Douglas Kirby, Veteran Sex Ed Expert, Posthumously Awarded Sedgwick Medal

The American Public Health Association announced this week that Dr. Douglas Kirby, one of the foremost experts on sex education and pregnancy prevention programs for adolescents, was posthumously awarded the association’s highest honor, the Sedgwick Memorial Medal.

The award has been given out by APHA since 1929 and recognizes “distinguished service and advancement of public health knowledge and practice.”

Kirby was a senior scientist with national multi-serivce provider and research group ETR, an organization with which he spent nearly 40 years. He died in 2012 of a heart attack while hiking a volcano in Ecuador.

In a policy arena dominated by polemic debate between abstinence-only supporters and proponents of teaching safe sex, Kirby was a respected mind in the middle who cared only about what the numbers show worked. His “Emerging Answers” reports, done with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, are among the most referenced publications on sexual and adolescent health.

The 2007 report broke down 15 well-known sex ed programs, indicating where there was evidence that the programs and curricula had positively changed behaviors.

The 2001 report listed 10 characteristics of effective pregnancy prevention programs, and also describes them in a way that can be used by youth workers:

1. Focus narrowly on reducing one or more sexual behaviors that lead to unintended pregnancy or HIV/STD infection.
2. Base the program on theoretical approaches developed to treat other risky behaviors, such as cognitive behavioral theory, which rewards changes in thoughts and behavior.
3. Give a clear message about sexual activity and condom or contraceptive use and continually reinforce that message.
4. Provide basic, accurate information about risks and methods to avoid intercourse or pregnancy and STDs.
5. Include activities that teach kids to deal with social pressures, such as information that helps them refute frequently used lines like “everyone does it” or activities that generate peer support for withstanding social pressures.
6. Model and provide practice with negotiation and refusal skills, such as how to say no, how to insist on condoms or other contraception, and how to make sure body language supports the verbal message.
7. Use a variety of teaching methods to involve participants and personalize the information.
8. Incorporate behavioral goals, teaching methods and materials that are specific to the age, culture and sexual experience of the students.
9. Run the program over a sufficient period of time (at least 14 hours or in small group settings).
10. Train teachers, youth workers or peer leaders (generally for at least six hours) who believe in the program.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.