A member of the organization E.N.A.B.L. (Education Now and Babies Later) asked my eighth grade health class if anyone had any other suggestions for things to do instead of having sex. After a few awkward moments, I raised my hand and confidently said, “Masturbation.” The woman who had asked us looked at me aghast and said, “No, that is not an okay option. I’m talking about things more appropriate things along the lines of holding hands. Who has a better idea?”
Sexuality, as defined by the dictionary, is sexual appeal or potency, involvement or interest in sexuality, and the state of being sexual. It’s a fairly robotic definition of what sexuality is even though most abstinence-only curriculum shares the same attitude. However, most teenagers seem to closely link sexuality with actually having sex. This alone is a forgivable mistake (as they are somewhat related), yet the less justifiable error is how abstinence-only sexual education classes in public schools all too often continue to reinforce this notion. While the positive aspects of abstinence should be discussed thoroughly in sex education classes, abstinence-only curriculum has been proven to be ineffective in preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy and should never stand alone as the sole approach taught in school.
Deeply rooted in religious beliefs, there have always been masses of programs supporting the belief that teenagers should ultimately not have sex lives. The development of teaching abstinence in schools started to thrive soon after Congress approved the Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981, and even as of now, forty-seven states use federal funding for abstinence-only sex education (with Maine, California, and Pennsylvania having refused it). This act helped facilitate the backing of largely religious organizations with the goal of educating teenagers on abstinence-related subject matter, which included teaching such things like values, sexual development (among other mechanics of “sex”), making decisions, and ensuring a sexuality that is “responsible”. The focus was (and still remains) that sexual activity was likely to have destructive effects on both the body and the mind if it wasn’t limited to committed, monogamous (and often times only married) couples.
Collectively, the idea that teenagers have sex lives is something that many adults somehow seem unaware of, or at least unlikely to admit. While this may fall into alignment with the morals of those that support such courses, it doesn’t factor in how teens need to be informed about the decisions they may make because they do, in fact, have sex. The vast majority of these programs turn a blind eye to teaching everything they can about diseases and contraception and can often be traced back to the idea that the more teenagers learn about it, the more they will want to engage in such behavior and will increase the likelihood of sexual activity. This is completely untrue and only contributes to more unawareness about birth control, transmission of sexual diseases, and unplanned pregnancies.
Oftentimes the teenage definition of “virginity” is explicitly reserved for heterosexual intercourse and leaves a hazy explanation for oral, anal, and other types of sex. A surprising amount of teens haven’t been educated about the risks associated with other forms of sex and may not be aware of how risky their decisions are, as well as those that base their knowledge off of secondhand information from their peers. The lack of information in school hasn’t helped lower skyrocketing STI rates, and in the year 2000 alone, there were 9.1 million new cases of STIs among 15-24 year-olds.
Additionally, abstinence-only courses often neglect to go into detail or even mention the use of contraception and other forms of protection, and often fail to teach teens how to use condoms properly even if the subject is covered. While pregnancy rates have lowered with each year, an alarming amount of teens have contracted sexual diseases due to not using prophylactics during oral sex. Most programs are inclined to cite their limitations and ineffectiveness and use them as biased scare tactics rather than provide accurate, neutral information. This may lead teens to not use condoms during sexual activity that they might not otherwise define as “sex”, when sex is defined and just intercourse.
Aside from the health effects, the psychological changes all teenagers go through while they come to terms with their sexuality seem even touchier than the concrete basics, yet are rarely discussed. The already present uncertainty-in combination with being unable to freely distribute unbiased information-when it comes to having safer sex ends up leaving teenagers more uninformed than anything else. This leaves heterosexual teenagers confused enough as it is; for gay teens the possibility of finding answers is even worse. Homosexuality doesn’t quite align with the “abstinence-until-marriage” idea and is, more often than not, glanced over only in regards to HIV/AIDS infections. This confusing information doesn’t help with the development of a high regard for any gay teenager’s (or anyone else’s) sexuality, the sexual feelings they may have, or for whatever their orientation may be-as a result, this may make teens feel shame rather than pride.
