State of the State: Abstinence-Only Sex Education Carries Consequences, As Well

Jun 1, 2013

Jamey Dunn
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Most adults, especially parents, likely think it would be best for teenagers to abstain from sex until they are old enough to deal with the potential outcomes, such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection or emotional trauma. Nevertheless, teenagers are having sex.

This is not a news flash, of course. However, some public schools in Illinois still teach abstinence-only sex education. According to a 2008 study from the University of Chicago, 93 percent of Illinois schools offer sexual education but only 42 percent give information on how to use and obtain contraceptives. Fewer than a third of those teaching classes had any formal training on the topic. Giving incomplete sex education or focusing solely on trying to discourage teens from having sex discounts the safety and future of those who are not abstaining, which also happens to be the majority of teenagers. 

Teenagers are waiting longer to have sex. More than half of all teens surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not had sex. But as they get closer to leaving their teenage years, more have had sex. According to a 2013 report from the Guttmacher Institute, only 13 percent of young people have sex by age 15, but seven in 10 teenagers have had intercourse by the time they reach 19. The good news is that most teenagers are using contraceptives, and teenage pregnancy rates are dropping. According to a 2012 report from the CDC, in 1991, only about 46 percent of sexually active teens said they used condoms. In 2011, about 60 percent said they used condoms. However, a much smaller number, 18 percent, of students use birth control pills. That number has not significantly changed since the early ’90s. In 2010, the teen birthrate was lower than it has been since 1946.

But at almost 40 births for every thousand 15- to 19-year-olds, the United States tied with Turkey for the second highest teen birthrate in industrialized countries, according to the CDC. “Teen pregnancy is a terrible problem. It is one of the things that continues inequality and problems of social and economic and educational development in our society to a very great degree. In fact, if you look at everything in the health care sector, perhaps one thing that we can do that could be as or more important than anything else would be driving teen pregnancy rates down,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden told MedScape Today in 2011. 

But Frieden goes on to say something that many parents don’t want to hear. The key to reducing teen pregnancy, at least in those countries and some areas of America that have done it, is not getting more kids to wait for marriage. Frieden says that generally, the percentage of sexually active teens in countries with lower birthrates is similar to the United States. “What we can see is that in the communities around the country and around the world that have had more progress with reducing teen pregnancy, you may see some slight change in the age of onset of sexual activity or the number of partners, but what you primarily see is a big increase in contraceptive use,” he says. “This is much more normal in many of the countries that have decreased their rates substantially, in Europe and Canada and elsewhere. This is a part of life, whereas here, there may be some skittishness about talking about contraception. I think [in other countries] it’s just the norm, and it would be odd not to talk about it.”

What we can learn from countries that have low teen birthrates is a pretty obvious lesson: A lot of teens are going to have sex, and if they have knowledge about and access to contraceptives, they are less likely to have babies as a result. 

During the spring legislative session, lawmakers were considering a bill that would require Illinois schools that teach sex education to present information to students about safe sex, as well as abstinence. The proposal failed to gain the support needed to pass last year. As of press time, House Bill 2675 had been approved by the House and Senate and awaited the governor’s signature.

A 2007 study ordered by Congress found that students who received abstinence-only education, which former President George W. Bush threw his support and substantial funding behind, were no less likely than their peers to have sex. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced abstinence-only sex education in 2005, citing evidence that students who went through such programs were more likely to have unprotected sex in the future. “Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy,” Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the academy committee that wrote the new recommendations, told NBC News. 

HB 2675 allows parents to keep their children out of sex education if they disapprove. And that is fine. The state should not tell people how to raise their kids. But those who see requirements for a sex ed curriculum as an intrusion should be aware that we are all paying the price for teen pregnancy. The CDC estimated in 2008 that teen pregnancy and childbirth cost taxpayers about $11 billion a year. Pregnancy also holds teenagers back from educational attainment. Only half of teen mothers get a high school diploma by age 22, while 90 percent of women who do not have a child during adolescence get a diploma by the same age. “I’ve seen so many inner-city schools where kids are dropping out because they are pregnant, where kids are really condemning the next generation to growing up in poverty because of pregnancy. And we can do a lot to decrease this,” Frieden says. 

Public health is another reason to teach teens about safe sex. Even if they wait until they are older, they can know how to avoid sexually transmitted infections. Nearly half of 19 million new sexual infection transmissions each year are among 15- to 24-year-olds. Lowering teen pregnancy rates would also reduce abortions. According to the Guttmacher report, teens between the ages of 15 and 19 had 192,090 abortions in 2008. 

And what is the cost to teens’ future relationships and views of themselves when abstinence-only programs emphasize virginity and refraining from sex above all else? Critics of comprehensive sex education voice worries about the emotional trauma that sex can cause teens. That is a legitimate concern. Sex can and does cause emotional trauma for teens and adults alike. But framing the information they get about it in a generally negative context could also be traumatic and may not be something teens forget, even if they do wait. During a recent Senate hearing on HB 2675, sex was equated with drugs — the idea being that schools should have the same “just say no” policy that they have for illegal drugs. It is difficult not to see that equation as a bit warped. What is the appropriate time to wait until doing drugs? When you meet the right partner? Are such detractors advocating wedding-night benders? The comparison breaks down pretty quickly.

Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the Illinois Family Institute, said during the hearing that abstinence-only programs send the message to teens that “you are worth waiting for.” At face value, that is a good message. Everyone, young or old, should expect their partners not to pressure them into any kind of physical contact they do not want or are not ready for. But the message also has some implicit meanings about individual worth. It implies that their value as people is tied to their sexual behavior.

Rivera and other supporters of abstinence-only education concede that there will always be teenagers who have sex, but they say the state should not condone it through sex education. Are the kids who have sex worth less? What about those who had no say in the matter? According to the Guttmacher study, 7 percent of women ages 19 to 24 who had sex before they turned 20 said their first sexual experience was rape.

“I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence,” Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted, held captive for nine months and raped as a teenager, said during a Johns Hopkins University panel discussion on sexual trafficking. “And she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’ Well, that’s terrible. Nobody should ever say that. But for me, I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum.’ Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

Smart, who started a foundation to educate children about sex crimes, said letting victims know they have value will help them heal. “The best thing we can do is to educate young people, as young as we can reach them.” She said they should be taught “that you have value, and you always will have value, and nothing can change that.”

Sex ed should not make young people, women especially, feel that their self worth is tied to their chastity. Too many messages geared at young girls tell them their sexuality is a commodity without schools adding to the din. Instead, it is an opportunity to teach both genders about respect and consent. It is not only a chance to learn the basics of safe sex; it is a chance at rape prevention. 

Finally, when every teen with a smartphone has access to the Internet and pornography, do we really believe they will not go to potentially unreliable or even harmful sources for information about sex? If we intend to let the Web fill in the gaps on educating our youth about sex, it seems there may not be enough adults in the room. 

Illinois Issues, June 2013