Monday, April 16, 2007
CNN: "Study: Abstinence programs no guarantee"
Surprise! CNN.com reports:
Students who took part in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress.
Also, those who attended one of the four abstinence classes that were reviewed reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as those who did not attend the classes. And they first had sex at about the same age as other students -- 14.9 years, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
The federal government now spends about $176 million annually on abstinence-until-marriage education. Critics have repeatedly said they don't believe the programs are working, and the study will give them reinforcement.
The federal abstinence-only guidelines try to keep teenagers from having sex by portraying sex as scary and dangerous. This approach seems a particularly misguided way to try to influence teenagers for at least three reasons. First, teenagers are smarter than abstinence-only proponents would like to acknowledge. They know that sex outside marriage -- enormously commonplace as it is -- cannot always be bad. Second, teenagers tend to feel invincible. A fear-based approach in this demographic seems particularly likely to fall on deaf ears. Finally, teens' hormones are raging -- they are experiencing sexual feelings, they are curious about what is happening to their bodies. These are natural feelings for them to have. And we tell them... what? You cannot act on those feelings until you are married -- otherwise, you are likely to be both physically and psychologically harmed.
This would all be bad enough, but while they are bombarded with unrealistic, shrill messages about abstinence in school, teens are bombarded even more heavily with sexualized messages outside of school -- in music, movies, television, advertising, you name it. To confront this onslaught of seductive sexual imagery with rigid, abstinence-only lessons in school strikes me as a little like trying to combat junkfood consumption by telling kids the only way they can be healthy is to stick to a diet of lettuce.
Teenagers need honest discussions about sexuality. They need to be taught values about healthy sexual relationships and self-respect. They need to know about how to practice safer sex when they do decide to become sexually active. Teens and pre-teens are not little children any more. They are transitioning to adulthood. That transition requires guidance, support, and, yes, a little trust on our parts. Let's hope that studies like this one mark the beginning of a shift away from the ostrich-like mentality of the abstinence-only movement and toward a realistic, respectful approach to teaching teens how to be sexually happy, healthy, and safe.
See these related posts: Less Comprehensive Sex Ed Taught in Schools, Study Finds; Inadequate sexuality education in Wales fails to combat media messages teens receive about sex; other posts can be found under "Sexuality Education" in the Topical Archive of this blog.
See also this press release from the ACLU: Citing New Study Showing that Federally Funded Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Don’t Work, ACLU Calls on Congress to Stop Funding