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    « BACK to Julie Leupold's portfolio

    Posted 12.05.03
    Abstinence Only Sex Education Programs Dangerous To Kids

    I was playing "I've never" with a group of girls my freshman year of college. It was just supposed to be a get-to-know-you game. I didn't know I'd be the only one. I thought lots of people did it. It's like having sex without losing your virginity.

    Monica*, now 20, had anal sex with her boyfriend in high school because she thought it was a way to satisfy the demands of both her religion and her libido. Her church never taught that it was OK, but her school never taught her anything at all.

    "I just thought it was a safe way to be intimate with my boyfriend," said Monica, who is now engaged to her first love. "No one ever talked about it in high school. I really thought it was more common."

    Many more American teenagers are in danger of entering sexual relationships completely ignorant of the responsibilities or consequences, because no one ever told them. And with the current social climate turning more conservative in public and private schools because of the political administration, the flow of information isn't getting any heavier. In September, President George W. Bush pushed through Congress a massive budget for abstinence-only sex education programs in all high schools, citing recent Center for Disease Control statistics of a decrease in teens admitting to having intercourse in high school. Although less than 50 percent of kids admit to engaging in sex during high school, this "see no evil" doctrine for teaching sex education still ignores the half that are.

    "As far as I'm concerned, sex education is not handled at my high school. Handling involves actually putting effort into it," said 16-year-old Tiffany Cook, who attends a public high school in New Jersey. "Though there are two teachers who actually teach kids about sex and the real world, we aren't taught anything about sex besides abstinence and to use a condom until the twelfth grade. By then over half the grade has had sex... and they haven't even been educated about the different contraceptives, nor why they should be using them."

    Without any consistent external advisement about sex, kids get their information and attitudes about physical intimacy from the media. And in this "Sex and the City" era, where everyone from Britney Spears to Paris Hilton are publicly getting busy, teens and 'tweens are getting a very laid-back view of sex. In fact, adolescents writing to a teen-centered Web site run by Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) ask about sex behaviors on average a year earlier than they ask about disease or pregnancy prevention, according to a PPFA study in the Sept./Oct. 2003 issue of the American Journal of Health Education.

    "Teens aren't getting the information they need in time to protect their health and prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection," said PPFA Vice President for Medical Affairs Vanessa Cullins, MD, MPH. "Information that is wrong, too little or too late can result in long-term and life-threatening consequences."

    Less than 10 years ago, widely accepted studies showed 80 percent of teens becoming sexually active by the time they reach 20. According to a 2002 study by the Center for Disease Control, the number of teens who remained virgins rose by 16 percent in the last decade with less than half of high school students becoming sexually active before graduation. The results showed that only 14 percent of kids admitted to having more than four partners while teenagers, casting an almost demonizing light on this small but not negligible portion of the under-20 population. The CDC has no concrete reason for the decline of sexual activity in high school, but tentatively attributes it to the success of abstinence programs, which don't exist in more than two-thirds of the nation's high schools.

    Libby Gray, a director of the abstinence advocacy group Project Reality that has programs in more than 20 states, said her group's abstinence-only program has been shown to be highly effective in changing sexual behavior of teens, basing her assertion on anecdotal evidence. Gray said a comprehensive-based program is unnecessary because "teens are aware that contraception is out there, they know it's available. It's better to teach them you can say 'no' -- that you can control your sexual urges." She also credits her abstinence programs as a way to give teens strategies to help resist peer pressure and foster healthy relationships.

    According to Project Reality, 10,000 teens acquire a sexually transmitted disease every day. Although current sex education has increased condom use among teens, the number of adolescents afflicted with an STD has risen with it, so that a teenager is stricken every 8 seconds. President Bush acknowledged this in his proposal that said organizations that receive government funds to teach that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."

    Jenna Levy, an editor for the teen-only Web site that provides a safe haven for teens to ask all questions sex-related, believes that ignoring the fact teens are having sex and not teaching them about contraceptives is negligent.

