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Let's get it on: Abstinence only sex education is risky and ineffective

My first year of college was a real eye-opener. Despite the flirt fests and round robin craziness in high school, I entered college relatively naive. Carrie, a sweet girl who was my age but about ten years ahead of me in sophistication, took me under her wing for a semester. She dropped out the following semester to become a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. And nail the cover of Texas Monthly Magazine. But, before she left, Carrie rescued me from what you might call a reeling shock and potential disaster.

Carrie was better than any anti-drug or sex education program in the world. She was practical, matter-of-fact and spent way more time telling me what to do rather than what not to do.

As I mentioned previously, I believe that positive approaches of education are more efficacious than scare tactic, punitive, threatening, or negative approaches.

Science and research back me up on this.

Sexual abstinence messages carry even less benefit and even more risk than anti-drug abstinence messages. I think you'll see that when you examine facts and evidence rather than emotion or ideology, it doesn't matter whether you are focusing on drugs or sex: abstinence messages put the focus in the wrong place and aren't effective.

I have three not unique to me hypotheses about why this is. As it happens, they are very similar to my anti-drug program objections.

1. Mixed messages about group think
2. One size does not fit all
3. The irony in the negative

1. Mixed messages about group think

I've recently determined that I vehemently object to the barrage of morality public schools inflict on our children via brainwashing programs dictated by the current trendy political party's philosophical (read: religious) affiliation.

"Hats On Day!" screams today's flyer from the school. It is but one in a torrent of flyers telling me how the school is shaping my child's values.

Back up that truck, Buck.

That's my job.

Your job is to shape her for her tenure at Harvard, okay? She's going to get there on the strength of her academic accomplishments. She'll remain there on the strength of her character. The former is your job, the latter is mine.

On the surface, the school's "value and morality" programs look well-intended and just what the Kindness and Consideration Doctor ordered. Instead, I see the insidious Mr. PC Run Amuck at his group think horror work again.

My values happen to be to educate my child with facts and information, and then teach her how to make good choices for herself. I can't always be there overseeing her, and I can't demand that she live her life to my stipulation. I can do my best to guide her the direction I think leads towards happiness and health and's in her hands.

As a frequent Rebel Without a Cause in my youth, the biggest regrets I have are the times I ignored my parents' edicts. I ignored them because I was a teen, and as we all know, the Teen Credo is: Nobody tells me what to do!

It's understandable that in the midst of this chaos, one might want to lower the boom with strong dictates of Right and Wrong, topped off with strict Don'ts.

So I grasp the motive. It's a good one: we want to keep our kids safe and healthy.

However, it's not working. And our government knows that; they funded the study that says so.

Sexual activity (the least of it), pregnancy, and STDs (including AIDs) are still just as prevalent. In fact, "The American Social Health Association estimates there are nearly 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States each year." (Source: ASHA and MSNBC)

We tell children to think for themselves and not be pressured into a decision by anyone and then...and then we tell them don't think for yourself! Do what I tell you to do! And that means no sex for you!

Has any "do as I say, not as I do" parenting actually ever worked?

Children need to learn how to weigh situations, think critically within them, and make smart and healthy choices. We can't predict every potential event they'll experience, and at the end of the day, we can't shut down their minds or their natural drive, no matter how hard we try.

In the end, they'll make their own decisions.

2. One size does not fit all

Young people will make their own choices because---and let me pause dramatically here for a moment---each person is unique. Each situation is unique and filled with a variety of factors.

When a person has a strong desire (and I mean this more broadly than your romantically-focused mind might be taking it just now), one has what you might term a heady case of the "where there's a will, there's a way" rationalizations.

But we love each other.

We're committed.

If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right.

We pressure children into following one single mindset.

The school needs to point to parts, name them, and explain how they work together. Thanks to Babies: Special Delivery and Human Anatomy, my children are already extremely aware of these details. (God help us. I have a future astronaut who will dissect mice in space and a future OB/ the signs point now.)

I don't mind the school backing up my anatomy and physiology lessons. In fact, I expect it.

What I want to know is why the district's ethics get to dictate a morality lecture included in said sexual education.

Please, just the facts, jack. I'll tell my kid about the ivory tower her father and I will lock her in until she's 25. (Kidding, people.)

Kids aren't all the same, and neither are all families that send kids to school. There is clearly a majority opinion, or at least majority buy-in, but I don't think that in this case majority ought to rule. I think facts and information ought to rule, and individuals ought to be left to shape their own children's morals.

