Sex Ed. Doesn't Cut Teen STD or Pregnancy Rates, but Financial Incentives Do

This was a large-scale study, including 55,000 students from eight different countries. 


According to a recent CDC report, STDs in the US are at historic levels. Other developed nations have seen a similar rise. Though no sexually active demographic was immune, the biggest jump in the CDC’s report, was among those between the ages of 15 and 24. Women and men who have sex with men (MSM) also saw sharp increases. Thankfully, the increase was mostly in curable diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Though there is a “superbug” strain of the latter floating around.

Lots of things have been blamed. States closing STD clinics to try and balance their budgets is one reason. Hookup culture and the ubiquity of apps like Tinder and Grindr are others. The stigma against STDs raises risk, as those engaging in hookups don’t know their partner or partners well and due to the stigma, are less inclined to inquire about status, or divulge their own.  

One of the most common targets is a lack of sex education, or a poor quality of it. Education is relegated to the states under the Constitution, and many don’t mandate sex ed. 22 states and Washington D.C. do. Several of these use an abstinence-only curriculum. And even sufficient programs can alienate teens of different sexual orientations, as such curriculum tends to focus on heterosexual experiences.

Now in a shocking twist, a new study is striking sex ed. from the list of potential drivers. Researchers in the UK and South Africa examined eight separate trials, including 55,000 students, from six different countries, to see whether or not school-based interventions helped protect adolescents and influence them into making smarter choices. The countries included in the study were England Scotland, Chile, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

For year's 2007-2012. By M Tracy Hunter (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While researchers found some evidence that sex ed. can increase awareness and decrease risk-taking, by and large, it did not decrease teen pregnancy, HIV, or STD rates. A monthly financial incentive however did influence them. Six of the trials in this review and meta-analysis evaluated the impact of school-based interventions, while two looked at how influential financial incentives were.

Dr. Amanda Mason-Jones of the University of York was the lead author in this study. She said school intervention programs were largely ineffective. "Especially if condoms and contraceptives or other health service provision are also not freely available to young people."

Incentives such as a modest monthly stipend or a free school uniform saw no decline in HIV infection, but did make a significant dent in STD and pregnancy rates. According to Dr. Mason-Jones, previous studies only looked at self-reported outcomes. This study was the first to use “only measurable biological outcomes.” Researchers say more evidence is necessary to corroborate these findings. Though sex ed. is beneficial, according to Dr. Mason-Jones, it should be combined with healthcare services, and much more focus should be put on interventions for girls to avoid pregnancy and stay in school, a substantial issue in much of the developing world.

To learn the teen STD rate click here: 

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