Wednesday, June 4, 2008

If everyone is doing it....

Lately I've been reading and thinking a lot about comprehensive sexual education vs. abstinence education, and just WHAT my reasoning is behind why I believe in the former over the latter. A lot of screaming has been happening between the camps lately (in my neck of the woods as well as nationally) and it's led me down a few paper trails doing a little research on the matter. Today, for example, I read a recently published research article entitled, "Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003" (study found in this link). I am not done with it, but the general synopsis states that basically everyone has premarital sex, and that that hasn't changed with time. Mainly, when reading research studies, I am looking for bias, sample size, research methods, accreditation, publication, etc. Basically, I want to make sure the findings are legit. This study, it seems, is pretty legit, but feel free to check it out for yourselves and report otherwise.

Yesterday, I went the opposite direction and started reading through the website and some of the studies on the Parents for Truth
website, an abstinence-education website/group. Interestingly to me, the website has a part of their FAQ section that addresses the fact that nearly everyone has premarital sex:

8. With most people having sex before marriage, isn’t the “abstinence until marriage” message unrealistic?

The fact that many individuals have sex before marriage and 1 in 3 births are outside of marriage does not diminish the benefits of waiting to have children until marriage, nor does it mean we should abandon the goal of changing the cultural norm for this behavior. In fact, historically, if a cultural behavior or norm is in conflict with the desired outcome, efforts are redoubled, not discarded. For example, a generation ago, smoking was a desired, normative behavior, but today smoking is almost universally viewed as undesirable and unhealthy - proof that cultural and social norms can and do change.

Similarly, although growing numbers of Americans are overweight, efforts to encourage exercise and healthy eating habits have increasingly become public health priority messages. We do not capitulate our highest public health standards based on the unhealthy choices of a majority, but on standards that promote optimal health outcomes in the population. Overwhelming social science data reveals that children who are born within a committed married relationship fare better economically, socially, physically and psychologically.19 In terms of child outcomes, the facts are clear – waiting until after marriage to have children is indisputably in the child’s best interest. Further, most teens are not sexually active and more and more teens are choosing to be abstinent, proving that the message of abstinence increasingly resonates with youth.20 Amplified efforts to link the personal benefits of abstinence with the positive effects for children born from a marital union are warranted and necessary if positive changes in cultural norms are to be realized.

I have quite a bit to say about this answer, and I think it has helped me format the reasons that I support comprehensive sexual education.

First, and foremost, I want to give props out to the writer of these FAQ's for using the very good tactic of linking abstinence education to smoking cessation and end-obesity campaigns. Smart move. Basically, this is an amazingly effective paraphrasing of the old "jumped off a bridge" argument your mother used to make when you'd tell her, "But mooooom, everybody's doing it!" (Unless you were me, and then you didn't even bother because you knew, KNEW, that your mother didn't give a damn about what everyone else was doing-unless it related to being Mormon and Mormonism) Pairing the abstinence campaign up with successful other public health campaigns lends it an air of righteous indignity.

Ok, on to to the serious portion of my thoughts. This answer states that most teens are not having sex and that abstinence education can take credit for that. To be fair, the research study above didn't specify an age that most people start having sex, so it is entirely possible that teens are not having sex (though I sincerely
doubt it). However, as far as the abstinence message of waiting until marriage- no matter what age, the VAST majority of people are getting down and dirty before a ring appears. So, even if teens aren't having sex at the time of education, they will be having sex at some point, most likely before they're in the "safe" zone that these people like to call marriage.

The answer states that talking about how children born into two-parent families are better off shows the positive aspects of abstinence education and provides incentive for teens. Trying to be fair to them, I can agree that baby-hungry teens would do well to learn that it's better to be married when you have a baby, but I highly doubt that a non-existent child's well-being is really going to provide sufficient motivation for teens to keep it in their pants.

It's not that I'm against abstinence. I think people, teens in particular, benefit from not having sex earlier than they are ready to. It's just that I see that as simply one component of the concept of sex, which I believe is one of the most important topics that teens/adults/anybody has to deal with. I'm serious.

Abstinence people want to emphasize that sex is a BIG FUCKING DEAL. And I totally agree. Sex IS a big fucking deal. That's why I think that sex education should be comprehensive. It's hard to know when to start teaching teenagers about sex, but truthfully, it has to be in this time frame that the discussion is opened. There's a forum for it. Teaching the abstinence until marriage education does a disservice to everyone, and not solely because, according to statistics, it isn't a viable reality.

Teaching teens about sex in a manner that includes contraceptive use, STI information, pregnancy information, relationships including homosexual relationships, and biological information isn't simply information that is needed to navigate the hormonal waters of adolescence. We teach our children the basics when they're young because we want them to have those skills to use throughout their lives. It's the same with sex. At no other time is there an organized forum for giving information about sex. Learning about sex in an educational environment prepares teenagers for a lifetime of sexuality. Not giving them comprehensive information about sex does a disservice to the adults they will become.

The abstinence only campaign that emphasizes that oral contraceptives fail and that condoms don't always work and that abstinence is the only way to truly remain "safe" make sex seem frightening and unnatural (not to mention immoral). They are right that sex is never safe. Sex is NEVER safe. It's not safe when you're a teenager and it isn't safe when you're a married adult. However, part of teaching teens how to be responsible adults entails teaching them that every decision has associated risks and ways to minimize risks. Contraceptives reduce risks of pregnancy and STI's and they do so very effectively. Not teaching about these options essentially leaves teens (adults) open to more danger. It's like driving a car. Going the speed limit and wearing a seat belt and practicing defensive driving help reduce the risk of injury and accident, but they don't completely nix the fact that driving a car is a risk. Not teaching people to put on their seatbelts because you don't want them to drive a car seems sort of cruel. (How'd ya like them analogies? Like how I added a public health campaign to my argument?)

Comprehensive sex education is better because it doesn't marginalize people's sexuality. Abstinence only education's emphasis on waiting for marriage before sex is a tremendous slight to teens who are homosexual, transsexual and transgender. It posits marriage as the only socially acceptable option for sexual expression, disregarding those for whom marriage isn't a legal option, a desired option, or a possible option. It effectively sends a message to teens that if they do not fall into the desired canon, that they are somehow less of a person and that their sexual relationships will never be as meaningful or as worthwhile, not to mention depriving these teens of information regarding their differing sexuality.

I think sex education shouldn't just be a presentation that kids attend before lunch one day. I think it should be a required class in high school and that it should cover topics ranging from the biological aspects of sex to relationship issues to technical aspects of sex such as contraceptive use and Pap smears. I think there should be sections on pregnancy and sections on homosexuality and sections on rape and sexual abuse and sections on consent. I think there should be an emphasis on the emotional aspects included in sexual relationships. I think there should be talk about men and women's roles and societal conceptions of sexuality, pornography, etc. I want MORE not less.

I am rannnnting!

P.S. Bill Watterson, on the infinitesimal chance that you ever read this blog, I know you hate it when people use Calvin and Hobbes for their own devices. I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself. I just love them so much.

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