Though I am a barely competent father of two young daughters, I do plan to excel at one of my patriarchal duties: avoiding any dialogue with my kids about sex, dating or ancillary topics that have even the slightest chance of degenerating into a discussion that involves human anatomy.
Working diligently behind the scenes, however, I already am keeping a close eye on the debate over sex education in anticipation of my forthcoming panic. And the debate is reigniting, as teenage pregnancy numbers, which, after years of decline, have begun to inch upward.
The birthrate among 15- to 19-year-olds rose 1.4 percent from 2006 to 2007 and jumped 3.4 percent from 2005 to 2006 -- this, after falling for 14 years.
When the news of this hit, James Wagoner of the rather universal-sounding "Advocates for Youth" claimed, "The United States can no longer afford to fund failed abstinence-only programs." Not surprisingly, Valerie Huber of the less-ambiguous "National Abstinence Education Association" retorted, "This is certainly not the time to remove any strategy that is going to provide skills for teens to avoid sex."
As you'll see, I believe both sides confer far too much credit on themselves, but when someone strings together the words "provide skills for teens to avoid sex," I am impelled to listen. I don't remember much about high school, but I do recall a fruitless four-year quest to lose the "skills" that helped me avoid sex.
So with this uncertainty, I was eager to uncover some useful information from a new, highly touted study on teen birthrates conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, which analyzed data collected from the federal government's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national survey of teen girls from ninth to 12th grades.
To boil it down, according to researchers, the increase in teen pregnancy can be tracked to a decrease in contraceptive use. All the focus on encouraging kids to remain abstinent instead of teaching them about contraceptives must, they suggest, be partly to blame for the rise in pregnancies.
The New York Times editorial board and others quickly used the study to condemn abstinence programs. Yet evidence to make this accusation is dubious -- according to researchers themselves.
To begin with, the fact that researchers sound like advocates rather than disinterested fact gatherers is suspicious. Furthermore, neither Columbia doctors nor federal government surveyors have a solitary clue how many teenagers are engaged in sex, wearing condoms or flying kites.
In an article based on the study, researchers admit that several "limitations temper these findings." One of those limitations is that the data were "self-reported" by high-school students, whose information is only slightly more reliable than waterboarded Gitmo terror suspects.
In his thought-provoking book "Fooled by Randomness," Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the case that we constantly are affixing deep meaning to meaningless statistics. Did you know, for instance, as teen rates have risen, there also has been a national trend of higher birthrates among women in their 20s, 30s and 40s? What does that tell us?
In this case, none of the numbers proves that kids are becoming more promiscuous or acting less safe than they did five or 10 years ago. There is also no proof that either abstinence or sex education programs have had a real effect on teen behavior.
Teen sexual behavior is driven by myriad social, demographic and economic factors (and perhaps most importantly: family). As long as we use the thin gruel of this kind of study to hammer home some ideological point, parents aren't being helped.
The best antidote is probably some hybrid of abstinence programs and others that teach about disease, pregnancy and birth control.
Certainly, we shouldn't dictate to parents (or, in my case, a wife) how they should teach their kids about sex. We also should avoid mass panic when it comes to teen sex.
Individual panic? Now that's a different story.
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