Location: United States

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Realistically Teaching about Sex

For a society as obsessed with sex as America is, we are woefully inadequate in preparing our children for living a healthy sexual life. The rate of teen pregnancies is appalling – especially considering that it is twice as high as the UK and nine times as high as Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Moreover, American teenagers become sexually active close to a year earlier than teens in the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. This is true despite the US government spending billions on abstinence-only education programs.
From a general review of professional literature on sexual education, my best guess is that abstinence-only education convinces teens to delay their first sexual intercourse by a few months, perhaps even as much as a year. I, for one, am the first one in line to say that convincing a sixteen-year-old girl to wait another year is a good thing. I don’t think it’s good enough, though.
The same studies show that after that slight delay in their first sexual experience, teens who have had abstinence-only education tend to have as many sex partners as those with no sexual education at all. The big difference is that you see about a twenty percent or more drop in the percentage of sexually active kids who use any form of contraception. A program that delays sexual activity for a year only to place kids at a greater risk of STDs and pregnancy is nothing to cheer about.
Abstinence-first education is another matter. A comprehensive abstinence first program will stress that all forms of birth control are fallible other than abstinence. It will also stress that abstinence is the only way to be 100% sure that you will not contract an STD. Most programs stress a holistic approach to sexuality, meaning that it includes components for spiritual concerns, parental involvement, peer pressure refusal, and personal esteem. The result is an even greater delay in the first sexual encounter and an increased use of multiple methods of birth control.
Here’s the kicker. It has to be provided within a year prior to the person’s first sexual activity. This means that it would have to be an age-appropriate part of the curriculum from the time kids begin hitting puberty through the end of schooling. I stress “age-appropriate” because I don’t want anyone thinking I am advocating showing pornography in sixth grade. At the same time, we should not act like knowing where babies come from and the manner in which the human body develops is somehow evil or beyond the grasp of a sixth grader.
As a Christian, I understand that the Bible teaches sex outside of marriage is a sin. I accept this. However, my goal as a Christian is not to somehow stop people from sinning (an impossible goal) but to convince them that, even in their sin, that God loves them and wants to forgive their failings. I cannot do this to a dead person. Therefore, it is perfectly within my Christian ethics to teach kids how to use prophylactics (anyone embarrassed if I call a rubber a rubber?).
As a humanitarian and a liberal, my goal for society is to alleviate the worst social conditions – including poverty, hunger, and disease. Teaching a young person to behave responsibly with regards to their sexual urges is perfectly aligned with this goal. Teenage mothers have a much higher rate of dropping out of high school or college. This links them, for the most part, to low paying jobs. It is, in fact, one of the hardest links in the chain of poverty to break.
But the truth of the matter is that sexual health is ultimately about making responsible decisions about what to do with and to your body. We have to make it clear that abstinence is 100% effective – even if it makes us sound un-cool or trite or stupid. We have to make it clear that any move from that safety involves risks. There are ways to lessen the risks, but once taken a risk cannot be given back.
We have to move away from putting our heads in the sand because we are uncomfortable with our teenagers doing exactly what we did at their age. If nothing else, speaking honestly and educating young people realistically about sexuality will gain their trust and respect. As a parent, those are two gifts from my children that I value above all else.


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