Dear New York Times
I sent this in response to the New York Times piece published last week regarding abstinence-only education. Alas, I didn't hear back from them, so I offer it up here instead. I feel it's important to get as much informed commentary out there on this issue as possible right now, especially considering the recent continuance and increases given to abstinence-only funding.
There is sound reason to question any approach to one of the most diverse arenas of human behavior which privileges one set of choices over another.
By putting virginity -- a concept few teens and adults can even define; one which also leaves gay, lesbian and transgender youth, as well as sexual abuse survivors, out in the cold -- in a cagematch with being sexually active, we make teens feel even less capable of figuring out what choices are right for them. Since partnered sex is always about more than one party, enabling young people to make independent choices based on their individual needs, limits and boundaries should be our greatest concern. It does "rule" for any person to feel comfortable with the choices they make about sexuality, but only so long as their choices – whatever they are -- are made with accurate and inclusive information which allows them to consider sex through their own intellectual, emotional and moral compass.
There IS nothing wrong with being a virgin, and there isn't anything weird about choosing to abstain from sex.
There also isn't anything "weird" or wrong about choosing not to.
By stating that the sex only within marriage is the unilateral ideal, and the only sound, morally acceptable sexual choice, we affix more guilt, shame and confusion to sex, which is so overwrought with it already. As it is, weighty matters of popularity, normalcy, social status and peer acceptance, conflicting messages from parents, partners and the media about sexuality all cause young people to feel pushed and pulled in radically different directions when it comes to sex. As parents or mentors, we know that it is vital for youth to develop autonomy to resist external pressures: why further institutionalize this tug-o-war and suspend that logic when it comes to sex?
Abstinence-only programs are rife with misinformation on safer sex and birth control, sexually transmitted infections and the relationship realities of a diverse population. They enable the worst of traditional gender roles, in which boys are often represented as mindless, libidinous beasts for whom the girls -- whose interest in sex is represented as solely emotional (and heterosexual) -- are the sexual gatekeepers.
And we've learned this lesson before: during the first World War, all other nation's soldiers were given condoms; ours, a "chastity campaign" instead. The result? The United States -- at rates exponentially higher than those other nations -- experienced its first big wave of sexually transmitted disease when our soldiers came home and gave their wives gonorrhea and syphilis. Marriage didn't protect those couples from STIs or negative sexual consequences: abstinence approaches put them in harm’s way then, as they put couples in harm’s way now.
Even for those who wait until marriage for sex -- and for GLBT youth, that could be a lifelong wait -- they STILL will need sexuality information. While marriage may have the power to do some things, it lacks the ability to instill couples with information on how to practice safer sex, use birth control, have mutually satisfying sex together that is truly about both parties; to discuss sexual limits, boundaries, desires, wants and needs openly and informedly. And as anyone who works in any arena of education knows, when we learn certain skills and information influences how likely we are to retain it and best apply it throughout our lives. We would recognize a clear problem if we were not teaching language in the window in which children are doing their key language development: we should see the same problem when we are not teaching sexuality basics -- knowing that like language, we do not just teach for now, but for lifelong use -- during the time when that development is prime.
While over the last decade and a half, the age of first intercourse and teen pregnancy rates have declined, that trend began with the rise of comprehensive sex education and better access to birth control, and has not further decreased since 2001. We also need to take into account that rates of other sexual activity which carry just as much emotional risk, and often as much STI risk, have NOT declined. In the United States, people between the ages of 15 and 24 continue to be those with the highest -- and most rapidly rising -- rates of infections; our rates of STIs in young adults are substantially higher than rates in nations who provide comprehensive sexual education and better access to sexual healthcare services. Of teens who report saving sex for marriage, it is only a rare few who mean ALL sex: for most, it means forestalling only intercourse, and for many that is still not delayed until marriage. Considering the median age of first marriage is now around twenty-six, we can easily suss out why that’s not a surprise.
I have run Scarleteen.com, a comprehensive young adult sexuality education website, since 1998, which sometimes sees as many as 30,000 users a day. Over the last few years, we've seen an increase in newcomers to the site reporting participation in sexual activity like anal sex. Often, teens engaging in unprotected anal sex or oral sex will report doing so because, according to the sex information they have, it is less risky than vaginal intercourse and will also leave their virginity intact. Many of those teens have not learned how to say no to those activities when they want to from abstinence-only sex education. "Just say no," doesn't teach us much about "Maybe,” or “I need to find out more about our risks first, see if we can take care of ourselves in a way that's smart and safe, talk about it more, and then see how I feel." Whether someone is single or married, has one partner or five, they need to learn how to have conversations about sexuality that are far more complex than no or yes.
The most pervasive messages of abstinence-only education -- and its logical and practical flaws -- have been heard loud and clear, filtered through teen minds the way any of us filters anything: with only the information we have at hand. We know abstinence-only approaches just don't work and never have worked, and any of us past our teens knows why. If we keep the real-life experiences we know are realities and the sexuality information most of us now have as adults from teens, some won't know why this doesn't work, but many will find out that it doesn’t: the hard way.
Comprehensive sexuality education includes information about abstinence. But it also includes discussion with teens about what it means to be emotionally, physically, interpersonally and materially ready for any sort of sex -- not just heterosexual. It includes all of the accurate sexuality and sexual health information all of them will need -- including GLBT youth. While comprehensive sex education serves both teens who abstain and those who do not, the idea that comprehensive sexuality education will result in youth having sex they would not be having otherwise is as flawed as suggesting that lessons in U.S. history about the founding of the nation will encourage young children to organize a genocide of indigenous people.
Whether a young adult chooses to have sex or chooses not to have sex, it's their choice to make, not ours. If adults, with a political power they do not yet have, are making any one choice a mandate, not an option, then no matter what they choose, teens aren’t making a choice at all: we’re making it for them – and we’ve been making it poorly. One can only hope abstinence education faces an uncertain future, because as of right now, it’s set up millions of teens with a decided and intentionally ignorant uncertainty in an area of their lives we should all want them to be as certain about as possible.
Editor & Founder, Scarleteen.com
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College