    "My school does not teach abstinence-only, which is good because that program does not tell teens what to do if there is a problem. I feel that's what teens need," 16-year-old Levy said. " In my school, sex education starts in fifth grade with body changing, and then ends in eighth. That is kind of odd because most kids become sexually active in high school and there really isn't a sex ed program in high school. The program is general 'health' and it only briefly covers sex, but mostly drugs and nutrition.

    "Teens should not think of sex as a casual thing, but if they decide to have sex, they should be safe and use birth control. If a teen decides to abstain, that's great, but many won't and when they decide to become sexually active, they need to be prepared. Teens are going to do what they want, but the best thing to do is to educate them," Levy continued.

    Although the Bush administration believes that an abstinence-only education program is the best possible option, the houses of Congress have a slightly alternative opinion, tempering the President's demands for money. The House of Representatives and Senate differed on the initial amount of funding they would allow for the president's faith-based abstinence-only educational grants, but settled on $55 million out of Bush's proposed $73 million. Any school, public or private, that accepts this abstinence-only grant must agree not to "provide a participating adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct." The Bush administration proposed increasing funding for abstinence programs in 2004 to bring total funding to about $135 million annually to further the official goal of federal policy which is to "emphasize abstinence as the only certain way to avoid both unintended pregnancies and STDs."

    "While abstinence messages are important, they need to be taught as part of a medically accurate sexuality education," said Patti Caldwell, president of Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona. "For ideological reasons, abstinence-only programs explicitly rule out giving basic information on birth control, putting young people at risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases when they do become sexually active."

    As a consequence of the federal funds for abstinence-only programs, 86 percent of public school districts that teach sex ed. in the United State require that abstinence be promoted. Thirty-five percent require abstinence to be taught as the only option. This is most prevalent in the South, where more than half of all school districts employ an abstinence-only sex education policy.
    "Just-say-no abstinence programs may be working, but it also may be that students are finding alternatives to intercourse - usually oral sex," said Richard Evans, a psychologist at the University of Houston. "In some parts of the country, oral sex is in. It's become almost a less morally contemptuous behavior to engage in oral sex."

    Two years ago, pop psychologist Dr. Phil appeared on The Oprah Show ranting about an oral sex epidemic among this nation's youth. He put the impetus on parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of oral sex, since that isn't regularly covered in school programs. But many parents feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with their kids and oral sex is an ever-more prevalent topic in schools, according to Southern California school psychologist Katie Greer.

    "Last week I had to talk to a group of girls about not having oral sex in the school bathrooms. We are talking eight graders here," Greer said. "They had no idea that oral sex can be dangerous too."

    Many teenagers believe that oral and anal sex don't count as "real" sex, even though they have very real risks. Although it is entirely medically improbably to get pregnant while engaging in oral sex, participants can pass many forms of STDs, including herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and even HIV. These alternative forms of sex are strangely prevalent among teenagers who belong to an abstinence group like True Love Waits or Worth the Wait. Both are faith-based groups that have existed for more than a decade and advocate abstinence until marriage. In True Love Wait's most extreme literature, the group urges its members to abstain from any form of sexual relations down to impure thoughts.

    According to U.S. News and World Report, the percentage of teens having anal sex because of abstinence groups has risen to 15 percent. Author Marty Beckerman who is publishing his second book Generation SLUT around Christmas, teens who subscribe to the True Love Waits philosophy and other abstinence groups have a warped view of sex.

    "The percentage of teens having anal sex has gone into the stratosphere," Beckerman said. "Statistics show the average True Love Waits pledgee only waits six months longer than other teens.... This is a generation for which there are only one-night stands, nothing meaningful or lasting. I'm not advocating no sex, just better informed."

    Maybe the real epidemic to be worried about is not kids having sex or getting pregnant or transferring STDs, but growing up ignorant. That's something that can be cured.

    * name's been changed