I aspire to shape my daughters so that they are able to---like me---make decisions that leave them with no regrets, fond memories, and happiness and health.

I think the best way to do this is to arm them with knowledge (facts), share with them the different choices, openly discuss the pros and cons of decisions including how to be safe and okay depending upon what they decide, and keep the communication clear and nonjudgmental so I can be there when they need me.

As with the best anti-drug program, I think parents are the best anti-sex program, too.

Of course this requires the correct focus. Carrie knew the correct focus: guiding me to good choices with information and guidance, as well as positive distraction, rather than trying to terrify me about what might happen if I Don't Subscribe to her Morals and Group Think.

3. The irony of the negative

The irony of the negative is the same as with anti-drug: boomerang. The same psychology applies here: if you say, "Don't look down!" the immediate instinct and mind focus is on looking down.

Our brains search for guidance of what to do in situations. That's why we discard the "don't."

"Don't have sex" puts the emphasis on...have sex. We focus on the sex.

Here's the funky little twist: too much education and discussion about sex does the same thing.

We give parents grief about the quick, awkward One Time talk. But in a way, logic says that might have some merit.

I think there's a way to go to an extreme in either direction. The key, in my opinion, is balance. Provide information, but also provide good ideas of what to do during the teen years.

"To do" doesn't necessarily mean pulling out condoms and cucumbers for demonstrations at your child's Sweet Sixteen party.

It means providing your child good, positive, self-esteem building activities. It means helping your child keep a well-balanced life. It means giving your child the best tools possible to make the best choices available.

Does that strike you as vague and subjective? That's because it is.

Drugs are pretty hard and fast: they are controlled substances and are illegal. Alcohol is illegal for people under 21.

Sex, however, is a murky moral pool. Parents will have opinions, and I think it's important to share these with children.

Read that last sentence again. Notice I said parents? Not schools?

That's because in my opinion the murkier the moral, the less the school ought to guide to a single faith-based choice. That needs to be a one-on-one family discussion.

Sex education is a trigger point. How to educate kids about sex has been under debate heavily for my entire lifetime. If we present biological and factual information about sex in schools, people are going to want a moral message along with it.

This is due to the fear that any discussion about sex leads to sex.

However, as the government study shows, it's not discussion that leads to sex. It's a lot more basic than that.

Right now, I fear the debate is raging so fiercely about the morals that the facts have gotten swept under the rug and sex education is now a discussion of ethics.

I fear even more the fact that money for schools to educate children about sex is tied to the moral message they present.

As Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.---director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania---said in his article, "Blind faith on sex-ed approach puts kids at risk"
Actually, you cannot expect abstinence-only sex ed to be protective, effective or in any way useful at all. Ever. Period. Enough already. It's time to pull the plug on abstinence-only sex education. There are too many lives at stake to put up with a reproductive-health policy that is willing to kill and disable our kids out of an allegiance to a blind faith in something that does not work.

(And if you follow no other links from here, do follow that link and read that article.)

That opinion is predicated, as is my own, on this goal: protect kids from repercussions from unsafe sex.

That's what I believe the goal of the school's sexual education program should be. This is achieved through factual presentation of all sides of sexual education.

The other side of the debate has, I think, a different goal: to protect kids by preventing them from having sex. That's the baseline of abstinence only sexual education. That is clearly the goal.

And that's exactly why it fails. In fact, that is also the exact point of weakness in any study of the efficacy of abstinence only sex education: not all homes promote abstinence only. That's how, I think, you end up with a 50/50 ratio of sexual activity in teen years.

I don't mean to entirely undermine the studies' validity or their results. In fact, I think they are valid in the overriding conclusion that abstinence only education is ineffective because sexual activity has not altered as a result of that tactic. However, as best I can tell, they only measured the school's abstinence only program against sexual activity and onset of sexual activity.

To reiterate, that's a moral message. To have or not to have sex is a moral message. It needs to happen at home.

As one who frequently disagrees with the school's message and delivery, I can assure you: the school's program is not and will never be the only factor. The home either reinforces or is different from it.

So we're full circle now: Parents are the first and last defense.

Schools can't be the front line; they shouldn't be, not for this.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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You thought this one out very well and persuasively. Particularly the distinction between academics and values.

There seems to be an odd internal contradiction in the thinking among the evangelical conservatives who have pushed the GOP in the direction of "abstinence." They can't possibly want separation of church and state, or even the relativism that holds all churches to be more or less the same (as long as they are "Bahble-based," whatever that really means), and also want the very secular public schools teaching what parents and those same churches seem either too inept or lazy to teach themselves.

