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The Real Battle Line for Sex Education

October 26, 2009

by Dave Wilson

Amanda’s life could have been a case study straight out of a research journal. Her Mom and Dad were divorced. Dad was in prison and Mom had a series of boyfriends. Amanda started experimenting with sex early on and became a statistic when she got pregnant at age 15.

Teen pregnancy is not a new topic; hundreds of thousands of teens get pregnant each year. And while there is a general agreement that teen pregnancy carries numerous challenges, an on-going cultural war is brewing about the solution. What should teens be taught in sex education?

Our culture gives a wink and nod to teen sex but not to teen pregnancy. It’s almost an expected norm today that teens are going to have sex, so the prevailing attitude is that schools need to teach teens how to have “safe sex” – protecting themselves with condoms.

But just take a look at the 119 condom-based programs researched over the past 20 years, and you’ll find that only 32 were school-based. And while none showed a reduction in teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), only one claims to increase the consistent use of condoms over time. And even that study’s results are in question, because condom use among its students actually decreased.

With that success rate, what has been the response? Condom-promotion programs have sprouted nationwide and are now in 68% of America’s schools. Meanwhile their federal funding is 2-to-1 compared to abstinence education.

Sex education, in all honestly, has to be more than teaching teens how to have “safe sex.” It has to be more than condom education. Sex education has to look at the whole person, not just their “private parts.”

When you clear the smoke screen that its opponents try to muster, you’ll find that authentic abstinence education applies more of a whole-person approach and assumes that teens, when equipped with the skills needed to avoid risk, can actually exercise self-control. In fact, several abstinence education programs have been shown to reduce the initiation of sex by half a year after students have been through the program.

That’s where the dividing line falls in the sex education debate.

Condom education is a risk reduction strategy, encouraging the use of condoms during sex. Abstinence education is a risk avoidance strategy, emphasizing character development qualities that help students avoid risky behaviors and situations, so they can eventually form healthy families and reach their personal potential in the future.

Amanda was never taught the option of abstinence. She wasn’t given the opportunity to develop the life skills she needed to avoid the risks that derailed her dream of being a doctor. She was given educational opportunities, but academics weren’t enough. After only a semester at a private school paid for by a family friend, she returned home and fell right back into a tragic cycle of behavior with her family and friends. That life, for this girl of then-thirteen, who had no dad at home and no role model in mom, naturally included sex.  She wasn’t taught any different.

Amanda needed to be taught life skills that would help her break out of the generational poverty that was shaping her future. Learning how to reduce pregnancy risks with the “eleven guidelines” for correctly using a condom just wasn’t enough.

When funding for condom-based programs dramatically increased in the 80s and early 90s, primarily due to the HIV scare, teen STD and pregnancy rates ironically skyrocketed. And for the longest time public health officials and condom advocates tried to keep this information and facts about the limitations of condoms and condom-based programs under wraps.

But growing concerns about rising rates of teen pregnancy and STD rates lead Congress, in 1996, to attach abstinence education funding and guidelines to Welfare Reform. It brought abstinence to the forefront of the sex education debate.

Chris Trenholm, PhD, conducted research on selected abstinence education programs right after Welfare Reform passed. He says that prior to Welfare Reform funding, abstinence was not a part of the sex education conversation.  “It would be interesting to document the evolution of health and sex education program curricula – from 1985 to 1995 to 2005. My guess is that if looked at curricula from those earlier times [before federal abstinence funding], few would have contained much information on abstinence. Now, many curricula seem to speak to the benefits of abstinence from sex. I suspect the two [changes in these curricula and federal abstinence funding] are related.

Rebecca Maynard, PhD, a key leader in the Mathematica abstinence education evaluation project, agrees with Trenholm’s comments, “There is no question in my mind that Title V funding [Welfare Reform Abstinence Education, Section 510] changed the conversation about sex education. In many cases, it stimulated the first community-wide conversation about health and sex education policies.”

Condom advocates have objected to the abstinence education guidelines since they were introduced and have escalated the culture war over sex education. Fearing a decrease in the condom usage among sexually active teens, these public health officials have coordinated disparaging attacks on abstinence education, predicting dire consequences. They’ve become the driving force in “comprehensive sex education”, setting the political agenda and swaying public opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s worked.

Despite a 38% drop in teen pregnancy nationwide and the fact that a majority of teens are bucking public health predictions and abstaining from sex, Congress and the Administration are just steps away from overturning the very guidelines established 13 years ago to address the fundamental issues of teen pregnancy and the rise of STDs among adolescents. Their fall back is quietly tucked away in health care reform – if condom promotion doesn’t work, there’s federal funding for abortion.

All of this flies in the face of some of the government’s own studies that show the effectiveness of abstinence education. The Office of Population Affairs published outcomes of a grassroots program started in 1996 in Charleston, SC. A year after the Heritage Keepers® Abstinence Education program, participants were half as likely to initiate sex as similar non-program students. No one can truly argue that such outcomes are not significant, particularly in a state with some of the highest rates of HIV and out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the nation.

Even Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, in a publication from their Community Education Department, went so far as to quote sex education research expert Doug Kirby, PhD, as saying “…analyses did suggest that the program [referring to the Heritage Keepers® Abstinence Education] delayed the initiation of sex.” Since the Heritage Keepers® program started more than a decade ago, teen pregnancy rates in SC have gone down by 35%.

Welfare Reform states the basic truth: “…abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and associated health problems.” In a culture saturated with sexual messages, it is clear that developing the internal character that enables teens to withstand the pressure to get involved in sex outside of the commitment of marriage is essential to their future well-being. It is exactly what is needed, and if such programs are obliterated by condom advocates, the US Congress, and the White House, Amanda’s story will be repeated again and again and again.

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