Abstinence-only? Inadequate sex education threatens student safety

Abstinence-only education denies students basic information on pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted diseases. It fails to acknowledge that most will become sexually active as young adults.

Abstinence education is an essential part of a comprehensive sex education program. A good abstinence education program helps students clarify their values, build their self-esteem, avoid high-risk situations and learn refusal skills. However, it is not enough to teach abstinence only.

Teens infected with HIV

Each year hundreds of teenagers in the United States become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In the U.S., 123,579 persons between the ages of 20 and 29 were reported to have AIDS through December 1999. It is believed that most of these persons were infected as teens, since it takes about a decade to develop AIDS following infection with HIV.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are at least 20 different sexually transmitted diseases. The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) reports that persons aged 15 to 24 accounted for half of the newly diagnosed STDs in 2000 — more than 9 million cases.

Teen pregnancy continues to be higher in the United States than in other developed countries. However, the rate has declined since 1990 when there were 116.9 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, to 83.6 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 in 2000. AGI attributes 20 percent of the decline to decreased sexual activity and 80 percent to more effective contraceptive practice.

Pledges vs. condoms

Abstinence-only programs try to convince students that sex outside of marriage is physically and psychologically harmful. Students may be asked to take a pledge to remain abstinent until marriage. According to a study released in March at the National STD Prevention Conference, 88 percent of 12,000 teenagers who took an abstinence pledge reported having sexual intercourse before they married. Although they delayed intercourse for up to 18 months, when they became sexually active, those who signed pledges were less likely to use condoms and less likely to seek medical help for STD infections than their peers.

Right to accurate information

In abstinence-only programs, birth control methods are rarely presented except for condoms, which are often described as ineffective in preventing AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. One aghast teacher told me that an abstinence-only instructor held up a tennis racket to show students in her class that condoms were filled with small holes and would not protect them from diseases. The students were discouraged from using condoms. As a school nurse, I find that abstinence-only programs may have a chilling effect on students’ willingness to seek accurate health information. When sexuality becomes a taboo subject, students are less inclined to ask questions. They fear they may get a lecture instead of accurate answers to their questions.

Parents favor sex education

Most parents want their children to have comprehensive sex education at school. The Kaiser Foundation reported that although one-third of parents surveyed in their “Sex in the ’90s” study said that adolescents should be told to have sex only within marriage, an overwhelming majority also said that schools should teach adolescents how to get tested for HIV/AIDS and other STDs (86 percent), how to talk to a partner about birth control and STDs (77 percent), how to use condoms (71 percent) and where to get and how to use other birth control methods (68 percent).

What young people need

Abstinence-only education does not meet the needs of our students. Some adolescents and most young adults will eventually choose to have sex. They need to know how to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies. They should have medically accurate information about disease prevention and contraception, and know how to obtain appropriate prevention, testing and treatment services. Students should be encouraged to delay sexual activity until they are physically and emotionally ready for a mature sexual relationship and can handle the responsibilities this entails. Comprehensive sex education that is abstinence-based gives them the information they need to be healthy and safe.

Reprinted with author’s permission from American Teacher.