Sex-ed programs that address gender issues more effective

By
July 8th, 2015

By Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

Sexual education programs that discuss gender balance within relationships are significantly more effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies than programs that don’t, a new study finds.

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The results are particularly compelling in light of Northwestern University researcher Alice Dreger’s live-tweeting of her son’s ninth grade sex-ed class, revealing a disheartening reliance on fear, shame and anecdotes about condom breakage.

The new study, published in International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and authored by Nicole Haberland, a senior associate at the Population Council, spells out a more effective route.

After evaluating 22 sex-ed programs that took place from 1990 to 2012, Haberland found that programs that addressed gender and power were five times more effective.

“Fully 80 percent of them were associated with a significantly lower rate of STIs or unintended pregnancy,” she writes. “In contrast, among the programs that did not address gender or power, only 17 percent had such an association.”

What gives?

“Harmful gender norms have been correlated with a number of adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes and risk behaviors, even after other variables have been controlled for,” Haberland writes. “Studies have found that individuals who adhere to harmful gender attitudes are significantly less likely than those who do not to use contraceptives or condoms. Also, compared with women and female adolescents’ reports of more equitable relationships, reports of low power in sexual relationships have been independently correlated with negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including higher rates of STIs and HIV infection. And women and female adolescents who have experienced intimate partner violence are significantly more likely than those who have not to have a host of adverse outcomes — from low rates of condom use to higher rates of pregnancy and STIs or HIV infection.”

But when adolescents and young adults are taught to consider and strive for gender equity, results improve.

“Some of the curriculums in Haberland’s study challenged young people’s thinking on gender roles by having them discuss the advantages and disadvantages of being male or female, or by analyzing media portrayals of men and women,” Julie Beck writes in the Atlantic. “They asked things like, ‘What is this ad saying to you about what a woman is supposed to look like and act like?’ Haberland says. ‘What are guys supposed to feel and act like?’”

Haberland continued: “Another thing people might do is use case studies,” she told the Atlantic. “Working with a class to critically analyze what is really going on between these two characters. Why is it that Jane isn’t able to use a condom? It’s not because she doesn’t want to, it’s because she can’t say it. He has the car, the money, and he doesn’t want to, and she’s afraid he’s going to leave her. Helping kids identify the inequality in those power dynamics and how it affects all of us in our relationships.”

Of the effective programs, Haberland writes in the study:

“They addressed gender and power explicitly, used participatory and learner-centered teaching approaches, facilitated critical thinking about gender and power in participants’ society, fostered personal reflection about how these concepts affect one’s own life and relationships, and helped participants value their own potential as individuals and as change agents.”

Sounds like a good road map for parents, too, as we tackle the complex topics of sexuality and gender with our own children. As with all things, equality should be at the heart.