically bans providing students with information about where they can acquire condoms and family planning counseling and services.

"Lack of effective sex education can have very real, very serious health consequences," said Stephanie Zaza, director of CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Major professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association, support abstinence but also emphasize that young people need accurate and comprehensive sexual education to prepare them for responsible decision-making. The vast majority of parents also support teaching comprehensive sexual education in schools.

A focus on health can serve as a unifying goal amid the politics and polarization that often surround public discussion of sexual education. Positive and respectful relationships, prevention, and wellness are goals everyone can agree on.

Abstinence is a healthy choice for young people that should be emphasized and supported. However, no one advocates lifelong abstinence, and abstinence intentions among young people often fail and change. Students need information and skills to prepare them for a lifetime of health.

The evidence about what works is clear.

Data show that abstinence-only curricula do not delay sexual debut or reduce sexual risk behavior. In fact, evidence of potential harm exists. Studies show that abstinence-only education may deter sexually active adolescents from using contraceptives, increasing their risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy.  In contrast, comprehensive sexual education curricula delay the age at first sex and decrease sexual risk behaviors. Moreover, teen pregnancies are 50% less likely among students who receive comprehensive sexual education as compared to students who receive abstinence-only education.

All Georgia students, regardless of zip code, should receive fundamental knowledge and skills to prepare them for a lifetime of health.

The state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are at disproportionate risk for HIV and other STIs and experience high rates of harassment, dating violence, and sexual violence. These students would particularly benefit from inclusive comprehensive sexual education that supports their health and development.

Failing to provide comprehensive sex education threatens students’ health by withholding potentially life-saving information. As state statistics attest, teaching abstinence until marriage is not sufficient. Georgia should adopt a sexual health approach that supports abstinence but prepares students to protect their health when they do become sexually active.