Impact of Sex Education on the Sexual Practices and Behaviors of College Students

Memo

To: Michelle Moody, Director of Title IX and Equal Opportunity
1 Avenue of the Arts, Newport News, VA 23606,
mlmoody@cnu.edu

From: Michelle Carman-McClanahan, 1000 University Place      #4708, Newport News, VA 23606  michelle.carmanmcclanahan.13@cnu.edu

Subject: Sexual Health Education Improvement

Purpose:

The goal of this phenomenological study is to determine whether inadequate sex education has a significant impact on the sexual practices and behaviors of college students. If so, that suggests that a change in the accuracy and quality of sexual education needs to be made.

Summary:

In the United States, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. Furthermore, only 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually, or technically accurate. Even then, state definitions of what it means to be “medically accurate” vary drastically. Consequently, states that do not require sex education or medically accurate sex education have higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.

This failure to provide equal and adequate sex education is doing a disservice to all individuals, especially students. By conducting a phenomenological research study on the sex education experience of students attending Christopher Newport University, a conclusion can be reached on how sex education affects the lives of young adults and college aged students.

Based on the data obtained in this study, a recommendation would be made to include a sexual health education session during Welcome Week activities for incoming students. This session would create a safe space in which students can learn about HIV and STD education, information on various forms of contraception, and information about the gender and sexuality spectrum. Taught in conjunction with new Title IX information sessions, this program would benefit the sexual health of students and attempt to minimize future occurrences of sexual misconduct.

Abstract

In the fall of 2015, a study was conducted to determine whether inadequate sex education has a significant impact on the sexual practices and behaviors of college students. Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education, while only 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically or factually accurate. This phenomenological study explores the sexual health education experiences of students attending Christopher Newport University. The experiences of these students were analyzed for common feelings about current sex education practices and whether current curriculums provide students with adequate information to lead safe, healthy lives. By examining the responses of these students, a recommendation was made to add a session about sexual health education to Welcome Week activities for all incoming students. This study found that students overwhelmingly support the implementation of a comprehensive, medically accurate sex education program.

Keywords: sex, sex education, students, college, health, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, abstinence, safety

Introduction

In the United States, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. Furthermore, only 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually, or technically accurate (“State Policies on Sex Education in Schools 2015). Even then, state definitions of what it means to be “medically accurate” vary drastically. Consequently, states that do not require sex education or medically accurate sex education have higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases (“Comprehensive Sex Education: Research and Results” 2015).

Students exposed to inconsistent, inaccurate sex education courses are more likely to turn to other sources of information and engage in at risk sexual behaviors. As students search for information outside of the classroom, they encounter sources of varying accuracy or sources that are a poor reflection of the reality of sexual practices. Without the guarantee of accurate and realistic explanations of sexual health, students engage in sexual practices that may result in negative long-term effects (“Comprehensive Sex Education: Research and Results” 2015).

Christopher Newport University (CNU) is a highly reputable institution known for putting the health and safety needs of students first. CNU is also known for its progressive stance on preventing sexual assault and changing the cultural understanding of the issue. Before the fall semester begins all incoming students are made to attend a week of activities that help them to adjust to university life.

In 2015, a session focused on Title IX was added to Welcome Week activities. This session explored the new Title IX policies implemented on campus to incoming students, providing them with access to information about the policy itself and the ways in which it impacts daily life. Based on the findings of this study, it is proposed that a mandatory session on sexual health be added to the list of Welcome Week activities for incoming students.

Methodology

A phenomenological study was conducted in order to understand the sexual health education level of college students at Christopher Newport University. Phenomenological research describes how a particular experience affects a group of individuals as a whole. The goal of the study is to describe what the actual experience is as well as how it is experienced by an individual; the conclusions should be universally applicable. The phenomenon examined in this study was that of the sexual health education experiences of individuals now enrolled in college. Specifically, the level and depth of sex education was examined to understand the long-term implications sex education has on individuals.

For the purposes of this study, a survey was made available to students attending Christopher Newport University concerning their experience of sex education. This voluntary, anonymous survey received a total of 30 respondents. Questions focused on the amount of sex education received, the content included and excluded, and whether or not students felt they received adequate information to prepare them for adult life [Appendix A]. The data obtained was examined for commonalities in experience.

Findings

After providing student demographic data, survey respondents were asked a series of questions regarding the amount of sexual health education they received, the thoroughness of the education, and the effectiveness of completed sexual education courses. Additional questions identified the major topics covered in these sexual health education courses, as well as topics that were not covered at all. Respondents were then asked to share their thoughts on the need for students to have comprehensive sex education programs.

Student Demographics

In order to understand the background of the students surveyed, survey respondents were asked to identify the state in which they completed their kindergarten through twelfth grade education (Figure 1), the type of educational institution enrolled in prior to attending Christopher Newport University (Figure 2), and their current level of college education (Figure 3). Of the respondents, 80% of students were from the state of Virginia and were enrolled in primary and secondary education systems in this state. Only 7% of the respondents were from a state outside of the Virginia/Maryland area.

Home State of Students

Furthermore, 87% of the respondents stated that they attended a public school during their kindergarten through twelfth grade education. Only 3% of respondents indicated that they had attended both a public and private educational institution prior to attending university. Based on this data, 73% of the survey respondents attended public schools in the state of Virginia before enrolling at Christopher Newport University.

