Abstinence-Only Sex Education and Why It Isn’t Working

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas —  I asked my friends a question a few weeks ago on my Facebook page.

“Do you feel that the sex education you received in school sufficiently prepared you for the future? Why or why not?”

The answers were quite telling. Though several people said they felt that schools did a decent job, the others answered with a resounding NO. (Some names have been shortened for privacy reasons)

  • “100 percent not. I find it sad that the 4th/5th grade sex ed in upstate New York prepared me adequately, while middle/high school sex ed in Allen, Texas totally failed to prepare anyone sufficiently for a healthy, joyful sexual experience.” – Katelyn Bradwell
  • “They skimmed over male and female anatomy and ignored sex entirely. However, my football coach said, ‘Anyone who knocks up a girl will never start again.’ So no, not adequate.” – Andrew
  • “You don’t get adequate sex education from Texas schools. I didn’t learn anything really until I took an AP psychology class.” – Erin Duncan
  • “My mother provided everything for me before sex ed ever began so it’s hard to say. I think it was fine, but I strongly believe it is up to the parents to give proper information to their children – not the school.” – Leslie Fink
  • “No. Contraceptives were mentioned, but not discussed. Nor were the emotional implications of sexual contact.” – Danny
  • “No. But as my mother was a Lamaze teacher, I got more than enough education at home. But here’s the thing…. No amount of preparation could get anyone ready for the complexity of sexual interaction. That is something that must be experienced to understand it. I have already discussed puberty with my ten-year-old. We touched on the topic of sex, but I’ll wait until he’s in puberty to discuss it in real depth. Because until he knows what an erection is and feels like, he just won’t ‘get’ it.” – Krista
  • “Not at all. They told us the basics of how babies were made. That’s pretty much it. And all they said about sex was how not to have it. They said nothing about how to be safe or prevent pregnancy or disease except don’t have sex. And they used scare tactics to try to keep us from doing it and to always say no. Oh, and they refused to acknowledge the existence of anything other than monogamous heterosexual relationships.” – Alex Scott
  • “Aside from the fundamentals of biology and reproduction, ‘sex ed’ should be the responsibility and obligation of parents. To impose that responsibility upon teachers is absurd, even with legal release forms, etc. It puts way too much liability on teachers, putting them in a position to either provide a very good knowledge of sex to students risking inappropriateness or withholding certain complete knowledge and answers providing incomplete education out of fear of reprisal.” – Michael L. Jordan, PhD
  • “I literally have no recollection of sex education so maybe not adequate. Responsibility should definitely be on the parents though. There’s no way teachers can influence deeply personal decisions like sex in a way that a parent could. PS – some people get pregnant because of ignorance that can be solved with sex ed. Other people get pregnant despite knowing the facts because they’re reckless.” – Danielle Sutton
  • “Not adequate. In eighth grade the brothers brought in a nurse and she basically had an hour discussion on all kinds of VD (venereal disease). And that was the end of that. I got lucky that my sex ed was taught to me at home. Mom calls me in randomly, pulls out one of her medical texts, says, ‘And this is how it’s done.’ In sciency terms, of course.” – Hugo
  • “What sex ed?” – Ryan Taylor
  • “In school? No. It was taught by a football coach who was embarrassed by the topic.” – Diane
  • “Not really no. The anatomy and facts were there, but not much practical information, like how desperate it can get when you need a condom and don’t have one.” – Robert
  • “Nope. I went to an all-girls private Catholic school and was only taught abstinence-based sex education. AKA you had to teach yourself the basic principles of safe sex or learn it from the ‘rents (which I appreciate because my mom did have that talk with me and my sister). Since we had a completely inadequate ‘sex education’ course, girls did end up getting pregnant – surprise, surprise – and were sent off to a convent when they started showing.” – Kelley Davis

So where did the preparation come from? Mostly parents and peer groups.