I can understand a Catholic school or a Baptist school teaching the religious ethics worn on the sleeve (but not so well in practice). But religious ethics have no place in public schools.
atypical said…
My thoughts on this are very complicated, and I have a rather nasty cold (which has dampened my ability to form a coherent sentence), so I am not even going to attempt to detail the areas in which I agree and disagree on this right now. I guess I'll just put it in the bin with all of the other things I'm going to get to some day.

How's that for a cop out?
thailandchani said…
I agree with you completely. Values should be taught at home.. and that includes values clarification techniques. The schools need to stick to basic social skills and academics.
dharmamama said…
Couldn't agree with you more. My oldest went through OWL classes at our UU church last year. It was SUCH an open-minded honest thorough approach - I highly recommend those classes. ( Since we unschool, I've not had to deal with the school system's latent (or not so latent) agendas - thank goodness! Open honest communication goes such a long way - I'm glad you have that with your girls.
Anonymous said…
I rather wonder why we are so scared of sex. I think if we were more scared of disease and accidental pregnancy, we'd probably be chosing slightly more effective methods of helping our kids.

Great post, Julie.
Sukhaloka said…
Well said.

Unfortunately, where I live we have to educate parents to be free enough to overcome their own inhibitions and talk about sex. Children need education, and most parents are not in a position to provide them with it. However, abstinence-only sex ed is absolutely wrong. Simple reason - children and young adults need to be equipped with what to do if ever in a position where they might have intercourse. Education has to be constructive.
S said…
She's going to get there on the strength of her academic accomplishments. She'll remain there on the strength of her character. The former is your job, the latter is mine.

Kyla said…
I've mentioned before that for ME, abstinence only was not the way to go. LOL. I have a couple in-laws that it did work for, as in, no sex until marriage...and it boggles my mind. BOGGLES IT! Here's the thing, I think the school's message had little to nothing to do with it. It was a choice they made for themselves. I don't think abstinence only teachings had anything to do with it, really.

As a Christian, I suppose I am meant to subscribe to the abstinence party line, but I don't know that I really do. I don't think it is all that realistic, it surely isn't realistic as an only line of defense. Personally, I want my children to have the FACTS, not the FEAR. I want them to be educated and responsible about the decisions they make, because as much as we think we have control over these issues as parents, we really don't. It comes down to the decisions they will choose to make, just like once upon a time, we made our own decisions about it. And all we can do is equip them for those decisions.

When I worked in Christian school, this was one of the things I really pushed for, education beyond "Sex is BAD. Don't do it!" because it is a joke. Kids NEED more information than that, and if you don't give it...they get it on their own.
Aliki2006 said…
I agree--schools shouldn't be the front line on this issue. I already think school's assume too many roles that parents should assume as it is.

Great post--very provocative and well-articulated.
Cristina said…
I believe in abstinence as the best form of birth control, but I don't believe in abstinence-only sex education. I actually wrote a policy brief on it a few years back for a public health agency I worked for. From my research on the topic, it was clear that comprehensive sex ed was the way to go and that abstinence only just doesn't work. Too bad our tax $$ are going to abstinence only despite the research. It's so political.
painted maypole said…
this is very complicated. My parents did a pretty good job at this when I was younger... I still laugh about the box of of contraceptives they pulled out at dinner one day, much to the dismay of my brother and myself. But their message was this: we would prefer you wait to have sex until you are married (and this is why...) but we know that you might not, so you need to know about contraception, how it works, and what it can and can't do. i had known about how sex works and the names of body parts for YEARS already. And it wasn't a constant discussion, although it came up occasionally and I knew where my parents stood... so it wasn't this HUGE thing in my house.

the difficulty with schools IS that kids get such different levels of info in their homes. It would be nice if schools did their jobs more factually and gave more complete information.
Gina Pintar said…
Ok, I admit I did not read the whole thing yet but wanted to comment on the beginning.

I think your problem is also a problem I see here too. We are teaching by telling. Do this, don't do that. We NEED to teach children (and everyone else) TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES. I keep coming back to opinions are not wrong they are just different! We do not have to all think the same.

Specifically, teach cause and effect. If you have sex, you can get pregnant, then you will have a baby, not be able to go out, hard to go to college ETC. This abstenence stuff is only teaching don't have sex because it is wrong. Since when to teens care about wrong?? They learn math, teach probablilty. Use real life examples. Not "this happens to someone else' but "this could, with high probability" happen to you.

