Written by Kerby Anderson
For more than thirty years proponents of comprehensive sex education have argued that giving sexual information to young children and adolescents will reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Perhaps one of the most devastating popular critiques of comprehensive sex education came from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. The journalist who said that Dan Quayle was right also was willing to say that sex education was wrong. Her article, "The Failure of Sex Education" in Atlantic Monthly, demonstrated that sex education neither reduced pregnancy nor slowed the spread of STDs.
Comprehensive sex education is mandated in at least seventeen states, so Whitehead chose one of those states and focused her analysis on the sex education experiment in New Jersey. Like other curricula the New Jersey sex education program rests on certain questionable assumptions.
The first tenet is that children are "sexual from birth." Sex educators reject the classic notion of a latency period until approximately age twelve. They argue that you are "being sexual when you throw your arms around your grandpa and give him a hug."
Second, children are sexually miseducated. Parents, to put it simply, have not done their job, so we need "professionals" to do it right. Third, if miseducation is the problem, then sex education in the schools is the solution. Parents are failing miserably at the task, so "it is time to turn the job over to the schools. Schools occupy a safe middle ground between Mom and MTV."
Learning about Family Life is the curriculum used in New Jersey. While it discusses such things as sexual desire, AIDS, divorce, and condoms, it nearly ignores such issues as abstinence, marriage, self-control, and virginity.
Whitehead concludes that comprehensive sex education has been a failure. For example, the ratio of teenage births to unwed mothers was 67 percent in 1980 and rose to 84 percent in 1991. In the place of this failed curriculum, Whitehead describes a better program. She found that "sex education works best when it combines clear messages about behavior with strong moral and logistical support for the behavior sought."
One example she cites is the Postponing Sexual Involvement program at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, which offers more than a "Just say no" message. It reinforces the message by having adolescents practice the desired behavior and enlists the aid of older teenagers to teach younger teenagers how to resist sexual advances. Whitehead also found that "religiously observant teens" are less likely to experiment sexually, thus providing an opportunity for church-related programs to help stem the tide of teenage pregnancy.
Are condoms a safe and effective way to reduce pregnancy and STDs? Sex educators seem to think so. Every day sex education classes throughout this country promote condoms as a means of safe sex or at least safer sex. But the research on condoms provides no such guarantee.
For example, Texas researcher Susan Weller, writing in the journal Social Science Medicine, evaluated all research published on condom effectiveness. She reported that condoms are only 87 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and 69 percent effective in reducing the risk of HIV infection. This 69 percent effectiveness rate is also the same as a 31 percent failure rate in preventing AIDS transmission.
To be effective, condoms must be used "correctly and consistently." Most individuals, however, do not use them "correctly and consistently" and thus get pregnant and get sexually transmitted diseases.
Contrary to claims by sex educators, condom education does not significantly change sexual behavior. An article in the American Journal of Public Health stated that a year-long effort at condom education in San Francisco schools resulted in only 8 percent of the boys and 2 percent of the girls using condoms every time they had sex.
Even when sexual partners use condoms, sometimes condoms fail. Most consumers do not know that the FDA quality-control standards allow for a maximum failure rate of four per 1,000 using a water fill test. And even if condoms are used correctly, do not break, and do not leak, they are still far from 100 percent effective. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health reported that "medical studies confirm that condoms do not offer much, if any, protection in the transmission of chlamydia and human papillomavirus, two serious STDs with prevalence as high as 40 percent among sexually active teenagers."
Nevertheless, condoms have become the centerpiece of U.S. AIDS policy and the major recommendation of most sex education classes in America. Many sex educators have stopped calling their curricula "safe sex" and have renamed them "safer sex"--focusing instead on various risk reduction methods. But is this false sense of security and protection actually increasing the risks young people face?
If kids buy the notion that if they just use condoms they will be safe from AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease whenever they have sex, they are being seriously misled. They should be correctly informed that having sex with any partner having the AIDS virus is life-threatening, condoms or no condoms. It would be analogous to playing Russian roulette with two bullets in your six chambers. Using condoms removes only one of the bullets. The gun still remains deadly with the potential of a lethal outcome.
School-based Health Clinics
As comprehensive sex education curricula have been promoted in the schools, clinics have been established to provide teens greater access to birth control information and devices. Proponents cite studies that supposedly demonstrate the effectiveness of these clinics on teen sexual behavior. Yet a more careful evaluation shows that school-based health clinics do not lower the teen pregnancy rate.
The most often-cited study involved the experience of the clinic at Mechanics Arts High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Researchers found that a drop in the number of teen births during the late 1970s coincided with an increase in female participation at the school-based clinic. But at least three important issues undermine the validity of this study.
First, some of the statistics are anecdotal rather than statistical. School officials admitted that the schools could not document the decrease in pregnancies. Second, the total female enrollment of the two schools included in the study dropped significantly. Third, the study actually shows a drop in the teen birth rate rather than the teen pregnancy rate. The reduction in the fertility rate listed in the study was likely due to more teenagers obtaining an abortion.
Today, more and more advocates of school-based health clinics are citing a three-year study headed by Laurie Zabin at Johns Hopkins University, which evaluated the effect of sex education on teenagers. The study of two school-based clinics in Baltimore, Maryland, showed there was a 30 percent reduction in teen pregnancies.