“When the time came for it, I learned most of my information from people I knew,” said Sarah Jean Hiscock. “And depending on your group of friends, that isn’t always very safe.”

That proves quite true, unfortunately. With shows like Teen Mom, it’s obvious that sex education isn’t doing its job, especially with its often abstinence-based focus. Penn and Teller tackle this issue on their popular Showtime show. That episode can be viewed here. (WARNING: some foul language)

THE FACTS

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According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, “The goal of the Abstinence-Centered Education program (AEP) is to encourage the implementation of evidence-based interventions, as defined by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), that will delay initiation of sexual activity as part of a continuum of services to decrease the teen pregnancy rate and rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in youth ages fifteen (15) through nineteen (19).  Project interventions focus on grades 5th – 12th with attention to risk and protective factors that affect early initiation of sexual activity.”

Here’s the thing – not only is the U.S teen birth rate the highest in the developed world, Texas tops that list; it has one of the highest rates in the country (with 43,335 teen births to females under 20 in 2011).

Furthermore, the problem cannot solve itself. It seems that one pregnancy is not enough to deter them from engaging in non-safe sexual activity again; 18 percent of all teen births are repeat births.

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Not surprisingly, Texas is #1 in the US for repeat teen births (meaning the mother had a second, third, or fourth child).

Why is this bad?Studies show that these teen mothers are at great risk for lives spent struggling with poverty.

  • Two-thirds of families begun by a young unmarried mother are poor.
  • One-quarter of teen mothers go on welfare within 3 years of the child’s birth.
  • Only 38 percent of mothers who give birth before 18 get a high school diploma.

For those curious about monetary impact, teen pregnancy accounts for nearly $11 billion per year in costs to U.S. taxpayers.

What Needs to Be Done

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If you juxtapose the statistics with the “education” schools are providing, the conclusion is clear as day – it is not working. So why aren’t things changing?

“Abstinence works,” said Governor Rick Perry during a televised interview with Texas Tribune reporter Evan Smith.

“But we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country,” Smith responded.

“It works,” insisted Perry.

“Can you give me a statistic suggesting it works?” asked Smith.

“I’m just going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works,” said Perry.

It is stubborn conservative politicians like Perry that won’t allow sex education to do what it is supposed to do – EDUCATE.

“Sex is a difficult topic to discuss, especially in school,” said Jorge Cruz, an employee of the University of Texas Prevention Research Center. “But this communication is necessary because so many students are sexually active today.”

According to a 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) report, 52 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse. Among sexually active teenagers, 42% did not use condoms during their last sexual encounter.

Though uncomfortable to discuss, these things are a reality for many teenagers across the United States. Ignoring them isn’t going to make them stop.

A 2003 University of Washington study revealed the following information:

  • Young people who received comprehensive sex education were significantly less likely to report a teen pregnancy compared to those who received no sex education.
  • In comparing abstinence-only programs with comprehensive sex education, comprehensive sex education was associated with a 50% lower risk of teen pregnancy.
  • After adjusting for demographics, abstinence-only programs were not significantly associated with a delay in the initiation of vaginal intercourse.
  • Comprehensive sex education was marginally associated with reduced reports of vaginal intercourse.

It is obvious, then, that changes need to be made. Abstinence-only denies the reality of what is going on in modern-day America. Teenagers are having sex. Abstinence-based sex education isn’t stopping them. And honestly, when did saying no to a teenager ever stop them from rebelling?

It’s time to stop giving the lazy answer of “because I said so,” and start explaining why.

It’s time to combat ignorance and reduce STIs and teen pregnancies.

It’s time to throw out the old and bring in the new by supporting evidence-based programs.

IT IS TIME FOR EDUCATION.

-Samantha Davis

SOURCES: Center for Disease Control, KUHF, Health and Human Services, New York Times, Alleys House, Sexuality Information & Education Council of the United States, YouTube, Science Daily, Colorado Springs Independent

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