This does not even bring up the moral stuff and the "nice girls don't" stuff. The latter is what kept me away in high school. Oh and seeing what happened to reputations of the young girls who did. Did not want to be talked about like THAT.

You brought up a good and interesting point with "crazy hat day". I never thought of it as a conformist thing. We do that sort of stuff as School Spirit Days. I will have to think about that more. Does it contribute to thinking alike? Does it encourage conformity? Interesting!
Gina Pintar said…
I do agree that the moral issue should be from the home some kids are not getting any message from home. What do we do with them? If we address no morals in school then what? I think these are the most vulernable kids these are the ones who need this education the most. I do think they need to hear something about morals in school. But again with a why answer. Why would you wait, why would you not want your first encounter to be in an alley at 13 etc. Again, get them thinking. Every child can learn to make good choices but they need to get the chance.
Lawyer Mama said…
Oh my. SUCH a complex issue. And one I'd prefer the schools not teach my children. I agree with you. This is my job. Because it's my job, I'll be sure to address it before the school does and more often. I like to do my own brainwashing.

Plus, as for the morals... Oy. I can't agree that pre-marital sex is immoral. Is it only immoral for those over 18? 21? 35? Do I think that teenagers are emotionally mature enough to handle the emotions that come along as part of a physical relationship? Hell no. I speak from personal experience. And this is what I'll teach my children. While I'm showing them where we keep the condoms.
Melissa said…
Great post!

My kids are getting to an age where these "talks" will be happening. But I intend on making it an ongoing discussion rather than a one time event. I am hoping that this will insure that our values will be passed down.

But I agree with you in that the job of passing down morals and ethics is mine, not theirs.
Anonymous said…
Just last night I saw a PSA that was very well done, and the teens were saying, "Tell me about sex. I need to know and I'm going to hear it from kids at school anyway, so tell me your side." And then at the end the voiceover was, "Teach your kids that abstinence is the only way and that they should wait until marriage!"
B.S. I hope the neighbors didn't hear me laugh/groan so late!
"Your job is to shape her for her tenure at Harvard, okay? She's going to get there on the strength of her academic accomplishments. She'll remain there on the strength of her character.The former is your job, the latter is mine."

Julie Pippert said…
Cecilieaux, thank you. Interesting point about the parents and churches. I don't think they are too lazy. I think they prefer to ensure that no other mindset reach their precious darlings.


Atypical. I was counting on you. Okay. But I understand so I'll wait.


Chani, succinct and yes, thank you.

Dharmamama, no, not very subtle or latent. I'll have a look at your link, thanks!

Emily!! This, "I think if we were more scared of disease and accidental pregnancy, we'd probably be chosing slightly more effective methods of helping our kids."

MARVELOUS point and way to say it.

Suki, your point is well made and taken. So true. Many parents...yes. And this hits Gina's point as well...what do we do for kids who don't get it from their parents? I have many thoughts but...that's another post and I'd need to think them all the way around.

SM and Cathy, IN STEREO and JINKS! Thanks you two. :)

Kyla, okay yes I do recall...that's was a good one. As it so very happens err...abstinence wasn't exactly on my radar, either. I like to think I was wise, discreet and mindful. Plus, your point about abstinence as the defense is excellent.
My wife and I talk very openly with our teens about the choices they will need to make with their partners. We realize we can't stop them from doing whatever they're going to do but we can encourage them to slow down, abstain, understand teen pregnancy issues and disease and talk to us openly about their relationships. We also don't give them the opportunity to be in an environment where they can be tempted, such as being alone in someone's house overnight etc. We try to teach them to make good decisions and hope it sinks in!
Scribbit said…
So much of what most schools teach isn't education but values and it's a sad state to be in. Parents should be handling that, not the schools.
Maisy said…
Being an Aussie, our experience is a little differently.

My 12 year old, 4'8" son is having sex ed at school at the moment. Very factual all the way through. The 4th (and last) session is on STD's and involves a condom demonstration.

Far out! Does he really need to have that while he's still in childhood? Can't we wait for adolescence? I understand there is some need for this, but honestly, I'd rather the condom demonstration was delayed until high school.

Christine said…
this is a tough one. i believe you are right, that it is my job alone to teach these things to my kids. but i still wonder about those children with no education, no moral instruction, or no guidance in these matters at home.
Blah said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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