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CONTEXT: Policy debates over the merits of abstinence-only versus comprehensive approaches to sex education are ongoing, despite well-documented public support for comprehensive sex education. Although parents are key stakeholders in the outcomes of these debates, their views have been less thoroughly considered.

METHODS: A random digit dial survey of 1,284 California parents was conducted in 2006. Parents were asked about their sex education policy preferences, the importance of teaching selected topics at different grade levels and reasons for their preferences. Cross-tabulations and odds ratios were used to assess regional and other subgroup differences.

RESULTS: Overall, 89% of parents reported a preference for comprehensive sex education, and 11% for abstinence-only education. Support for comprehensive sex education was high in all regions (87–93%) and across all subgroup characteristics: race or ethnicity (79–92%), age (86–94%), education (84–93%), household income (87–92%), religious affiliation (86–91%), religious service attendance (69–96%) and ideological leaning (71–96%). Four types of reasons for preferences emerged: those focused on the consequences of actions, on the importance of providing complete information, on the inevitability of adolescents’ engaging in sex and on religious or purity-based morality concerns. While 64% of abstinence-only supporters cited the last type (absolutist reasons), 94% of comprehensive sex education supporters cited one of the first three (pragmatic reasons).

CONCLUSIONS: The high levels of support for comprehensive sex education across California’s diverse regions and demographic subgroups suggest that such support may be generalizable to communities and school districts both in California and around the country. Furthermore, ideological differences might be less important to the sex education debates than the distinction between pragmatic and absolutist perspectives.