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Keeping Our Teens SAFE

October 30, 2009

by Dave Wilson

The story of Amanda would be tragic under any circumstance. To be a high school dropout, unmarried with two children, in jail on a drug conviction is enough. The fact that it is a continuation of a systemic cycle in her family leaves little hope of the future for her children… and their children for that matter.

Simply put, Amanda was unable to break out of the social and economic systems that held her captive. It says a lot about the way she was taught to think about herself and her own decisions.

Abstinence education, as it was originally designed and as it is authentically taught, addresses a key issue called self-efficacy – the confidence and skills to be able to carry out one’s intentions.

Amanda, as hopeful as she was of becoming a doctor when she grew up, never learned anything more than her own family structure. She grew up in a broken home, the daughter of a teen mother, with a dad who abandoned his responsibilities to her. It was no wonder that she repeated the cycle.

That’s what makes the efforts by some in Washington to stop abstinence education funding so incredibly problematic. Authentic abstinence, as originally outlined in welfare reform, was designed to break the social cycles that trap so many.

It was created to inform and inspire our teens, giving them a vision of something that goes beyond sex to the core of who that teen is as a person.

Abstinence detractors simply want to label abstinence as a “Just Say No” program. As vocal as they may be, how far they are from the truth. Reality is, abstinence teaches teens to say “Yes” to themselves, to their ideals, to the futures. Just read the federal guidelines for abstinence education and they speak for themselves. (see Section 510 of the Social Security Act, http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/ssact/title05/0510.htm).

This entire concept extends well beyond the realm of sex education, where many people want to pigeonhole abstinence education. If our goal is to help students avoid the risks that out-of-marriage sex brings, then we have to give students something more than just a big “No” symbol.

Genuine abstinence education encourages teens to view themselves as their own person, clearly defined their own goals and ambitions, and to develop the skills necessary to reach their potential.  Those who have chosen abstinence over the socially-acceptable “norm” have stronger skills to avoid other common traps beyond sex… like alcohol and drug use. They assert themselves and their beliefs more. That’s why, a year after they’ve participated in the Heritage Keepers® Abstinence Education, the program’s  students initiate sex at a rate half that of students who did not.

But the opposite holds true for those teens who have not made this self-examination and commitment to themselves that abstinence education is designed to foster. Teens who engage in sex are more likely to drink, use drugs, and lack the ability to avoid future sexual advances.

For Amanda, this was the case. In late middle school, she was in to parties and hanging out with the wrong crowd. It wasn’t too much later that the wall of self-protection was down, and Amanda became another statistic… one of the 47% of teens who have had sex.

When Heritage Community Services takes its Heritage Keepers ® programs into schools across South Carolina, they address this key issue head on. They teach that sexual desires are natural, but they go a step further. They explain that the goal of relationships is simply that, a relationship…getting to know another person. Abstinence education teaches the value of building healthy friendships and identifying like-minded life-models who share the same core values.

The goal of abstinence education is to move a student from a “head” knowledge that sex is best in marriage to a “heart” knowledge that says, “I believe this”, to an action that says, “I’m going to live this way.”

It teaches teens how to avoid risky situations, communicate boundaries to other people, and use both direct and indirect refusal skills to protect themselves. Heritage teaches its student a simple acronym to help teens defend and protect themselves from any risky situation, be that in person, on TV, in the movies or online.

S – State your boundaries

A – Avoid danger

F – Firmly say “No!” verbally

E – Exit

As simple as it may sound, giving teens an easy-to-remember four-step plan is one of the most effective ways to help them keep and maintain themselves and their purity.

That’s why we have to do our part to ensure the future of abstinence education not only in South Carolina, but across the country. Abstinence is not some “Just Say No” program. It’s not just about sex. Authentic abstinence education gives its students the life skills, abilities and know-how they need to say “Yes” to themselves and their futures.

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