sex: abstinence only “education”

after a lot of thought last night, i decided that maybe i won’t wait till a later date to address my thoughts on abstinence-only.  in fact, my blog might be taken over by sex for a week or so while i get all this stuff out of my system.  🙂

let’s get started, shall we?

abstinence-only sex education.  this is the practice of teaching children to wait until marriage to have sex.  and…that’s about it.

on paper, that sounds okay.  sound enough for government work (which, especially under bush, it has been).  there’s one problem.  it doesn’t work.

i’m going to say that again.  it.  doesn’t.  work.

i’m going to expand that thesis to the following:  abstinence-only sex education is an irresponsible failure to our adolescents.  and now i’m going to tell you why.

abstinence-only sex ed fails — consistently. a recent study showed that 95% of Americans have sex before marriage.(1)  waiting until marriage is simply not the societal norm — and moreover, it hasn’t been for decades.  in fact, even before the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, most people had sex before marriage.  research shows that these numbers are relatively unchanged since the 1940s — a full two decades before the onset of satan’s music (rock and roll, haha) and free love.  and back when abstaining was the norm?  people got married at much earlier ages — people are waiting longer to get married now, and puberty, when most people begin developing sexual urges and curiosity beyond their own personal exploration of themselves, waits for no man or woman.

proponents of abstinence-only sex ed will insist that heterosexual procreative intercourse within the confines of marriage is the societal ideal to which we all ought to aspire.  that’s fine — but it’s unrealistic.

to break it down for you, by age 20, 77% of men and women have had premarital sex.  by the age of 44, that number jumps to 95%.  97% of all people who have had sex did it before marriage.  that’s nearly everyone.

you are perfectly welcome to believe the world is flat, but don’t be surprised when your boat starts going round in circles — and in the case of abstinence-only sex ed, not only does this blatant disregard for facts send you spinning, it flat out sinks people’s boats.

abstinence-only sex ed is irresponsible to our youth. that might sound like an odd blanket statement to make — and i’ve no doubt it will make some people bristle.  but it’s true.  here’s why.

first of all, read back up a few paragraphs where you see that abstinence until marriage is not and has not been the societal norm — trying to get people to not have sex is like trying to stop the sun in its tracks.  a:  good luck with that, and b:  you’re gonna get burned.

next, abstinence-only (the entire point of this mindset) tries to keep adolescents and young adults from having sex until marriage.  this leaves no room for any other kind of information, because they operate on the premise that young people just don’t need it if they’re not going to have sex.

my head always starts spinning a little bit when i think about that.  first of all, young people are having sex.  and they’re going to keep doing it.  period.  secondly, by refusing to give them information about what they’re already doing and almost certainly will do before marriage, we are putting them in danger.

that bears repeating.  by refusing to inform adolescents comprehensively about sex, we are putting them in harm’s way.  i’m really not sure why the people who teach abstinence-only have such blinders on to this obvious, scientifically supported truth, but there it is.  they’re ready to doom our youth to teen pregnancy (on the rise for the first time in a decade and a half!), sexually transmitted infections (also rising like a tide — mostly in abstinence-only zones), and the more subtle issues of psychological problems that come with enforcing strict adherence to traditional gender roles, ignoring homosexuals entirely, and laying on guilt trips right and left to discourage sexual behavior.

you think i’m kidding? let’s take teen pregnancy as a for instance.  america’s teen pregnancy rate for every 1000 teen women is 5.  oh, wait.  that’s holland.  america’s is 53.  yes, i typed that correctly.  america’s teen pregnancy rate is 53 live births for every 1000 teenage women. in case the shock value of that is lost on you — well.  it just shouldn’t be lost on you.  take that in for a second.  then understand this:  the teen pregnancy rate in america dwarfs every other western nation in the world. the closest country on the list to us in terms of numbers?  indonesia.  at 55 live births per 1000 population.  it’s dismal.  it’s appalling.  and quite frankly, it has nothing to do with how much or little teens have sex–they have sex in europe, too, just more responsibly and beginning later in life.

