Is Texas ready for a new kind of sex-ed?

‘Abstinence-plus’ gains traction in classrooms

By Monica Kortsha 

Photo by Monica Kortsha

For Texas children in middle school and high school, sex education is largely an abstinence-only explanation.  Under this method, contraception is often not discussed and the lessons don’t move beyond state-approved health books, which often lack information on preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

But a new approach to sexual education, called abstinence-plus, is starting to appear in Texas classrooms.  These programs include medically-accurate information about contraception, including different methods and effectiveness.

Since the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 1997, school districts that offer sexual education are legally obligated to give sexual abstinence until marriage more attention than any other method of pregnancy and STD prevention — highlighting it as the “preferred choice of behavior” for students.

Nearly 75 percent of Texas school districts only teach abstinence in sex-education courses, according to data collected by the Texas Education Agency in 2010-2011.

In these districts, contraception is not discussed at all, and minimal to no information is provided on sexually transmitted disease prevention.


Abstinence-plus programs on the way

Although the state of Texas still emphasizes abstinence as the “preferred” method, the rise of the ‘plus’ version is showing that many Texans want sex-ed to cover more.

While a 2007-2008 report by the Texas Freedom Network found only 3.6 percent of Texas school districts offered an abstinence-plus program, two years later the number had jumped to over 25 percent.   TFN is a grassroots organization of more than 60,000 religious and community leaders.

The report is based on an analysis of data from a Texas Education Agency’s 2010-2011 School Health Survey and based on results from 677 Texas districts — excluding charter schools — and gives an overview of 65 percent of 1,031 traditional school districts in Texas.

Although the Centers for Disease Control do not publish information on abstinence-plus programs, other sources also show an increase at the national level.

Favoring an abstinence-plus education, or actual implementation of it by Texas school districts, goes against the state’s official “abstinence-centered” stance on sexual education, a view meant to “delay initiation of sexual activity … to decrease the teen pregnancy rate and rate of sexually transmitted diseases,” according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

However, research shows that despite the state’s intent to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy through abstinence only education, when compared to teens in the rest of the country, Texas teens have more sex and get pregnant at a higher rate.

A 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 52 percent of Texas teens have had sex, compared to 46 percent of U.S. students (the same survey found that 42 percent of sexually active Texas teens did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter, compared to 39 percent of U.S. students). And a 2010 CDC study found Texas has the 4th highest birth rate in the United States and the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies, with 22 percent of girls aged 15-19 who gave birth already having another child.

According to the TFN study, the shift toward abstinence-plus education is driven in part by local communities, who see the effects of teen pregnancy first hand. This can lead to local school boards being contacted by parents, according to information unearthed by Texas Parenting magazine and anecdotal evidence from the Texas Education Agency.

Many Texas parents do seem to have an opinion, according to a study produced a decade ago by a team of researchers from the University of Texas Health and Science Center at San Antonio and the San Antonio Health District Family Planning program. They found that 80 percent of surveyed parents from Bexar County (which includes portions of the San Antonio ISD), favored an abstinence-plus curriculum.

Another reason for the jump in such sex education programs, according to the TFN report, is that Worth the Wait, a Scott & White Healthcare sexual education program used in over 19 percent of Texas school districts, now appears less certain on how to handle contraception education.

A review of the WTW Wellness & Sexual Health Curriculum says “students are able to identify abstinence as the only complete protection from STDs, pregnancy, and the emotional consequences of teen sex.”


Condom instructions provided 

But it appears this fact is not presented without teaching students about other methods of protection. The TFN report cites a 2011 WTW powerpoint-presentation, entitled ‘Contraception & Teens: Providing the FACTS!,’ which includes more than 80 slides describing a dozen of the most commonly used methods of contraception  …  including instructions from the Centers for Disease Control on the “Correct Use” of condoms.

Scott & White was not available for comment on the WTW program.

Seven of the 10 Texas school districts with highest student enrollment currently use an abstinence-plus education, according to the TFN study.

Interestingly, data surveyed from across North America in a 2007 PLOS | Medicine report found abstinence-plus as having positive effects by “promoting sexual abstinence … and preventing HIV, but also encourage condom use and other safer-sex practices … this suggests that abstinence-plus approaches do not undermine program messages encouraging abstinence, nor do they undermine program messages encouraging safer sex.”


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