As the U.S. presidential candidates face off in state primaries and caucuses, voters across the country are demanding to hear the contenders’ positions on an ever-widening variety of issues. One issue on many voters’ lists: sex education for their kids. This topic, which greatly divides many Democratic and Republican voters, has received increased attention in recent months as new studies have shed light on the best approaches for preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections in youth.

However, a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that kids who have some form of sex education early on generally begin having sex later than kids who don’t. These results were particularly true among urban, African-American girls: They were 91 percent less likely to have had sex before the age of 15 if they received sex education in a formal setting.

“It seems that if we have messages that start early, kids seem to be paying attention to us,” Katy Suellentrop, senior manager for research programs at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, DC, told Real Health. “And the timing is critical…. [You shouldn’t] wait until kids are 17 or 18 to start talking about sex.”

Researchers at the CDC examined more than 2,000 adolescents across the nation between the ages of 15 and 19. Those that had received sex education in a formal setting, such as in school or church groups, were more likely to put off sex before the age of 15. Overall, teen girls who’d received sex education were 59 percent less likely to have sex before the age of 15; teenage boys were 71 percent less likely.

The CDC researchers say that they don’t know why the effects of sex education programs were so much stronger in boys and among African-American girls living in urban settings. Suellentrop says it’s difficult to determine whether or not the sex education programs they received were more effective than programs for other groups. She adds, however, that the results do coincide with other studies that have shown greatly lowered levels of sexual experience among both teen boys and African-American girls in recent years.  

Still, it’s difficult not to wonder whether or not the type of education children receive makes a difference. Last summer, a series of studies published in The British Medical Journal found that abstinence-only education was ineffective in preventing the spread of HIV. Many people who oppose abstinence-only education say that it could detract from the effectiveness of safe-sex messages; abstinence-only supporters say that sex education that doesn’t teach only abstinence might encourage children to have sex. Others argue that “abstinence-plus” education is the right road: It promotes sexual abstinence as the best way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy, but it also encourages safe-sex practices, such as condom use.

Last August, two presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney, made headlines when Obama encouraged science-based sex education for kindergartners and Romney criticized him, saying that the amount of sex education appropriate for a 5-year-old is none. The new CDC survey shows that regardless of the approach, something is better than nothing: According to Suellentrop, recent figures showed that in 2006, the teen birth rate increased for the first time in approximately 15 years. “We really need to redouble our efforts to make sure that we’re not dropping the ball for our teenagers,” she said