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More Than Condoms—Sex Education Should Also Focus on Relationships

The Short of It

It's important sex education programs teach kids about how to use contraception and avoid STDs. But researchers say they should also include lessons on gender norms and equality, communication and healthy relationships.

The Lowdown

These social sex ed lessons include discussions on traditional gender divides and power imbalances; how to break down barriers between the sexes; how to talk to your partner about using contraception; and what makes a healthy or unhealthy relationship. Some sex curricula include lessons in respect and discussion about harassment; others give boys special focus on kindness and empathy toward women; still more teach teens to speak up to their partner about their concerns or wants.

"The idea here is that sex is a relationship issue—you don't get HIV by just sitting there by yourself, nor do you get chlamydia or gonorrhea, nor do you get pregnant," says Ralph DiClemente, a professor of public health at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. Communication and good relationships are key, and so is understanding negative gender stereotypes, he says.

"In the past, study after study has found that young people who adhere to harmful gender norms have worse sexual and reproductive health outcomes," says Nicole Haberland, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Population Council.

One study, published in the journal "International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health," found that 17 percent of traditional sex ed programs lowered pregnancy and STD rates. But 80 percent of programs that addressed gender and power lowered those rates.

The Upshot

Just about everything you learn is better practiced when you learn it in context with real life. So I like that schools are taking this fresh approach. I hope this study inspires more to do the same. Maybe in the future, these types of sex education lessons will become the standard.

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