Abstinence Education In Schools
Most American teens will have sex by the age of 19, not unlike their peers in other developed countries. However, the rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the U.S. are much higher than other developed nations. The difference may be attributable, in part, to the type of formal sex education provided in schools.
While levels of teen sexual activity are generally the same in other developed nations, American teens tend to have shorter, inconsistent relationships and are less likely to participate in safe sex. What appears to separate much of U.S. curriculums from other developed nations is the inclusion of morality-based abstinence education, focusing less on issues like fundamentals of reproduction, contraception, STIs and other sexual concerns.
In Tennessee, lawmakers recently passed a law that prevents educators from promoting gateway sexual activity, or “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a nonabstinent behavior.” Critics call this the “no holding-hands bill” mostly because lawmakers have been unclear on what constitutes gateway activity. It’s unknown what lawmakers are attempting to prohibit exactly, but the assumption is that certain intimate activities are inappropriate when promoting abstinence only. Those in support of abstinence-focused education believe demonstrations involving sex acts and teaching appropriate contraception use will stimulate and encourage teens to have sex.
Some of the highest teen pregnancy rates exist in states that still push for abstinence only education, particularly those that push AOE from a moral standpoint. States like Texas, Tennessee and Florida have all been attempting to legislate more specific abstinence programs, arguing abstinence is the best way to avoid STIs and unplanned pregnancies.
Others argue that teens will have sex regardless and that human biology is difficult to deter. Opponents claim abstinence only education (AOE) is ethically problematic because it avoids giving teens the appropriate health information to make positive sexual choices. Health experts say teens have the right to know health information.
Studies have also shown that abstinence education is mostly ineffective. Teens who are taught abstinence only are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, leading to more STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Shame and fear-based education tactics have been proven ineffective, yet for a number of years the federal government has been funding education that teaches “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” This was controversial not only because it pushed a specific morality in schools, but because it ostracized homosexuals who can’t legally marry in most states.
In the past few years, the Obama administration has focused on endorsing comprehensive sex education that are scientifically supported. Most are evidence-based programs that address a wide range of sexual issues, including contraception, reproduction, and social issues. The Department of Health and Human Services recently created a list of curriculums that have been most successful – all, with exception of the most recent endorsement, the Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education program. The program has been controversial because it pushes a heterosexual marriage agenda, minimizing LGBT youth, and fails to address health basics like puberty, anatomy, reproduction, and contraception. Instead, the group focuses on teaching students to withhold sex until marriage and teaches outdated views on sex.
AOE supporters claim the drop in teen pregnancy rates in the past few decades are attributable to the billion and a half federal dollars spent on abstinence education since the 1980s, most of which was spent during former president George W. Bush’s time in office. Since 2010-2011, nearly two-thirds of the federal budget allocated to abstinence education has been cut and redirected to evidence-based curriculums. While abstinence does appear to have some effectiveness in combination with comprehensive sex education, the most effective programs avoid teaching a morality stance altogether.
Clearly abstinence is the most effective means to avoid teen pregnancy and STIs, but should schools really be in the business of teaching morality?
Tell your government what you think: Real Education for Healthy Youth Act 2011, Abstinence Education Reallocation Act 2011
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