One Way to Make Sex Education Classes More Effective

Students and Teacher in a classroom.When we talk to or teach teens and youth about sex ed, we generally cover a lot of practical subjects: how reproduction and pregnancy work, what contraception is and what it does, and what STDs are and how to avoid getting them. But as all of us know, there’s a lot more to this big subject we call “sex and relationships” than these basics. For instance, we need to talk to kids and teens about finding the right person to date, how to handle peer pressure, and more.

This Element Makes the Difference

But what if there’s another crucial element that many of us might not think of, but that could make these lessons and discussions more effective? A 2015 review of research suggests there could be. When researchers reviewed 22 different large, well-run sex ed and HIV education programs, they found that including this element made a big difference. So…what was it?

Gender and Power

It was taking time to talk about gender roles and power in dating relationships. Out of the 10 programs that addressed issues of gender and power, eight, or 80%, were effective in reducing unwanted pregnancy or STDs. Meanwhile, out of the 12 programs that did not address these issues, only two were effective.

Why would this matter so much? Did you know that:

  • Beliefs about equality and gender roles can affect whether or not people use birth control
  • People who feel powerless in relationships are less likely to use condoms and more likely to get STDs
  • Victims of partner abuse are more likely to get pregnant unintentionally
  • Women who report being in more equal relationships are less likely to get STDs

Why it Matters

If we think about it, all of this make sense. For teens and youth to be able to assert themselves about responsible and safe behavior, they need to be able to speak up, feel empowered, and know that they have rights. All the education in the world may not help if someone feels pressured by expectations to “be a man,” or too scared to speak up due to the feeling that “girls don’t do that.”

What Works?

The programs the researchers looked at used various methods, but generally speaking, they:

  • Talked clearly and specifically about gender and power in dating relationships.
  • Encouraged participants to think critically about how gender is presented in popular culture and the media. (For instance, are women “supposed to be” pretty but jealous? Do men “have to be” powerful and highly sexual?)
  • Had participants think about their own lives and relationships and how these roles and ideas might affect them.
  • Encouraged participants to recognize their own power and strength and take pride in their ability to control their own choices and bodies.

Talk to Youth and Teens

If you work with youth and teens, or if you have a teen yourself, it’s a very good idea to include these concepts when talking to them about sex and relationships. Both young men and young women will benefit from thinking more in depth about the role of power and gender in their relationships and how these issue might affect them when it comes to sex and love. These conversations can help young people make empowered and healthy decisions about who and how they date and engage in physical relationships.

For more, visit the websites below.

Guys Don’t Only Want to Have Sex—from

Love is Respect

Girls Health: Relationships

Gender and Gender Identity—from Planned Parenthood

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida


Haberland, N. A. (2015). The Case for Addressing Gender and Power in Sexuality and HIV Education: A Comprehensive Review Of Evaluation Studies. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 41(1):31–42. DOI: 10.1363/4103115


From University of Florida UF/IFAS.  For more relationship articles, visit