Parent Opinion of Sexuality Education in a State with Mandated Abstinence Education

Does Policy Match Parental Preference?

State and federal policy has increasingly financed and legislated abstinence-only education over the past decade, yet little is known about parental desires regarding sexuality education in states with mandated abstinence education. This study looks at parental opinion in North Carolina, where school districts are required to teach abstinence-until–marriage as the only certain means of avoiding sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. The Department of Public Instruction tells teachers to discuss effectiveness and failure rates of contraceptives, but not how to use them, unless specifically asked by students. Telephone surveys administered using computer-assisted telephone interviewing elicited responses from 1,306 parents of public school students in grades K–12 (60% response rate). The vast majority (91%) of all respondents agreed that sexuality education should be taught in North Carolina public schools.

Among parents agreeing that sexuality education should be taught in public schools, the majority supported comprehensive sexuality education, defined as including a discussion of how to use and discuss contraception with partners. The amount of support differed only to a small degree according to gender, age, race, education, geographic region or grade level of children. Although North Carolina state regulations mandate the abstinence-until-marriage curriculum, a majority of respondents felt that parents and health professionals, rather than politicians, should determine the content of sexuality education. The disjuncture between parental expectations and current policy in a state viewed as conservative may have implications for the nationwide debate over the content of sexuality education in schools in the United States.