Oddly enough, despite their widespread use, there has been little evidence supporting the idea that abstinence-only teachings have a profound effect on preventing teenage sexual activity-moreover, the use of such a program cannot be expected to work on every teenager in America. By no means should sexual activity ever be encouraged, but regardless of what they have been taught in school, a large portion of teenagers will still decide to do it anyway. Many will have had sex before turning eighteen, and for that reason the educational system include a wide range of subjects in relation to sexuality. Nevertheless, the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity (within the confines of maturity and responsibility, not marriage) should still be thoroughly covered in class and given equal teaching time as any other topic.
The problem is that because most schools receive federal funding, they may not be able to afford out-of-pocket expenses to pay for a comprehensive sex-ed course. While most schools wholeheartedly approach the stance taken by federally funded programs, some may just be backed into a corner financially. By and large, religious ideals-which serve no purpose in public schools-are embedded into these courses. This further upholds the policy of “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to subjects that don’t align with the values taught indirectly by certain programs, which hinders more than it helps. When such ideas are brought into public school, it blurs the definition of sexual health as one being just a moral option, not a health-related one.
Equally unacceptable is how some courses distort the facts that are currently out there. Books used in some programs exaggerate the failure rates of condoms and claim things like birth control can damage the inside of the female body, that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through tears and sweat, that abortion can lead to infertility, and that half of all gay American teens are HIV positive-all of which are untrue. This isn’t the message that sex education programs should want to send to teenagers-one in which dishonesty and complete ignorance are more important than taking the basic steps necessary to best protect oneself well. Information should be provided to teenagers freely, and should consist of truthful knowledge that is relevant, appropriate to the ages being taught, and that can be presented in an open style in class.
The very reason that some justify the necessity of sex education in public schools-that being a need for information about sex that parents may not otherwise fulfill at home-is defeated when it comes to the lack of information about all types of sex, how to properly protect yourself in regards to each one of them, and the spread of inaccurate information. In the case where a teen may have no information from their parents at home, what is taught at school may end up being the only reliable source of information. If the information spread amongst teenagers is inaccurate or misleading, it completely defeats the goal of education and will do more harm than help. Touchier areas should not be skimmed over simply because they fail to align with the personal morals of the adults that have a say in their presence in schools. Information gathered by teens covered in class leaves them with information and the option of how they want to use it up to them; ideally encouraging the use of safer sex with more knowledge and thus being more prepared to handle it.
Additionally, schools themselves often refute the need to touch on contraception and diseases by stating that there are some aspects that parents should take care of on their own time. However, spreading information about sex can’t be left solely to parents for a variety of reasons. In an ideal world this plan would hold up, but not all parents are open or welcome the idea of helping support their teenagers in making the decisions that are the best for themselves and their health (for personal or religious reasons) and ignore or shun it rather than deal with it. Likewise, parents don’t always have accurate information and not all teenagers feel comfortable talking about sex with their parents.
For sexual education curriculum to help teenagers and lower pregnancy and sexual disease rates, it must echo our collective moral values as a country, not just those belonging to a specific political or religious group with personal agendas. It is ethically wrong that anyone would rather allow ignorance to reign over knowledge in regards to teaching teens about all aspects of sexuality. Teenagers grow up quickly and if they are kept in the dark until they reach that point, it may impede their development into informed, responsible adults when it comes to sexual awareness and could cause them to continue to make uneducated choices.
There is no such thing as completely safe sex, and this should be a fact that all sex-ed courses must point out. However, those that design sex education courses must also come to terms with the fact that teenagers can and do have sex, and that it should be their duty as adults to give them accurate information so that they may protect themselves if they choose to do so. If there was less of a negative view of teenage sexuality as defined by those that propagate the use of abstinence-only sex education, one full of certain danger, the result of such awareness would likely cause teenagers to have a better idea of what a healthy choice is and to be more inclined to make one on their own.