Fighting the wrong fight on sexual abstinence education

Last month there was a change in funding for education programs dealing with childhood sex education. There was a $75M grant program put in place which would be available to all schools but would require that the grant recipients “emphasize abstinence in their curriculum.” This quickly led to an opposition effort coming from the Guttmacher Institute (an offshoot of Planned Parenthood originally) in the form of a policy paper decrying the requirements. Treating the program as if it were abstinence-only, rather than abstinence emphasized, the institute issued dire warnings including the following:

Under any name, abstinence-only programs not only remain ineffective at their goal of promoting abstinence until marriage, they also withhold potentially life-saving information, promote dangerous gender stereotypes, stigmatize sex, sexual health and sexuality, and perpetuate systems of inequity.

Firing back with both barrels was Michael J. New at National Review. He describes the Guttmacher study as a weak and misleading argument which is based on false assumptions.

Guttmacher has been making the same weak arguments against abstinence-only sex education for years: First, teen sexual activity is inevitable. Second, abstinence-only sex-education programs are ineffective at reducing teen sexual activity. Third, efforts to encourage contraceptive use among teenagers show far greater promise in reducing teen-pregnancy rates. All of these arguments are flawed.

Evidence clearly shows that teen sexual activity fluctuates. In fact, both the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) have found that teen sexual activity has been consistently declining since the 1990s. Data from the NSFG show that, between 1988 and 2015, the percentage of teenage boys who had ever had sex fell from 60 to 44 percent. During the same time period, the percentage of teenage girls who had ever had sex fell from 51 to 42 percent. Additionally, a recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that sexual activity among young adults has declined since 2010.

New tosses out some powerful arguments in favor of abstinence-only sex education and includes some intriguing but hardly definitive statistics. To be clear as to what I mean by “hardly definitive” in that context, I’m not arguing with the numbers. They register measurable progress in reducing incidents of teen pregnancy, and no matter what led to the decline that’s a good thing. But we can also say with absolute certainty that any broad measurement such as this only tells you the final numbers, not the factors which drove the change.

I’d like to argue for a compromise on this question, no matter how much of a dirty word “compromise” has become in 21st century politics. The new grant program isn’t abstinence-only… it’s abstinence emphasized. Perhaps that’s the best route to take in a situation where the two arguments I highlighted above are completely at odds with one another.

Unlike the attitude of Planned Parenthood and Guttmacher, which seeks to essentially ban the idea of abstinence, or the arguments of some conservatives who think that any mention of birth control is destructive to young minds, a cold, harsh dose of reality might leave room for both. So why should abstinence be emphasized and probably addressed first in any such classroom discussion? Because it’s the only 100% effective method of preventing pregnancy in girls who aren’t receiving artificial insemination treatments. If you’re not having sex you’re not going to unintentionally get pregnant, contract most STDs or encounter any other undesirable physical effects along those lines.

Think about it. If you’re trying to educate children about any danger and there’s a 100% effective method of protection available, wouldn’t you lead with that? A class on how to avoid the dangers of drowning should start with lessons about never swimming in an unsupervised pool or lake and always wearing the proper flotation equipment long before any tips on treading water more efficiently.

Unfortunately, regardless of the optimistic numbers that New posted at National Review, there is also the cold, hard reality of teenage life to take into account. The author cites a few studies such as one done in the Philadelphia region where the probability of sexual intercourse over a 24-month period by sixth and seventh graders who took an abstinence-only course was 33.5%. That was lower than the 48.5% rate in the control group. That’s great, but one-third of the kids (with a mean age 12.2 years!) is still an alarmingly high number.

The fact is that by the time they are in high school, almost all students will have developed at least a keen interest in sex whether they go through with it or not. And no amount of preaching from parents, teachers or church leaders is going to stop all of them from taking the plunge. For those who can’t be steered away, teaching about birth control in all forms (particularly condom use) could at least cut down on unplanned pregnancies and disease transmission.

Yes, I understand that some critics feel that any mention of condoms translates to some sort of inherent “permission slip” to have sex, but it doesn’t have to be. Lead off with abstinence and explore all the benefits of it, from health concerns to morality if you wish. But follow that up with a bit of science and education to hopefully help those who can’t fight off those hormonal surges all the way through high school. This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.