Sex-Ed has been on been on my mind a bit lately. Maybe because there's been some discussion in the news of whether information on homosexuality should be part of Sex-Ed curriculum, or maybe because there's all sorts of talk about teen sex coming out of Texas with the whole HPV vaccination thing. I dunno. But for some reason it's been on my mind.
When I think about Sex-Ed I'm drawn to the question of whether abstinence-only education can ever work. I don't think there are too many people out there who dispute that abstinence itself is the most effective way to cut down on unwanted teen pregnancies, the spread of STD's, and the general emotional turmoil that can be caused by the sex-having of those who are not yet mature enough for said sex-having. Unfortunately, most evidence out there demonstrates that abstinence-only education isn't an effective way to create more abstinence.
Well, I guess I don't know if that's true. Maybe abstinence-only education does create more abstinence. But compared to Sex-Ed that includes birth control/safe-sex education, abstinence-only education isn't an effective way of reducing teen pregnancies, and the spread of STD's. There's really two variables going on here.
Let's call variable X the number of teens having sex, and variable Y the number of teens having protected sex. In a world with no Sex-Ed the number of X and Y are both depressingly high. In a world where abstinence-only education is taught the number of Y decreases. I don't know about studies regarding the number of X though. Presumably that would decrease as well. In a world where birth control and safe-sex practices are taught the number of Y decreases to an even lower amount than in the abstinence-only world. Again, I don't know about actual numbers here.
To put this a little more clearly let's take a hypothetical class of 100 kids. Say we give them abstinence-only education, which effectively convinces 25 of the kids. That means 75 of them have sex. Of that 75, one third have safe-sex, meaning that there are 50 kids have unprotected sex. Now teach that same 100 kids about safe-sex in their Sex-Ed class, and the results might be quite different. We'll say that 90 of those 100 have sex, but of those 90, 75 use protection, meaning that there are only 15 kids having unprotected sex. Comparing those worlds shows that in abstinence only, 15 fewer kids have sex but 35 more have unprotected sex.
Of course, I've no numbers or evidence regarding this hypothetical. However, I think it's probably a pretty safe assumption that the number of teens having sex is lower in the abstinence-only world, even if the number having unprotected sex is higher. But that is just an assumption, and maybe there are facts out there that prove differently.
What we do know conclusively though is that teaching safe-sex is a more effective way of reducing the number of teens having unprotected sex. That means fewer teen pregnancies and fewer STD's. And therefore safe-sex education is considered to be a more effective form of sex-ed (though given the hypothesis above with the multiple variables I suppose one could argue whether it really is more effective).
What interests me is why abstinence-only education is less effective than safe-sex education. In my experience that's a question that hasn't really gotten enough attention. After all, if we could "fix" abstinence education, if we could make it as effective - or even more effective - than safe-sex education, then - given that abstinence is superior to stopping the spread of STD's and preventing teen pregnancy and even the emotional turmoil described above (which, let's face it, safe-sex doesn't prevent) - surely that would be the preferred method of education.
So what is it that makes abstinence-only education less effective? Quite simply that it does not exist. Sex-education, whether we like to admit it or not, extends far beyond the classroom. Sexual behavior is largely learned from society. Sure, we've all got some primal urge to mate, and even without any help from anyone else we'd eventually figure it out. But ultimately our sexual behavior - what is or is not taboo, the way we court and date and marry, the whole way we think about sex - is a product of our surroundings. Peer pressure is especially pertinent in our sex lives. The fact that it's "cool" is routinely a reason for teens to have sex. So is the idea that "everyone else is doing it."
This pressure doesn't come from our Sex-Education. Or at least it doesn't come only from our Sex-Education (it seems a likely possibility that a class which teaches teens how to have sex "safely" could be seen as tacitly condoning such behavior). Most of the pressure comes from our larger society; from TV and movies that make sex seem commonplace and casual. From magazines, and jokes, and so on and so forth. The fact of the matter is that we learn from all of this. This larger societal message undercuts any effectiveness that abstinence-only education could have, and instead sends a strong counter-message that sex should be had by any and everyone, whenever there's some attraction.
Now I don't want to seem like some sort of prude who wants to censor all these sorts of things (I'm not, and I don't). Yes, I think all of these things contribute to the problem, and certainly undermine abstinence-only education. But to be perfectly frank, I think the bigger problem lies with the lack of a strong voice supporting abstinence. If there were a significant effort in the media to portray successful and happy abstinence attempts that would be a wonderful boost to those trying to wait until marriage (just one of the reasons I loved The 40-year-old Virgin).
Although the media portrayal of sex is important, the role of parents is an even more essential piece of the puzzle. I'm saddened by the number of times I've heard people say that there is simply no stopping teen sex. I've heard parents say, "The fact is, if they want to have sex, they're going to, and there's nothing I can do to stop it." And while that statement might prove technically true, it's ultimately a defeatist attitude that simply enables more teen sex (and therefore more teen pregnancies and STDs and emotional turmoil). This defeatist attitude says that even if people want to wait until marriage they won't be able to, so we might as well give in and abandon abstinence. And that creates a void, where no one is carrying the banner of abstinence. And with no one carrying that banner... well, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What this defeatism ignores is that parents - and friends and teachers and role models and everyone in society - can have a huge effect on what teens want. A strong voice preaching the value of abstinence can go a long way towards creating a desire in teens for abstinence. And that's what abstinence education is really about: letting teens know the value of abstinence, giving them hope that they can achieve it if they want to. More important to that goal is not the education the kids receive, it's the voices they hear from those around them. Of course, abstinence-only education could certainly help too.
But in the world we live in, with a pervasive media voice that says "sex is casual, everywhere, irresistible" and with a defeatist attitude that says "resistance is futile", abstinence-only eduction doesn't really exist. And of course, if it doesn't really exist, then that explains why abstinence education doesn't work.
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