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While I wasn’t alive in the eighties, my mom was. From her childhood she remembers disco, Soul Train, Regan, the war on drugs, and most importantly abstinence plus sexual education programs. In the eighties STD’s like AIDS and teen pregnancy were a big issue, in fact “between 1974 and 1980, the pregnancy rate for all females aged 15-19 years increased by 8.2%”(CDC), but that wasn’t what began the abstinence-only mandate in schools all over the country. The fact that teens were having sex at all was. So when I came to my mom at age twelve asking a swarm of questions about birth control and sexual health her response went something like: “Do they not teach you anything at school?” to which I replied “they teach us what to be afraid of.”
Abstinence-only sexual education is the newest addition to a seemingly long list of attempts to stop, primarily young women, from engaging in sexual activities because it would cause to be seen as “damaged goods.” But this slanderous rhetoric was originally used by the US government in WWI towards the soldiers to warn them of the dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau in 1919 stated that soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school (Cornblatt). The first sex ed pamphlets contained information about nutrition, religion, and the sin of masturbation and was distributed by the catholic church. Chicago had the first school in US history to have a comprehensive sex ed program but it was short lived when the catholic church became aware. Much like the tactics of the catholic church, abstinence-only sex ed has not been very productive. While it is clear that the abstinence only mandate had good intentions, ending and replacing it with a factual and informative sex ed curriculum that would open the door for US families to have better conversations about sex and make it less of a taboo subject in society.
Since WWI, sex ed has become more about scare tactics than information, and all that has changed is the audience. Instead of soldiers getting “the talk” it’s teens. Most inexperienced teenagers already have a lack of sexual knowledge and take sex ed in hopes of learning something about their bodies. In the US abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex ed programs are the majority and do very little to answer the real questions that teens have about sex in a non judgemental or frightening way. The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate in all of the developed countries (Stranger-Hall).
In fact many people –teens especially– are unaware that there are over twenty forms of birth control, including abstinence, that protect against STD’s and unplanned pregnancy. Just to name a few: the pill (male and female), the depo-provera shot, the condom, and the female condom are the most common for regular birth control. There is also Plan B or other emergency contraceptives that can be used up to 72 hours by women after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. Laws have also been passed in recent years–in Oregon, Washington and few other states– that allow people of any age to purchase one of these forms of contraceptive. People do not know this because it’s against the curriculum for abstinence programs.
The candie’s foundation is one of the more influential abstinence enforcement programs because they are backed by several mainstream celebrities and politicians such as actresses Hilary Duff, and Hayden Panettiere, and politician Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol. Somehow Bristol Palin, a teen mom of two and pro-abstinence spokesperson is still traveling the country going to high schools and telling students how important it is to be abstain until marriage, as well as promote romantic notions of marriage and spread scientifically inaccurate information(Green). Funny how she herself isn’t married. Bristol Palin’s situation is an all too real representation of just how damaging abstinence-only sex ed programs have been to teens. Studies have shown that these programs have “increased the teen pregnancy rate as well as the teen STD rate”(Stanger-Hall). So what started it the abstinence-only mandate?
In 1981 when Reagan took office as President, he repealed forty health and social welfare programs under Title X. Two main programs were greatly affected by this decision: Mental health and Family Planning Services, both programs that were often used by teens and poverty stricken individuals. Repealing these would not only make it hard for poor minority women to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies and STD’s but it would also harm sexual active teens–which was the intent.
Looking at the teen pregnancy rate from the seventies, a group of conservative politicians and doctors, who were also known to be anti women’s and gay rights as well as against the desegregation of schools, got together and began the propaganda against teen sex. One of these individuals was Dr. Ray Short who claimed that “the sterilization from the pill, IUD, venereal disease was nature’s way of punishing young women and girls who engaged in premarital sex.” He also constantly stated that “young women who engage in sexual activities are damaged goods and will not find a mate. If by chance they do find a mate, they will be more likely to cheat on their spouse.” This is the same shaming rhetoric that has been used since the early 1900’s. These doctors and political figures wanted to push the blame of sexual attraction on the young girls when in reality boys were just as guilty. Another issue that surfaced during these discussions was rape. Young girls were, and some would argue still are, blamed for “male passions” (Ehrlich).
Aside from abstinence-only sex ed, there are other methods that have been a lot more effective. Abstinence- plus sex, for one, gives students information about healthy relationships, and all the different STD’s one could obtain, but fails to provide students with knowledge of birth control and safe sex practices because it still strongly enforces abstinence.
Another program that has been known to work well for students is comprehensive sex ed. This method has shown to result in “an increased age for sexually active teens, prevention of disease, preventions of sexual assault, and prevention unplanned teen pregnancy”(Green). Access to birth control plays an important role as well, when colorado made birth control accessible to all they cut teen pregnancy down by 40% and abortion down by 42% in just four years.
With all of this information backing comprehensive sex ed, why is it that abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex ed are still the most commonly taught? It could be because a lot of parents don’t want to consider the fact that their teens are or might be sexual active, but even that is untrue. Studies have shown teens are more likely to engage in sexual activity because they are uninformed and curious (Boonstra).
Comprehensive sex ed paired with access to birth control is the only solution to this problem, the stats speak for themselves. The best way to make this happen to end the abstinence-only mandate and refund family planning services like Planned Parenthood. While a lot has changed since the eighties and states are now allowed to decide their preferred sex ed curriculum, too many states still choose to use the abstinence based curriculum and parents are supporting it. Parents shouldn’t treat sex like a hush hush topic, they should be comfortable talking about sex because their children will benefit from this.
But what about religion? Premarital sex is often frowned upon and this is reason many parents may prefer abstinence focused sex ed. Also what if the parent does not know very much about sex either? How are they supposed to each their child? While it is true that not all parents want their children to know about sex, they can not leave them in the dark forever.The fact that premarital sex is frowned upon is used as an excuse to shame sexual active teens which has been shown to do more harm than good.
It’s also never too late to learn about sex. There are several resources out there that can assist parents in having “the talk” in a productive way. Even if a parent does not want their child engaging in any sexual activity they should openly communicate that with their child. Teens and children should still know the basics about sex and not feel embarrassed or ashamed when curious.
In conclusion, teens are gonna have sex when they feel they are read, whether that be at seventeen or twenty-five, not when their parents feel they are. As a society it is our job to make sure they are informed. Comprehensive sex ed paired with access to birth control has been shown to work exceedingly well in the states that have made it available. There is no need to shame uninformed and sexually active teens in a system that isn’t benefiting them at all. We must end abstinence-only sex education and instead invest in the education that will benefit teens and allow them to feel comfortable discussing sex with their parents and peers.
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