Abstinence versus education

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

According to a new study by the Center for Disease Control, it appears that some teens are not entirely aware of where babies come from.

The study examined use of contraception among five thousand teen mothers in 19 states. About half of the women surveyed said that they used no contraception at the time they became pregnant — of these, one-third said they did not believe that they would become pregnant, another third said their partner refused to use contraception and the remaining third reported they simply “did not mind” becoming pregnant.

The respondents that did use contraception were largely using oral contraceptives, condoms or engaging in less effective methods such as withdrawal or rhythm methods.

According to the CDC, teens that became pregnant likely failed to use the effective methods consistently or properly.

These responses are quite disturbing. Teens are not known for their judgment, but it’s quite a stretch of magical thinking to believe that unprotected sex won’t result in pregnancy. Even more disturbing is the large portion of girls that gave in to their partners’ demands and failed to use contraception. Why haven’t these teens been educated about the proper use of contraception or managing their fertility?

This is not to say progress has not been made. In 2005, the teen birth rate in the United States hit its lowest level in 30 years, but the US still has the highest teen birth rate in the developed world. The highest rates of teen pregnancy occur largely in the southern states, while the lowest rates are concentrated in the Northeast and the West.

Not coincidentally, these geographical areas correspond to different commonly-used methods of sex education. Evidence-based sex education is common in the Northeast and the West, whereas abstinence-based sex education is more popular in the South.

Texas receives more federal funding for abstinence-based sex education than any other state, but is second only to Mississippi in live births to girls aged 15-19. Researchers have shown that even on a school-by-school basis, those that employ abstinence-only programs have consistently higher teen pregnancy rates than those that use evidence-based programs.

Abstinence-only education programs simply do not work.

This is not to say that there is no place for abstinence. It is a 100 percent fool-proof method and an excellent choice for teens to make, but it isn’t always realistic. To expect every teenager in the United States to completely abstain from sexual behavior is simply unreasonable. Abstinence-only programs have also been known resort to scare tactics and patently false information.

I clearly recall my own class being taught during our abstinence-only sex education program that microscopic holes in condoms allowed HIV to pass through them, and thus condoms offered essentially no protection against the transmission of HIV. Such “education” is not only completely and totally false, but dishonest. What justification is there for exposing teens to completely dishonest information that carries with it serious health risks?

And once teens discover that the information is untrue (and they will), the only lesson they learn is to completely ignore everything they are told in school relating sex education.

Many supporters of abstinence-based sex education programs claim that if parents want their children to be taught about proper use of contraception and STI prevention that they should be taught at home. Such a claim totally fails to consider that many of the teens that need this education the most are unlikely to receive it at home.

The parent may also be uneducated about sexual health, disinterested or uncomfortable discussing the subject with their child. That shouldn’t mean that the student shouldn’t be educated about their own biology.

Teaching teens that their bodies and feelings are shameful will only teach the wrong lessons. The women that were surveyed by the CDC did not intend to become pregnant when they did. How many of these pregnancies could have been prevented with proper instruction on the statistical effectiveness of various methods of contraception and how to use them? What if male teens were taught that birth control was just as much their responsibility as their partners’and girls were armed with enough information and self-respect to insist on the use of contraception?

Young people deserve access to quality medical information — not to be shamed or lied to. Sex and sexuality are basic and natural facts of life common to all people. We cannot mitigate the potential negative consequences of sexual behavior by pretending that teenage libido doesn’t exist.

We can only give these young people solid information so that they can make educated choices about when and how they want to start a family — when they are ready.

Emily Brooks is an economics senior and may be reached at [email protected].


  • Ah, Ms. Brooks. We meet again.

    Once again, it's not *that* I disagree with you – it's the incompetent manner in which you go about making your case. One should never counter disinformation with disinformation.

    The one flaw in your argument (which is as disappointingly narrow as your understanding of the human psyche) is that sex education occurs in a vacuum. You attack your opponents for insisting that teaching abstinence without considering evident behaviour is lunacy – but then preach the teaching of sexual behaviour (safe or otherwise) in its own vacuum, with no enhancement of personality or understanding. It's as if you believe there is some innate nature to human beings that is irreversibly tuned towards sex. While this may be your experience, I can assure there are those of us who learned self control in school and value it.

    Perhaps, if your argument was tempered with a realistic plan for action, that fully understood the motivations of those involved I would be sympathetic. But as it is, I can only say "better luck next time." As it stands, I have a hard time understanding your argument but the pathetic whining of someone who was brutally forced to come to terms with the consequences of their actions, not someone who is educated on the matter offering a cohesive plan for educating children.

    • " It's as if you believe there is some innate nature to human beings that is irreversibly tuned towards sex" umm yeah… that's human nature

      • You say potato, I say lack of self-control. We were unthinking beasts. Then we graduated from high school and went to University.

        • I think this article is accurate; Emily clearly shows factual information and statistics that support the need to demolish the out-dated teaching methods of abstinence-only programs. "Self control" is not valid 'advice' for teenagers; based on societal norms, teenagers are not held responsible for their actions–couple that with their firing sexual hormones and their lack of education in knowing what to do about it, sex is going to happen. You can't hold every teenager accountable to their personal "self-control"…basically because over 90% don't have it, period.

          Emily *does* present a "realistic plan for action"–teach evidence-based sex education (stated in paragraph 7). And I most certainly do not see in this article "the pathetic whining of someone"…it's science, it's fact, and you can't change that.

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