A sex ed fantasy
Instruction founded on abstinence doesn’t work
While I was busy grading final exams back in December, President Obama signed the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Nearly lost within the machinery of health care legislation, one small cog in this bill actually does something to improve the health of young Americans: It pulls funding from the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program and the abstinence-only program associated with the Adolescent Family Life Act. With a stroke of his pen, the president ended the billion-dollar farce of tax payer-funded abstinence based sex education.
Closer to home, back in November, the Wisconsin Assembly passed The Healthy Youth Act, which restores common sense to educating students about their own biology by using a curriculum proven “to reduce risky behaviors that result in unintended teenage pregnancy and STDs.” The Senate version is awaiting action.
Not everyone is happy about the prospect of better informed teenagers. Three community members from the West Bend School District Human Growth and Development Committee objected that these laws are headed in the wrong direction – specifically, away from abstinence-based programming. Their objection, however, depended on a sense of misplaced religious and moral outrage. Neither scientific evidence nor calm moral reflection supports their point of view.
First, the evidence.
Congress authorized a study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. as part of its evaluation of abstinence-based educational programs. The study, released in April 2007, found compelling evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs just don’t work. Young people who participated in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have sex before marriage as their peers who didn’t participate. They also have their first sexual experiences at about the same age and eventually have about the same number of sexual partners. And in programs that use a “virginity pledge,” students had sex before marriage at the same rates as non-pledging students but were actually less likely to use contraception or get tested for STDs when they became sexually active.
An example of the alarming decline in education about proper birth control – and so, about safely avoiding sexually transmitted diseases – is that by 2002 one-third of American adolescents had not received any instruction on contraception: one third. This is no different from insisting that one third of all sixteen-year-olds just getting their driver’s licenses be kept out of driver education courses. We’re seeing exactly this kind of wreckage among teenagers today – not just in terms of STDs and unwanted pregnancies, but in the number of abortions that wouldn’t have happened had these young drivers, so to speak, been taught to fasten their seat belts and stop when the light is red.
Even worse, a 2004 congressional report found that federally funded abstinence-based curricula often “misrepresent the effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy” by exaggerating their failure rates. This is like telling kids not to bother with seat belts, since they don’t work that well anyway.
Frankly, that’s criminally negligent.
Second, some moral reflection.
If people want to object to a fact-based sex education program on moral grounds, rather than scientific ones, here’s something to consider: Ignorance does not produce moral character. Ignorance does not improve a person’s sense of moral responsibility or promote good judgment. In fact, ignorance produces exactly the opposite: ignorance produces bad judgment, bad judgment leads to irresponsible action, and irresponsible action, over time, erodes moral character. This much, at least, the history of our civilization tells us.
Sexual education programs that ask 15-year-olds to put on blindfolds by “just saying no” to their own biology, contribute to moral weakness in young people, not strength. The self-discipline of moral strength does not derive from blind obedience but from the harder work of understanding oneself. Contrary to Orwell’s deadly slogan, knowledge is strength, not ignorance.
A prudent and temperate life, to use some old fashioned language, requires the kind of education that inoculates young people against the dangers of ignorance. We need to encourage the effort young people make to understand themselves, not reward the kind of ignorance that leads to increased pregnancy rates.
Fortunately even though the consequences of ignorance are contagious, a real, science-based education is the best inoculation against the kind of moral laziness ignorance encourages.
By some estimates, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1.3 billion since 1996 on programs that didn’t work. The federal report demonstrating the initiative’s failure came out in 2007 – two years ago.
It is possible our local Human Growth and Development Committee is unfamiliar with these two year-old results and may wish, based on the evidence rather than their personal convictions, to reconsider the best interests of West Bend students.
Postscript: by a weird [I-can't-imagine-that-it's-really-a] coincidence, the paper ran a guest column next to mine, written by some of the same members of the Human Growth and Development Committee I mentioned in the column. They complain, once again, that the state legislation promoting real sex ed "sends kids the wrong message". You can read their observations here.
Frankly, their ignorance of good science and sound educational practice is not nearly as startling as the inherent racism of their argument.