Just Don't Do It!
Are we teaching our kids way too much about sex? Or not nearly enough?
Teaching the children. All that said, 1 out of 5 teens has intercourse before age 15, and, says a new study released by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 percent have had oral sex. And, research shows, at least 75 percent of American parents want schools to take a comprehensive approach that covers abstinence along with birth control--including abortion, sexual orientation, how to use condoms, dealing with pressures to have sex, and emotional consequences. "We would not send our children to a book club without having them read the book," says Robinson. "Why would we send them into the world without information about sex? It makes the child so vulnerable."
Those who think the way Robinson does point to the tell-all programs and to Planned Parenthood's and similar websites as proof that knowledge is the power driving the teen birthrate down. The 30 percent drop between 1991 and 2002 is proof of their success, they say. The pro-abstinence movement makes the same claim. Who's right? An Alan Guttmacher Institute analysis of the teen pregnancy rate between 1988 and 1995 showed that 25 percent of the drop was due to delayed onset of intercourse and 75 percent was because more sexually active teens were using long-acting, ultra-effective contraception. A Columbia University study by Peter Bearman showed that it is true that for some young people virginity pledges can be a protective factor. But it also found that 88 percent of middle and high schoolers who pledge to stay virgins until marriage end up having premarital sex anyway. The bad news is that they are less likely to use contraception the first time they have intercourse. As for students who get comprehensive sex education, they do not have sex earlier or more often, but, although they are reported to practice safe sex more frequently, both groups had the same rate of sexually transmitted infections.
Nor did the pledge do much to repaint the bigger picture. "Young people who have taken a virginity pledge do tend to delay the first intercourse but only by a few months," Rodriguez says. "And they engage in other riskier sexual behaviors like anal sex at a higher rate." Says Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse: "The Bearman study is flawed. They got to the island but never got to the ocean. They never saw the whole picture."
Taking sides. The root of the sex ed problem, says Roffman, "is that we keep [talking about] it as if there is a right side and a wrong side. We're all on the same side: the side of supporting kids. If we abdicate our roles as adults, it will be media and peers that educate our kids."
Roffman believes kids need to know. She is in well-regarded company. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have called for a program that includes abstinence, STD s, and the needs of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.
Abstinence-only is "catastrophe from a public-health point of view," says Joshua Sparrow, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor with T. Berry Brazelton of the bestselling Touchpoints. "Aside from pregnancy, there are so many diseases that are quite preventable--chlamydia and herpes are on the rise. If kids who chose abstinence waver but do not have information on how to protect themselves, that is a recipe for a public-health nightmare that is entirely preventable."