Abstinence-only sex education programs are growing in popularity in American schools. Needless to say, there is much debate over the effectiveness of these programs.
The appeal of a program promoting sexual abstinence is motivated by an undeniable problem among American teenagers. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, of developed nations, the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancies, despite the decline in teen pregnancy rates over the last 20 years. Of all the births in the United States, 13 percent are from teens.
There is compelling evidence showing children of teenage parents fair more poorly than the average child. Children of teen mothers are more likely to suffer from low birth rates, daughters of teen mothers are 22 percent more likely to become teen mothers themselves, and sons of teen moms are 13 percent more likely to go to jail. It is clear that whatever the solution, something needs to be done about the problem with teenage birth rates, not to mention better control of sexually transmitted diseases.
As a way to combat the problem, the Federal Government has spent over a billion dollars supporting abstinence-only programs over the last eight years. Fiercely backed by President George W. Bush, $160 million of that sum has been spent this year alone.
For a sexual education program to be eligible for federal funding as an abstinence-only program, a series of guidelines must be met. Roughly, the program must teach abstinence as the only certain way to avoid pregnancy and STDs out of wedlock. The program must teach monogamous relationships inside of marriage as the only sexually acceptable ones. Furthermore, the program must teach students sex before marriage can lead to harmful physiological states.
I have two problems with the program and its requirements. Supporters of abstinence-only programs hope their education program will solve the problem of unwanted teen pregnancies and STD transmissions. Also, they hope to educate teens on the psychological damage premarital sex may elicit. The program fails on both levels, and in some cases, can exasperate the problems it intended to solve.
While it is a fact that abstaining from sex is the only 100 percent guaranteed protection from pregnancy and STDs is unrealistic. Almost anyone knows the best way to not get pregnant is to abstain from sex. There is no need for a class instructing teenagers of such basic biology. This type of education is as ludicrous as a dieters club simply instructing its members not eat so much food.
The problem for many teens is that abstinence is not a realistic option. Studies show that in general, students of abstinence-only programs who pledge abstinence only delay sexual activity eighteen months. More worrisome, when these teens do become sexually active, they are less likely to use contraceptives. There seems no use for an abstinence-only program if the program fails to prevent premarital sex while placing people in a position where they are more likely to become pregnant or contract an STD. Information on staying healthy should be made available to those who so badly need alternatives other than avoiding the activity altogether.
The second goal of abstinence-only programs is to educate teenagers about negative psychological side effects of premarital sex. However, as pointed out by Rep. Henry Waxman of California in a December 2004 report, some of the teaching material is dishonest and misleading. The following excerpts, compiled from last month’s Harpers’s Magazine, were taken from 11 of the 13 most popular abstinence-only programs:
“Occasional assistance may be all right, but too much assistance will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.”
The point of this propaganda can only be to scare women into a situation where they would feel like bad people for being assertive in a sexual relationship. Normalizing a sexist mindset does a disservice to both partners.
“While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation.”
Women need hours of mental preparation before they have sex? Oh no, I’ve been doing it wrong! Kidding aside, this misleading idea about a woman and sexuality cannot be psychologically healthy for a teenage girl. The possibility for psychological instability exists if she finds she did not need such a rigorous mental exercise to partake in sex. When such extreme and dishonest material is taught in a trusted environment, I would guess those women not fitting the mold would feel sexually alienated and insecure. This potential psychological damage applies equally to the other side of the coin, whereby a man may not be ready to perform sexually at the drop of a hat, amongst other various items of clothing.
“Sexual relationships often lower the self-respect of both partners…Emotional pain can cause a downward spiral, leading to intense feelings of worthlessness. Depression (from a break up) may lead to attempted or successful suicide.”
This statement belittles the decision-making capability of those older teens and young adults that are mature enough to have sex. This material is simply meant to scare teenagers out of having sex. Fear mongering is an unacceptable approach to educating our youth about any topic, sex included.
Note that the problem listed above could exist inside a marriage as well. Premarital relationships are not exclusively unhealthy.
Clearly, the answer here is a sexual education program that explores the benefits of abstinence, but allows teenagers access to information on the use, advantages and disadvantages of various contraceptives.
Abstinence-only programs do not protect most teens from pregnancy and STDs, and the negative psychological effects of trusted scholastic material, which is dishonest, might be more negative than those of premarital sex.
Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major and president of the Student Society.