By not addressing the complex nature of sex education and offering a curriculum that isn't practical or helpful to young people, educators are missing a key opportunity to protect students' health and well-being, the study authors added.
The research team, led by Dr. Pandora Pound of the University of Bristol School of Social and Community Medicine, analyzed 55 studies that examined sex education programs in schools in numerous countries. The countries included Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The team focused on the experiences of young people aged 12 to 18, who were taught in these programs between 1990 and 2015.
Despite coming from different parts of the world, the teens' perceptions and feelings about the sex education they'd received was strikingly similar -- and not very positive.
Part of the problem is that sex ed is often provided to students too late by teachers who are poorly trained and embarrassed to talk about sex, the study found. Complicating matters, students often didn't feel comfortable talking to their teachers.
Sex ed curriculum is often stereotypical, painting young women as passive and young men as predators. Co-ed sex education is also problematic, leaving boys feeling anxious about their level of sexual experience and girls feeling harassed or judged, the researchers found.
Sex education is also primarily focused on biology, ignoring relevant issues such as desire, pleasure and emotions, the study showed. The researchers noted it's also geared toward heterosexuals, often ignoring gay, bisexual or transgender sex.
The study authors said schools often don't recognize that some students are sexually active, but the curriculum emphasizes abstinence. Sex ed educators also don't provide teens with enough useful information, including resources in their community, advice on what to do if pregnancy occurs, or the risks and benefits of various forms of birth control, the study authors said.
The findings were published online Sept. 12 in the journal BMJ Open.
Teens would prefer that sex not be presented as a problem that needs to be solved. Instead, they want guidance on how to enjoy their sexuality in safe, consensual and healthy ways, the researchers concluded in a journal news release.