Type of Educational System Attended

Of the survey respondents, approximately half of the students identified themselves as being juniors at CNU. The class with the lowest level of representation in this study consists of sophomores. Approximately 20% of the respondents had the opportunity to attend the Title IX session during Welcome Week at CNU as an incoming student.

Current Level of College Education

Sexual Health Education

Respondents were then asked to identify how many years of sexual health education courses they completed prior to entering Christopher Newport University (Figure 4). These responses ranged from not having taken any sex education courses to taking approximately nine years worth of courses related to sexual health. Less than half of the respondents took more than three years worth of sex education courses.

Years of Sex Education

Of the 73% of survey respondents that attended a public school in the state of Virginia (Figure 5), less than half received more than four years worth of sex education courses. Based on the survey data, students who attended public schools in the state of Virginia completed an average of three years of sexual health education.Students in VA

 

Respondents were asked if they felt that their sex education courses adequately informed them about the realities of becoming sexually active (Figure 6). Of these respondents, 67% stated that they did not feel as if their sex education courses adequately informed them about the realities of becoming sexual active. When asked to explain why they felt this way about their sex education courses, many students stated that these courses focused on fear tactics to encourage students not to have sex, rather than educating them on how to protect themselves.

Adequately Informed

Furthermore, most respondents indicated that education focused solely on abstinence and discouraging students from engaging in any sexual activity. Another common response from respondents was that these courses frequently used sex and body shaming tactics to discourage sexual activity. Other respondents indicated that they turned to family members to supplement the information received in these sex education courses. One respondent, a 21-year-old senior, even explained, “I do not yet feel confident enough to engage [in any sexual activity] due to my lack of knowledge”.

Students were also asked to indicate any topics that were not addressed in their sexual health education courses that would have improved their understanding of sexual health and practices. Based on their responses, the following word cloud was created with terms most frequently used appearing the largest (Figure 7).

Sex Ed Cloud.png

Respondents indicated that while most of the focus was on abstinence, this was not a realistic approach to sex education. Students felt that one of the biggest components lacking in these courses was an honest discussion of how to have safe sex. Students also had a specific desire to know more about different forms of birth control and the most effective ways to use them. Female respondents indicated a desire to learn more about their own bodies and ways in which to explore their sexuality, especially when courses employed female sex shaming techniques.

When asked about their feelings toward the implementation of a comprehensive, medically accurate sex education program on a nationwide level, all of the respondents felt positively about this suggestion. Students indicated that they would only support a program that was required to be medically accurate, not founded on abstinence only programs, and created with the intent to educate students on facts, not particular moral beliefs.

Students further identified reasons why this program is needed in America. According to respondents, highly sexualized media content creates unrealistic sexual expectations that permeate American culture. By addressing these myths and media ideals in the classroom and combatting them with facts, students can gain a better understanding of sexual health. Survey respondents also indicated that improved sex education courses are shown to reduce instances of unwanted pregnancy and the contraction of sexually transmitted infections. For these reasons, students feel that improved sex education courses are a necessity.

Conclusions

Based on the findings of this study, the addition of a medically accurate sexual health education session to Welcome Week activities would be beneficial to the Christopher Newport University student body. The experiences of the respondents indicate that a majority of students are suffering from a disparity in the quality of sexual health education. Without a comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, students are at higher risk for unwanted pregnancy and contraction of sexually transmitted infections. These students also suffer from an inability to communicate about sex and sexuality in a healthy manner, which impacts all future sexual interactions of these individuals.

By adding a sex education session to Welcome Week activities, students will have an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about their sexual health before they enter into one of the most experimental phases of their lives. Offering this program in conjunction with the new Title IX session will promote discussion about healthy sexual behavior and how to respond in situations where students are at risk of sexual misconduct. The addition of this program will be a step towards combatting rising numbers of sexual misconduct and promoting safe, healthy sexual practices that students will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

References

“Comprehensive Sex Education: Research and Results.” Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth, Sept. 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Klein, Rebecca. “These Maps Show Where Kids In America Get Terrifying Sex Ed.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Raphael, Dana A. “The Effect of Sexual Education on Sexual Assault Prevention.”Women North Carolina. WomenNC, Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

“State Policies on Sex Education in Schools.” National Conference of State Legislators. Guttmacher Institue, 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Appendix

Sexual Health Education Survey Questions

  1. How old are you?
  2. Which gender do you identify as?
  3. What is your sexual orientation?
  4. Where are you from?
  5. What is your current college education level?
  6. Did you attend a public or private educational institution throughout grade school?
  7. Were you required to take a sex education course(s) at any point during your education?
    1. If yes, how many years of sex education were you required to take?
    2. If not, do you feel that your sexual health and experiences would be different had you taken a sex education course?
  8. What topics were covered in your sex education course?
  9. What topics were not discussed in your sex education course that you feel would have improved your understanding of sexual health and practices?
  10. Do you feel your sex education course(s) adequately informed you about the realities of becoming sexually active? Why or why not?
  11. Did you ever learn information in a sex education course that you later found out was medically inaccurate or otherwise untrue? If so, what was it?
  12. Have you ever looked for information regarding sexual health and practices online? If so, what kind of information were you looking for and why?
  13. How do you think sex education impacts your understanding of sexual health and practices during your collegiate years, as well as later in life?
  14. How do you feel about the nationwide creation and implementation of a comprehensive, medically accurate sex education program?
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