Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Teens Can Say No

What’s the best way to keep teenagers free of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? Abstinence. What’s the best approach to ensure that teens don’t get pregnant? Abstinence. What word is guaranteed to make the Sexual Left go crazy? “Abstinence.”

They’re at it again. Last month Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a report blasting the Bush administration’s emphasis on abstinence-only education in the nation’s schools. Staffers for Waxman, ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, said commonly used abstinence curricula present “false and misleading” information about condom use and STDs. The study, produced at taxpayer expense, says these curricula are rife with “outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits, and when life begins.”

The Bush administration begs to differ. Alma Golden, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, is one advocate of abstinence. “One thing is very clear for our children,” she says. “Abstaining from sex is the most effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, STDs, and preventing pregnancy.”

In November, Congress appropriated $131 million for abstinence-only programs. This was an increase of $30 million over the previous year (but still $100 million less than the president had requested).

The Waxman report, however, asserts that abstinence is unrealistic and grossly overrated, and that a better way to teach sex is the so-called “comprehensive” approach (also known as “abstinence-plus”). “Comprehensive” sex ed programs tip the cap to abstinence as one item teens may consider, but they also present the full panoply of options for hormone-crazed young people, including birth control and abortion. It’s kind of like saying, “You shouldn’t do illegal drugs, but if you can’t control yourself, go ahead. It’s up to you.” The Waxman report is steeped in this kind of liberal permissiveness.

Not so fast, say the report’s critics. Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council says the Waxman report is partisan propaganda produced by “untrained staff.” He notes that the report ignores a clear link between abortion and later infertility. Perkins adds, “There are numerous sexually transmitted diseases that condoms do not prevent, including the human papilloma virus, the leading cause of cervical cancer.”

Further, according to the Medical Institute for Medical Health, the report “ignores peer-reviewed literature describing community-based abstinence programs that significantly lowered nonmarital pregnancy rates, even claiming such do not exist.”

Of course, abstinence programs are no panacea. Last year, researchers at Columbia and Yale released a study of 12,000 teens involved in some of these programs. Only 12 percent had kept their promise to abstain from sex until marriage. However, that represents something to build on. And even those who broke their pledges at least delayed the start of sexual activity and generally had fewer partners.

Since 1993, millions of young people aged 9 to 18 have gone through abstinence programs. And despite naysayers like Waxman, teen sexual activity appears headed down. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the incidence of females aged 15 to 17 having premarital sex fell from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. Males this age who ever had engaged in sex dropped from 55 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002. While the numbers are still too high, they represent tangible progress–and proof that young people can say No if given a little help.

While abstinence-only programs are an important part of that help, they are not the whole answer. Such teaching will more than likely fall on deaf ears if not reinforced by parents, clergy, teachers, peers–and members of Congress. As Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village.”

What’s different about our village? Why have teens been having premarital sex at rates unimaginable to their parents and grandparents? Surely one reason is a lack of parental supervision when kids are not in school. Another, no doubt, is the spread of moral relativism. Parents who experimented sexually during the ‘60s and ‘70s may feel hypocritical if they start checking up on their kids. Further, many people shrink from saying that sex outside of marriage is wrong, even though by many measures–public health, interpersonal, and religious–we know that it is.

A third reason is the media culture that saturates our village. Approximately two-thirds of all television shows contain sexual content. Movies, too, are seemingly getting raunchier all the time. Remember when a PG film was safe to take your kids to? To avoid sounding like an old fogy, I’ll skip the music scene entirely.

Of course, many people will pooh-pooh any link between media consumption and sexual activity. (These are many of the same people who decry the negative influence of ads for cigarettes and alcohol.) One group that does not unthinkingly dismiss the link is the RAND Corp., which conducted a study last fall. The research, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that teens who watch a lot of television with sexual content are twice as likely to engage in intercourse as those teens who don’t.

As Rick Schatz of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families says, “By helping their kids think critically about what they see on TV, parents can actually play an important role in helping prevent their kids from making bad choices.”

Teens can so No, if we help them. Someone better tell Henry Waxman.


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