what does this have to do with abstinence-only?  well, for starters, the teen pregnancy rate is much higher in states that use predominantly abstinence-only sex ed.  states like texas and mississippi, who use this form of “education” statewide have the highest rates — well above the national average.

notice anything about this?

notice anything about this?

that’s an old table (2) — but the trends are the same, and also, the pregnancy rate in the very red states is rising.  thank bush and his millions of dollars of funds for abstinence-only for that.  most blue states refused this funding.

let’s talk for a moment about this funding.  in the ages of the bush administration, huge amounts of taxpayer dollars were spent — upwards of $100 million per year at the beginning of his term and close to $200 million toward the end — on funding abstinence-only “education” curricula.  in a report done by the us house of representatives committee on government reform and headed up by representative henry waxman (d-california), it was shown that out of the 13 curricula funded through federal money — your tax dollars — 11 of them (over 80%) contain gross factual errors, blatant falsehoods, and distorted information.  worse, the only two to escape this definition were the least commonly used.  among the errors and distortions were the following:  false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives,  the risks of abortion, and the transmission of sexual infections; blurring science and religion; perpetuating gender stereotypes; gross scientific errors. (3)

the biggest errors perpetrated by these curricula are in regards to the effectiveness of contraceptives against pregnancy and sti transmission.  for instance, that condoms allow for the transmission of HIV 31% of the time, which is not at all true.  these programs are only allowed to discuss contraceptives in this context — failure rates — but this doesn’t excuse them from their utter disregard for fact.  the correct rates for condom failure are 15% for typical use and 2-3% for perfect use.  just doesn’t have the same punch as the 31% number they got from using fake information, does it?  the center of disease control states that condoms are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV when used correctly and consistently — something abstinence-only preachers (i can’t call them educators with any kind of honesty) want to keep adolescents from knowing.  in addition to that, they spread absurdly incorrect information — one study went so far as to assert that HIV can be transmitted via sweat.

on top of all that, many of these curricula perpetuate gender stereotyping as fact — that all women just want to be princesses rescued by some strong, dashing knight type.  these programs also try to tout their religious ideals as societal normalcy — something we’ve already seen to be completely wrong.  SPRANS, one of the largest abstinence-only organizations receiving funding, mandates that its curricula  teach that waiting till marriage to have sex is the expected standard for all people, which, when taken into account that 95% of all people have premarital sex is so dead wrong, they might as well assert that not eating is the preferred method to stave off starvation.  it’s that backward.

abstinence-only sex ed is counterintuitive when you take into account the other social ideals of those who tout it. think about what i just said about america’s teen pregnancy rate.  now consider this one:  america’s abortion rate is 30.2 per 1000 population.  compare that with holland, at 4.

the reason this is relevant is because the people who state abstinence until marriage as the societal ideal are almost always hailing from the religious right — the same people who bring us the anti-abortion tirades.

take a deep breath before you read this one.  because it’s a shocker.  the best way to stop abortions is to stop unplanned pregnancies in the first place.

i know, right?  who’d think of that one?  bask for a moment in my utter genius.  consider what we know so far:  95% of all people have sex before marriage.  abstinence-only sex ed only tells kids to not have sex — by stipulation, abstinence-only curricula are forbidden from mentioning contraceptives except to mention failure rates.  america has a shocking teen pregnancy rate compared to other western nations.  america has a much higher abortion rate than other western nations.

countries that employ comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education boast low numbers of teen and unplanned pregnancies and much, much lower abortion rates.  instead of purposely blindfolding ourselves, we need to see what we can learn from people who are saving their teens from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and having to make that choice that no woman ever wants to have to make.  they’re doing something right.  and i can tell you what it is.

comprehensive sex education saves our youth. let’s get something absolutely clear.  there is no magical age where adolescents become adults.  they don’t hit 18 and mystically glean the ability to make responsible choices.  it’s a process.  they’re not fully responsible about making choices when they’re in their teens — but then again, a lot of people still make really bad choices on into adulthood.  and adolescents also are not stupid.

