Telling young girls about contraception early has substantial impact on their behavior, finds UC Berkeley study

by Patricia McBroom

Berkeley -- Like the sit-com father who mumbles to his son about sex long after the horse has left the barn, sex education courses are thought not to work. Too little, too late.

Now, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found evidence that contradicts this conventional wisdom. Not only do sex education courses work, in the sense of leading teenage girls to use contraception, but the impact is substantial.

"We can greatly increase the odds that a teenager will protect herself in her first experience with sex if we give contraceptive information soon enough," said Jane Mauldon, assistant professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and one of two authors on a study published this week by the Alan Guttmacher Institute's journal, "Family Planning Perspectives." Her co-author is Kristin Luker, UC Berkeley professor of sociology.

"By implication, we can also conclude that early education about contraception will reduce the number of teenage pregnancies," said Mauldon.

Mauldon was awarded $135,000 by California's state health department last month to find out how to make family planning services more attractive to low income women. The information will help guide the direction of Gov. Pete Wilson's teen pregnancy initiative.

The Mauldon and Luker study clearly identifies two elements critical for success. Education must come early, before a girl is sexually active for the first time. And it must include direct information about contraception. With these two elements present, odds improved by one third that a teenager would use protection from the start.

Both of these conditions stir the opposition of conservative groups who blame permissive attitudes toward contraception for increased sexual behavior among unmarried young women.

In order to reach teenagers before their first experience, for instance, the contraceptive education would have to be given at least by the age of 13 or 14, said Mauldon.

"I know there is real concern that this might encourage sexuality. But the information I see does not support that claim," said Mauldon.

"I think we can teach a two-tiered message," she added. "We can teach teens to delay sex and also to use contraception when they do begin. That is our next step -- to see how to put these two messages together."

Mauldon emphasized that she does not believe in just giving contraceptive information without a broader context. She said the most effective sex education programs have proven to be ones that allow students to practice skills at making decisions and negotiating for what they want. Younger adolescents also profit from direct guidance, she said.

"This study is a kind of red flag," she said. " It says, 'Hey, folks, wake up and pay attention. We've been writing off sex education and we should not do that.' This is a strong piece of evidence that contraceptive information makes a difference, but that's not all we need to do."

The study group Mauldon and Luker used consisted of 1,479 American women who had been unmarried teens at the time of their first sexual experience, which had taken place between the years 1973 and 1988. Ranging in age from 15 to 44 at the time of the survey in 1988, they recalled whether they had used contraception and whether they had received sex education in high school before or after their first sexual experience. (These women were part of a large National Survey of Family Growth, carried out on a representative sample of 8,450 women in 1988.)

If the education came before their sexual experience, more women had used the contraception than if the education came afterward. There was little or no change in behavior in the second instance, but if the education came first, the effect was to decrease unprotected sex from 41 percent of the group to 33 percent. Condom use increased from 52 percent to 59 percent and use of the pill went from 6 percent to 8 percent.

"I was quite surprised to find a change that big," said Mauldon. She pointed out that normally, information alone is not enough to change people's behavior.

"It's like talking about the health effects of eating fat or smoking cigarettes. Yes, we need to know about these effects, but unless something else happens, we usually don't change our behavior."

She added, "If teens will change their behavior with only this modest encouragement, think what we can do if we really get serious about sex education."


For further information, Jane Mauldon can be reached at (510) 642-3475.

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