Wednesday, May 11

Sex Wars: Episode I - Missed Education

Sex Wars: Episode I - Missed Education

This past November has been said to have been a referendum on values and moral issues. Candidates on the Right claimed to have a firm grasp on them, and those on the Left ran from the subject like it was a swarm of angry bees. During the first months of 2005 we've seen this battle continue in the public sphere as the Terri Schiavo tele-drama has played out and the upcoming showdown on Federal Judges approaches. Those on the Right claim that they are attempting to preserve life, however I believe that the proper way to counter this argument, besides the obvious hypocrisy of supporting life for the unborn and those that are near death while supporting the death penalty for juveniles, is to focus on what this debate is really about - Sex.

This is a battle over who has sex, when they have sex and how they have sex - for sex is the pathway to the continuation of human life, as well as the manner in which many people in the last 50 years have unwittingly hastened their own death and the death of others through the spread of STD's. Rather than run from this debate, Democrats and moderate Republicans need to engage the other side directly and forthrightly.

Sex Ed in the years of George W. Bush has dramatically changed. Under Bush, the Federal government has restricted all of it's financial support for sex education in schools to abstinence-only styled problems. Schools are still free to provide comprehensive and so-called abstinence-plus classes, but these must be paid for out of their own budget. Church organizations who particularly oppose contraception as a open door to premarital sex strongly support these programs, but the real question is - do they work?

Shelby Knox, 15-year-old activist.
At this point national studies on the effectiveness of abstainance-only remain inconclusive, but one situation in Lubbock, Texas (where such programs have been in place since 1995) has been fairly well documented in an new PBS movie - "The Education of Shelby Knox". Shelby, a conservative Christian girl attending Coronado High began to question what she was being taught by Pastor Ed during thier "Love, Sex and Dating" youth assemblies*. Although her county's high schools teach abstinence as the only safe sex, Lubbock has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy () and sexually transmitted diseases () in the nation.

Shelby states:
"Maybe twice a week, I see a girl walking down the hall pregnant... It's part of normal life at my school. If a student asks a teacher about sex, the teacher by policy is required to answer with 'Abstinence is the only way to prevent STD's and teen pregnancy.'... If they don't, they're in danger of losing their job."
Pastor Ed Ainsworth
Pastor Ed Ainsworth
Pastor Ed taught Shelby that condoms don't work and tend to fail as much as 15-30% of the time. (This information was apparently taken from a study which in fact showed that condoms are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy, and the remaining rate a failure - 13% - was found to be "operator error"- and has been repeated by Sen Bill Frist MD.) She was told that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears. She was taught that masturbation can lead to depression and suicide. (A recent report by Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) indicates that such gross factual inaccuracies such as this are common practice among abstinence-only programs, although Melissa Purdue of the Heritage Foundation disputes the Waxman findings.) Shelby, sensing that something was wrong with what she was being taught, sought to join and work with the local youth council to change the curriculum to be more comprehensive. When those efforts were stone-walled in her increasingly conservative town, she began to research the information on her own from sources such as the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and share it with her fellow students. She continues this work to this day, while attending college at the University of Texas. To this day, as she continues her work on sex ed, and has branched out into gay and lesbian issues, Shelby remains a proud Southern Baptist Christian.
"Christians in general are not like what the religious right portrays," she says. "That is just a very vocal side of it. I believe most Christians are loving, caring and tolerant. They believe in civil liberties and civil rights. It's very sad and detrimental to the Christian faith that some people have decided to use it for political advantage."
A recent report from The Daily Texan indicates that some of the bad information given out by abstinence-only programs have led to an increase in young people experimenting with oral and anal sex, assuming that it's "not real sex".
Is giving our children bad information the best way to help them make good decisions about sex, their own bodies and procreation? It seems that the jury remains out, but if results so far in Lubbock and other parts of Texas where abstinence-only has been the norm for nearly a decade are to be trusted - it appears not.

Amy Fritsche and Rick Gutierrez plan to do what more than two million young people have already done in the past 10 years – take a pledge to remain virgins until marriage. (CBS)

Update: Another program which has addressed this subject has been 60 Minutes, with a feature called "Taking the Pledge" which focused on other teens who had taken part in abstinence-only programs.

Columbia University’s Peter Bearman co-authored the most comprehensive study ever done on adolescent health and sexuality. He says, "Sex education doesn’t cause all these negative outcomes. What causes these negative outcomes is kids who are having sex and aren’t protecting themselves."

It was a $45-million project, funded by 17 separate federal agencies. Bearman’s investigators interviewed more than 20,000 young people about virginity pledge programs -- and there was some good news.

"Pledging will help them delay sex for, say, 18 months — a year and a half," says Bearman. "It's a big deal in the lives of teenagers. Eighteen months is a phenomenally long time. It’s almost two school years."

So what's the downside?

"The downside is that, when they have sex, pledgers are one-third less likely to use condoms at first sex," says Bearman. "So all of the benefit of the delay in terms of pregnancy-risk and in terms of STD acquisition -- poof -- it just disappears because they’re so much less likely to use a condom at first sex."

Why do they not use condoms?

"They’ve been taught that condoms don’t work; they’re fearful of them. They don’t know how to use them," says Bearman. "Their peers don’t use them. They have no experience with them. They don’t know how to get them. They’re hard to get access to. For whatever reason they don’t use them, that has long-term consequences."

Not only are kids who take virginity pledges just as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases as kids who don’t, but they are even more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. This finding - something that really surprised Bearman -- appeared two months ago in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"Adolescents who take virginity pledges – who remain virgins, that is, who don’t have vaginal sex, who technically remain virgins, are much more likely to have oral and anal sex," says Bearman.

"They're not thinking they’re having sex?" asks Bradley.

"Well, if they are trying to preserve their virginity, their technical virginity by having oral or anal sex, then obviously they’re defining these behaviors as not sex," says Bearman.

"So they’re probably less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease?" asks Bradley.

"They're much less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease. They’ve taken a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. The sex that they have is much more likely to be hidden," says Bearman. "It’s likely to be hidden from their parents. It’s likely to be hidden from their peers. And if they live in a small community, it’s quite likely to be hidden from their doctor."

Again, these teens are taught to not use condoms. But the larger tragedy of this situation is the statistic that the vast majority of these programs are failures at preventing teen sex (88% of teens who "take the pledge", break it within 18-months) and even encourage them to engage in high-risk behaviors, placing them a greater risk for unwanted pregnancy as well as the spread of disease.

All brought to you by the Christian Conservatives of the Bush Administration.

(*The question of Federal funds being paid to a religious operative in a public school to teach a course based in religion more than science and fact - also remains unanswered.)


1 comment:

Vyan said...

60 Minutes just did a story on this called "Taking the Pledge" which indicates that 88% of the kids who take abstinence oaths, end up breaking that pledge within 18 months. Most of whom, having been taught the distortion that "condoms don't work" then proceed not to use protection.