if you treat them like children, they will respond in kind.  tell them “just don’t do it,” and they’re probably going to say, “hmmmm….maybe i’ll do it.”  and if you couple that with keeping them ignorant about how to protect themselves, you get america’s blossoming teen pregnancy rates — and a lot of those young women will go off and end said pregnancies.  remember that the figure of 53 per 1000 population is live births.  add to that the abortion rate, and you get amuch higher ballpark figure of teen pregnancies in total.

in countries that have more open attitudes about sex, where they teach age appropriate comprehensive sex information, they have much lower instances of teen pregnancy and disease.  in addition to that, adolescents in these countries are more likely to delay first intercourse than their american counterparts.  i believe the average age in america is around 16 — in holland, it’s nearly 18.

comprehensive sex ed is not about encouraging students to go off and go at it.  it’s not about touting how good it feels or trying to convince adolescents to have sex — comprehensive sex ed maintains firmly that abstinence is the only 100% effective way to ensure that one will not get pregnant, diseased, etc.  but it does this within the framework that all of these adolescents will have sex in their lifetime, and that the overwhelming majority (i hesitate to even say majority, because it implies a less definite number than 9.5/10) will do it before marriage.  it is responsible to adolescents to give them valuable information.  whether they wait or not, they need to know it.  it’s relevant to everyone. and failing to teach them is irresponsible at best, reckless and dangerous at worst.

the socially conservative argument that telling students the facts about sex will encourage them to go out and do it like bunnies is a blatant falsehood.  fact is, the more correct information students have, the less likely they are to go out and bang everyone in sight, the more likely they are to use contraception consistently and correctly, and the more likely they are to wait longer to have sex.

there is a great comic by big fat whale that illustrates the absurdity of such a claim.

watch out for the elephants

watch out for the elephants

here’s the bottom line. if we lived in a world where there was even a question about abstinence being a competitor for the title of “societal norm,” abstinence-only sex ed….would still be irresponsible and damaging to our nation’s youth.  regardless of how long a person intends to wait to have sex, having correct, open, and honest information about human sexuality is relevant to his or her life.  it’s a part of who we are.  human beings are sexual creatures. and that sexuality comes in many different forms — it is a beautiful part of our existence here.

abstinence-only sex “education” also completely ignores the homosexual minority of students — it fails to address their needs, mainly because the creators of abstinence-only curricula do not recognize homosexuality as a valid, natural form of sexual expression.  the creators of these curricula completely ignore gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth, because they flat out think that homosexuality is a deviant, sinful aberration, and therefore do not merit notice…except maybe to tell them to just be straight and wait.

it’s important for everyone to understand how our bodies work, how our reproductive cycles work, how the mechanics of sex work, the psychological aspects of sex and the emotional aspects.  the physical pleasure and the possible consequences.  because even once people get married, they might not want to have kids right away (or, god forbid, at all).  it’s important that all people have that information so they can make informed decisions and treat their partners with the respect and dignity they deserve.

adolescents are people.  they are young adults.  and they are making choices, whether you agree with them or not.  some of these choices are responsible, some are not.  they deserve to know what they’re getting into.  they deserve candid discussion about sexuality — how it affects them and their lives.  they deserve the best protection and power that we can put in their hands — the power of knowledge.  they will never learn responsibility under a rock.  and if they don’t get good information, they will get wrong information.  virginity pledges break easier than condoms.  failure to educate our youth sets them up for failure that can cost them their time, their teen years, and their lives.

make the right choice.  don’t turn a blind eye to the reality of our society — work within its parameters.  be honest with our youth.  teach them to respect their bodies and each other.  because they are more capable then you give them credit for.  give them a chance.  i think they’ll surprise you.





About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on 8 April, 2009, in soapbox and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is great, friend! Thanks for writing.

    I quite agree with every point really. I know many people my age who know nothing at all about sex. And I grew up as one of them.

    Run with your ideas!

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