Only ten cents out of every federal sex education dollar is devoted to Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) education, but recent data shows that the approach is more relevant today than it was 25 years ago.
SRA education provides a holistic approach that helps teens understand that while sex can be a wonderful part of being human, sex as a teen is a risk behavior that can have life-altering effects. While giving medically accurate information on reproductive anatomy, pregnancy, STDs and contraception, Sexual Risk Avoidance education focuses on normalizing sexual delay for youth.
It shares how to build healthy relationships, develop self-regulation, concentrate on academics, and set future goals.
Time and time again, we hear the stories of youth who report that as a result of their SRA education, they achieved more than just waiting for sex, confirming the holistic and positive impacts of these programs.
Waiting for sex is important, but SRA is about more than sex. Here are just a few youth who shared their stories; the names have changed, but the stories are real:
Elena related that her local SRA program encouraged her to return to high school after earlier dropping out. She did so and became the first female in her family to graduate and go on to college.
Clayton, a tenth-grader, traveled to DC last week to share his support for SRA education: “The SRA program in my health class is more than just about sex, for me, it was the reality that I had a choice. I was for the first time in my life, presented with the choice of abstinence. Sex and stuff seemed to be expected within my family. Who knows what my future holds now that I know I have other options other than continuing the current unhealthy family cycle?”
Brandy’s mom paid the bills by working as a stripper. Brandy said this after participating in her school’s SRA program: “Before going through this program, I figured I would be a stripper. However, I now believe that I can do and be anything and I have a goal to be a doctor.”
The stories are powerful, but the real lives that have new promise provide a much more powerful reason for SRA education. Yes, SRA helps youth wait for sex, avoid other risky behaviors, and focus on their education.
But, sexually experienced students also feel valued by SRA educators, because they are empowered with the fact that their current choices need not dictate their future choices — and empowered with practical skills to help them return to a sexually risk-free status. All teens, regardless of sexual experience or orientation, can benefit from the positive and health-affirming messages intrinsic with the SRA approach.
A body of research empirically confirms what we hear from these anecdotal stories from students. Twenty-five peer-reviewed studies compiled in SRA Works, report that youth who are part of an SRA program are more likely to wait for sex, more likely to excel academically, more likely to avoid other risky behaviors, and if they become sexually active, they are no less likely to use contraception, but are more likely to reduce or discontinue their sexual activity.
In addition, recent research, using National Survey on Family Growth (NSFG) data, adds to this proof by revealing that sexually active students are slightly more likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception if they are taught how to avoid teen sex, rather than if they receive education on how to use a condom.
And they are just as likely to use dual forms of contraception. The study does not explain why this is the case, but an analysis of The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) youth data shows that sexual delay is important to future condom usage.
Critics like to repeat the same old argument that SRA programs just don’t work. However, it is the youth themselves who are proving these critics to be wrong. The CDC designates teen sex as a risk behavior and regularly reports on the state of this teen risk. The most recent results show that the majority of teens are not having sex — far fewer, in fact, than teens 25 years ago.
This is surprisingly good news. Teens deserve to be applauded and reinforced for their healthy choices, especially in their sex education classes. Unfortunately, for too many this is not the case, in large part due to the lack of sufficient funding for SRA education.
Since 2007, more than ten billion dollars has been spent on Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) education. This means 90 cents out of every federal sex education dollar is currently devoted to this approach.
It is an approach that has been alternatively named teen pregnancy prevention or so-called comprehensive sex education, but which typically normalizes teen sex. In fact, teens report that these programs make them feel pressured to have sex. More pressured to have sex, in fact, than the pressure they feel from their dating partners.
Not surprisingly, then, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released the findings of the Obama-era Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program, it revealed that despite spending nearly one billion dollars, more than 80 percent of teens in the program fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not a part of the program.
Those who fared worse, were more likely to get pregnant, more likely to have sex, and more likely to have oral sex. Proponents of TPP called the program evidence-based from the start, but the program failed to deliver.
Applying public health messaging to the too-contentious sex education debate is long overdue. The healthiest message for youth is one that gives youth the skills and information to avoid the risks of teen sex, not merely reduce them. This is the kind of message we give to youth when we encourage them not to smoke, not to use drugs, and to avoid underage drinking.
And it is a message that is both necessary and relevant in 2017. Policymakers finally have an opportunity to give American youth the reinforcement they need to continue to make healthy choices — and to normalize sexual delay for all teens and especially for those teens who currently feel pressured to have sex by social media, their favorite music — or their sex education classes. It is time to let common sense, science, and a focus on optimal health determine our sex education policy.
Valerie Huber is the president and CEO of Ascend, an organization that represents the field of Sexual Risk Avoidance education. Having previously worked in the public health field, Huber supports SRA education as an optimal health strategy to improve opportunities and future prospects of America’s youth.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.