Yesterday seemed, at first, to be a bad day for supporters of comprehensive sex education. In a landmark study of sixth-and-seventh-graders, researchers concluded that “sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity.” In the wake of statistics from last week that revealed that teen pregnancy rates were rising (a finding that led many people to blame abstinence-only sex education programs), this is rather confusing.
The Obama administration just nixed federal funding for abstinence-only education (a move that I and many others applauded), but others are using this new study to declare that we need to rethink abstinence-only education. But that’s actually a very specious analysis. Here’s why.
First of all, when we say “abstinence,” we can actually mean a lot of different things. Many people expect abstinence-only sex education programs to promote refraining from sex until marriage. But abstinence can actually mean a lot of different things – you can be abstinent for a weekend, or a month, or a year, and it can still be a healthy decision. Certainly, encouraging abstinence for very young teens is a good idea. It’s how the programs talk about sex, and contraception, that matters. There’s nothing wrong with advocating for abstinence until a committed relationship – as long as adequate information is provided about STIs, contraception, and other crucial issues as well.
The programs in the study seem to be very different from the Bush administration’s “abstain until marriage” programs, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, pointed out. According to the WaPo, “The curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.”
So…that’s not really abstinence-only, right? That’s what we call comprehensive.
The bottom line, at least for me, is that it’s important to include information about abstinence in sex education programs. But that’s hardly a revolutionary idea. The whole point of comprehensive sex education is that it provides children and teens with a range of options, and allows them to make informed, intelligent decisions. It acknowledges that not all people will wait until marriage to have sex, and tries to promote safety and good decision-making.
In the end, this seems to be an issue of semantics. New programs called “abstinence-plus” education have begun to gain in popularity. They supplement the old abstinence-only curricula with information about STIs and contraceptives – but can’t let go of the name. Keeping abstinence in the title makes it sound like waiting until marriage is the real solution – but information about other issues is what makes the program work. Thus, these programs are not really abstinence-only. They’re actually what comprehensive sex educators have been advocating for this whole time. Robin Marty (who also happens to blog for Care2) has a great article about this over at RHRealityCheck.
And that’s essentially what John B. Jemmott III, the study’s leader, concluded. “The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” said Jemmott. “There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms. This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer.”
Say it with me, people: abstinence is part of comprehensive sex education. But refusing to tell children about condoms will not work.
Photo courtesy of CoolVirginity.com.