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Abstinence-only sex ed defies common sense

There may be a sillier strategy for dealing with sex among teens than promoting the choice of "abstinence-only-until-marriage," but I am not quite sure what it is, writes Breaking Bioethics columnist Arthur Caplan.
Safer sex kits are handed out by an AIDS education group working with Unity Fellowship Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Many states across the nation forbid school districts from providing information about sexually transmitted diseases or contraception.
Safer sex kits are handed out by an AIDS education group working with Unity Fellowship Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Many states across the nation forbid school districts from providing information about sexually transmitted diseases or contraception.Robert Mecea / AP
/ Source: contributor

There may be a sillier strategy for dealing with sex among teens than promoting the choice of "abstinence-only-until-marriage," but I am not quite sure what it is. Not only is such an approach contradicted by everything that medicine and science know about teens and sex, but it flies directly in the face of everything all ordinary Americans know about teens and sex.

Recent surveys show that 70 percent of U.S. teens have engaged in oral sex by the time they reach 18, and more than 45 percent have had intercourse at least once. More than 70 percent of young women and 80 percent of young men approve of premarital sex, according to a study published recently in the Review of General Psychology.

In addition, studies show sexually transmitted diseases are spreading at an alarming rate among young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly half of the nation's new cases of STDs each year occur among adolescents and young adults. A recent study found that teens who took pledges of virginity as part of abstinence-only sex ed classes ultimately had STD rates similar to other young people and were less likely to use contraception or other forms of protection when they did become sexually active.

In short, the idea that teens will remain celibate until they marry — and that they don't need information about sex — says much more about the values and fantasies of the people who are promoting these policies than it does about teens.

Confusing messages
So what should we teach our kids about sex? Most Americans want young people to be taught about sexuality as part of their junior high school and high school education, but there is almost no agreement on what the content of sex education should be. Popular opinion ranges from telling kids to "just say no" to how to find a woman's "G-spot." And since sex brings out our sense of morality like almost no other subject, science and the facts about sexual behavior tend to get lost in a lot of finger-pointing and teeth-gnashing.

For instance, in North Dakota, sex education is encouraged but there are few guidelines about what should be taught. In South Carolina, state law severely restricts sex education. There can be no discussion of contraception except with reference to marriage, no discussion of abortion, and nothing said about homosexuality except with reference to preventing sexually transmitted diseases. And in Texas, at least since the days when George W. Bush was governor, sex ed classes almost exclusively espouse abstinence-only messages.

In contrast, Oregon, California and New Jersey mandate that if a school does teach about sex it must provide medically accurate information, and age-appropriate and respectful discussion of the diversity of relationships, including those involving people with disabilities.

Your tax dollars at work
I am completely against abstinence-only sex ed programs for three reasons: there is no evidence at all that they work; common sense says they have no chance of working; and it is not clear that ethically they send the right message to young people.

But under the Bush administration, the federal government has planted itself firmly in the abstinence-only camp. More than a billion dollars have been spent to support these programs.

To make matters worse, the administration and Congress have played favorites with your tax money, with abstinence-only money going disproportionately to Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas. In contrast, Vermont received the least amount of federal funding. Maybe the kids in Vermont cannot hear admonitions to remain chaste amidst the sound of falling snow?

Eleven states have tried to evaluate their abstinence-only programs and the results have been dismal. In Kansas, the evaluators stated that "no changes [were] noted in participants' actual or intended behavior." Evaluators of the Texas program found the same thing — no change in the number of students pledging to remain celibate until marriage. In fact, more students reported having had sex after taking an abstinence-only sex ed course then they did beforehand.

There is no evidence at all that telling kids not to fool around has any more impact when the message is promoted by schools than it does when parents say the same thing at home.

Sex and common sense
Which leads us to the world of sex and common sense. There are kids who are not going to have sex in junior high or high school. There are, according to what social scientists know about teens, not a lot of such kids but there are some. There are also some teens who are going to engage in homosexual acts and other non-standard forms of sexual contact. There are not a lot of these kids out there, according to what social scientists know, but there are some. An even smaller number of kids will, tragically, be forced to have sex by parents, relatives or rapists.

The fact is that a teen has a pretty good chance of getting involved in sex before graduating from high school and a small chance of being involved in something other than consensual male-female sexual intercourse. In addition to there being no evidence that abstinence-only sex ed works, there is no reason to believe that this form of sex education is even on the same planet as those it is intended to reach.

Hypocrisy in action
So what message is sent to teens when abstinence-only-until-marriage is portrayed as the only acceptable way to deal with sex?

When I went to child-parent meetings at my son’s high school, parents of girls were frantic that the school reinforce the message that sexual intercourse was a bad choice. Parents of boys always seemed to me to be supportive but not nearly as frantic that this message be taught.

However, parents' attitudes seemed to change when these same kids went away to college or went off to get a job. A lot of these very same parents stopped preaching that sex before marriage was wrong. A fair number of them would whisper that sex before marriage might be a good idea, especially if the sex was with someone their son or daughter was thinking about marrying. Many of these parents had lived with someone before marrying and all of them who had done so had sex before marrying.

The message that sex must wait until marriage is not the right message to send to a young person. The people sending the message almost never lived up to it in their own lives and nothing turns a kid off like hypocrisy. Furthermore, most kids themselves just don’t believe it.

And lastly, regardless of what someone's age is, it makes more sense to talk about maturity, love and mutual respect than to send an absolute message that sex is unacceptable outside marriage — a message that gets nullified the day a person graduates from high school.

Science and common sense, not wishful thinking and hypocrisy, should guide what we teach kids about sex.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.