But even this study leaves many unanswered questions. The size of the sample was small and over 30 percent of the female sample dropped out between the first and last measurement periods. Critics point out that some of girls who dropped out of the study may have dropped out of school because they were pregnant. Other researchers point out that the word abortion is never mentioned in the brief report, leading them to conclude that only live births were counted.
On the other hand, an extensive, national study done by the Institute for Research and Evaluation shows that community-based clinics used by teenagers actually increase teen pregnancy. A two- year study by Joseph Olsen and Stan Weed found that teenage participation in these clinics lowered teen birth rates. But when pregnancies ending in miscarriage or abortion were factored in, the total teen pregnancy rates increased by as much as 120 pregnancies per one thousand clients.
Douglas Kirby, former director of the Center for Population Options, had to admit the following: "We have been engaged in a research project for several years on the impact of school-based clinics. . . . We find basically that there is no measurable impact upon the use of birth control, not upon pregnancy rates or birth rates."
Sex Education Programs
As we've seen, the evidence indicates that the so-called "solution" provided by sex educators can actually make problems worse.
The problem is simple: education is not the answer. Teaching comprehensive sex education, distributing condoms, and establishing school-based clinics is not effective. When your audience is impressionable teens entering puberty, explicit sex education does more to entice than educate. Teaching them the "facts" about sex without providing any moral framework merely breaks down mental barriers of shame and innocence and encourages teens to experiment sexually.
A Louis Harris poll conducted for Planned Parenthood found that the highest rates of teen sexual activity were among those who had comprehensive sex education, as opposed to those who had less. In the 1980s, a Congressional study found that a decade-and-a-half of comprehensive, safe sex education resulted in a doubling in the number of sexually active teenage women.
Our society today is filled with teenagers and young adults who know a lot about human sexuality. It is probably fair to say that they know more about sex than any generation that has preceded them, but education is not enough. Sex education can increase the knowledge students have about sexuality, but it does not necessarily affect their values or behavior. Since 1970 the federal government has spent nearly $3 billion on Title X sex education programs. During that period of time nonmarital teen births increased 61 percent and nonmarital pregnancy rates (fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds) increased 87 percent.
Douglas Kirby wrote these disturbing observations in the Journal of School Health:
"Past studies of sex education suggest several conclusions. They indicate that sex education programs can increase knowledge, but they also indicate that most programs have relatively little impact on values, particularly values regarding one's personal behavior. They also indicate that programs do not affect the incidence of sexual activity. According to one study, sex education programs may increase the use of birth control among some groups, but not among others. Results from another study indicate they have no measurable impact on the use of birth control. According to one study, they are associated with lower pregnancy rates, while another study indicates they are not. Programs certainly do not appear to have as dramatic an impact on behavior as professionals once has hoped."
So, if sex education is not the solution, what is? Let's look at the benefits of abstinence and the abstinence message in the schools.
Less than a decade ago an abstinence-only program was rare in the public schools. Today, directive abstinence programs can be found in many school districts while battles are fought in other school districts for their inclusion or removal. While proponents of abstinence programs run for school board or influence existing school board members, groups like Planned Parenthood bring lawsuits against districts that use abstinence-based curricula, arguing that they are inaccurate or incomplete.
The emergence of abstinence-only programs as an alternative to comprehensive sex education programs was due to both popularity and politics. Parents concerned about the ineffectiveness of the safe- sex message eagerly embraced the message of abstinence. And political funding helped spread the message and legitimize its educational value.
Parents and children have embraced the abstinence message in significant numbers. One national poll by the University of Chicago found that 68 percent of adults surveyed said premarital sex among teenagers is "always wrong." A poll for USA Weekend found that 72 percent of the teens and 78 percent of the adults said they agree with the pro-abstinence message.
Their enthusiasm for abstinence-only education is well founded. Even though the abstinence message has been criticized by some as naive or inadequate, there are good reasons to promote abstinence in schools and society.
First, teenagers want to learn about abstinence. Contrary to the often repeated teenage claim, not "everyone's doing it." A study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 43 percent of teenagers from ages fourteen to seventeen had engaged in sexual intercourse at least once. Put another way, the latest surveys suggest that a majority of teenagers are not doing it.
Second, abstinence prevents pregnancy. Proponents of abstinence- only programs argue that abstinence will significantly lower the teenage pregnancy rate, and they cited numerous anecdotes and statistics to make their case.
Third, abstinence prevents sexually transmitted diseases. After more than three decades the sexual revolution has taken lots of prisoners. Before 1960, doctors were concerned about only two STDs: syphilis and gonorrhea. Today there are more than twenty significant STDs ranging from the relatively harmless to the fatal.
Fourth, abstinence prevents emotional scars. Abstinence speakers relate dozens and dozens of stories of young people who wish they had postponed sex until marriage. Sex is the most intimate form of bonding known to the human race, and it is a special gift to be given to one's spouse.
Teenagers want and need to hear the message of abstinence. They want to promote the message of abstinence. Their health, and even their lives, are at stake.
©2003 Probe Ministries.
About the Author
Kerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.
What is Probe?
Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.
Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:
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