Abstinence isn't the problem

Ashley Herzog
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Posted: Dec 18, 2007 9:00 PM
Abstinence isn't the problem

The sex-positive crowd is at it again. Energized by the news that the teen pregnancy rate went up three percent in 2005, they’ve gone to work blaming abstinence-only programs in schools. Abstinence programs are ineffective, they say—and they must be de-funded and replaced with contraception-based education.

They might be jumping the gun, since 18- and 19-year-olds accounted for most of the increase. The pregnancy rate among girls age 10 to 17 continued to decline, as it has every year since 1991. Still, there is no doubt that abstinence opponents will use the increase to push its version of sex education in schools.

Parents and educators should think carefully before taking their advice. As a researcher for Dr. Miriam Grossman, who is currently writing her second book about sexual health education, I’ve become familiar with the demands of the abstinence opponents. When it comes to sex ed, they have a very specific agenda in mind—and you can bet it won’t simply inform students about contraception. Instead, they’re itching to implement programs that actively encourage kids to have sex.

Consider the CDC-funded “Programs that Work,” which were introduced to schools a few years ago. Rather than simply teaching students about condoms, these sex ed programs actually required ninth- and tenth-graders to go out and buy them. The curricula included school-sponsored field trips to family planning clinics and drugstores to compare condom brands—preferably with a partner. As the program advised, “Go to the store together. Buy lots of different brands and colors. Plan a special day when you can experiment.” I wonder if they got extra credit for actually using the condoms on school grounds.

Abstinence opponents like to say that they’re not encouraging teens to have sex, they simply want them to be fully informed. Last year, a school-sponsored speaker at Boulder High School in Colorado promptly put an end to that myth. During a panel discussion on teen sexuality, the speaker explained to the students—some as young as 14—that he was “different” from their other teachers because “I am going to encourage you to have sex and encourage you to use drugs appropriately.”

SIECUS, the group that issues guidelines for comprehensive sex ed programs, recommends a list of X-rated Web sites that teens should visit for sexual health information. (You don’t have to take my word on these sites being X-rated; just go to Scarleteen.com or gURL.com and browse through some of the pages.) Needless to say, abstinence is not high on their agenda.

SIECUS also advises students to visit Positive.org, which includes a “Just Say Yes” campaign—creating doubts about their claim that they aren’t actively encouraging sexual activity.

Others are more open about their plans to eliminate any discussion of abstinence from the classroom. According to Cornell law professor Gary Simson, promoting abstinence violates the separation of church and state because “it teaches that this one belief is the only proper one.”

Even if you’re repulsed by this agenda, you’re probably wondering which sex ed approach actually works. The studies are inconclusive. Most have shown that the drop in teen pregnancy rates since the 90s can be attributed to a combination of more teens choosing abstinence and responsible contraceptive use by those who are sexually active. Personally, since ultimate responsibility rests with the parents, I agree with experts who believe they should have a choice between a comprehensive program and an abstinence-only program. In both classrooms, children need to be fully aware that sex at a young age can carry serious consequences—not only physical, but also emotional and moral.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that eliminating all discussion of abstinence and encouraging teens to have sex will benefit anyone. Educators who are thinking about implementing contraception-based education should be cautious when selecting sex-positive groups to design the curriculum—and be wary of their claim that they just want to “teach all the facts.”

A better indication of what they have in mind is the incident at Chlemsford High School in Massachusetts, where the administration invited a sex-positive “AIDS educator” to give a mandatory presentation.

“I can’t believe how many people came here to listen to someone talk about sex, instead of staying home and having it yourself,” the “educator,” Suzi Landophi, told the teens.

Landophi invited students to demonstrate their “orgasm faces” for a camera and to lick condoms with her onstage. When discussing anal sex, she remarked that one would be “in deep sh-t.” Her program included asking a female student to blow up a condom and place it on a male student’s head. According to a lawsuit against the school district, Landophi made “eighteen references to orgasms, six references to male genitals, and eight references to female genitals,” and “used profane, lewd, and lascivious language to describe body parts and excretory functions.”

The next time you hear the sex-positive crowd reciting canards about “science, not values” and “teaching kids the facts,” remember that this is what they’re talking about.