What teens have to know about sex

John Oliver gives the sex talk
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Story highlights

  • Debra Hauser: Sex-ed battles still rage on, but question already settled among health experts
  • Educated teens are less likely to have pregnancies and disease, she says
  • Hauser says abstinence-only education wastes tax dollars

Debra Hauser is the president and executive director of Advocates for Youth and vice chair of the board of directors for the American Sexual Health Association. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)As we enter another school year, debates on sex education are once again raging across the country. Should we teach sex education in K-12 schools? Should we teach teens about safer sex at all?

But the truth is that we don't have a real debate on our hands -- this issue was settled among health professionals' decades ago. What we do have is a responsibility to make sure all teens have access to essential information and contraception options to protect their overall health.
Debra Hauser
We know teens have sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 70% of U.S. teens report having sex by age 19. And we know that states without comprehensive sex education have higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. As late-night comedian John Oliver pointed out on his show recently, only 22 states require sex education, and only 13 states require that the information presented be "medically accurate."
    Withholding facts and resources about sexual health -- information about contraceptives, consent, having regular screenings for sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive health -- is unfair and frankly, scandalous.
    The federal government continues to allocate millions in grants, even extending and increasing the funding this year -- for the implementation of ineffective, abstinence-only-until-marriage "risk-avoidance" programs. And just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a restriction to funding for sex education programs that "normalize teen sexual activity as an expected behavior" as part of the "No Child Left Behind" rewrite.
    The bill also prohibits funding for sex education programs that neglect to emphasize "the health benefits of abstinence" or distribute contraception in K-12 schools.
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    For schools to attempt to shame or scare teens into abstaining from sex, rather than teaching them how to practice safe sex, is unethical and potentially dangerous. To promote ignorance flouts the advice of medical experts in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It advocates for a sex-positive framework -- with an emphasis on comprehensive sex education -- that will improve health and wellness of Americans and equip teens with essential sexual health information.
    The framework, developed by former Surgeon General David Satcher, in collaboration with a current and a former board member of the American Sexual Health Association, promotes the incorporation of medically accurate, evidence-based and age-appropriate curricula for K-12 health classes. The experts call for an increased emphasis on sexual wellness and positive, respectful relationships; acknowledgement of the impact of sexual health on overall health; and an integrated, holistic approach to preventive care.
    Our tax dollars should not be used to fund inadequate and irresponsible abstinence-only, but instead for a curricula that recognize the normality of youth sexual development and promote comprehensive sex education.
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    Young people who use a contraceptive method right from the start, the first time they have sex, are less likely to become pregnant than those who don't. In fact, according to the CDC, of the 43% of females estimated to have intercourse by age 17, those who don't use contraception during their first sexual encounter are five times more likely to experience a teen birth.
    Implementing a positive framework would save taxpayer money, and would also help save millions of dollars spent treating sexually transmitted infections, and possibly create the first sexually healthy generation in history.
    We all need medically accurate information to make informed health decisions—and this applies to teenagers as well, whether or not they're sexually active.
    By providing them with it, and tailoring it to their specific health needs—from access to contraception to comprehensive sex education in schools to frank discussions about sexuality—we can empower them to lead informed, responsible, and healthier lives.