I always thought that I was pretty old when I had sex for the first time (19), but Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that I was completely average. It turns out that 70% of unmarried teens in American have sex by the time they are 19. (OK, fine I was on the older end of the spectrum, but whatever.) I waited, despite intense pressure from a boyfriend in high school, because I wasn't ready and I knew it. It was a good decision for me. Other girls may be ready earlier, and those are their decisions, too.
However, a new study found that thoughtful sex education for 6th graders in a low income school in Philadelphia helped kids delay their first sex experience. Calling it abstinence education, as The New York Times does in today's otherwise excellent op-ed is a misnomer:
It did not advocate abstinence until marriage but urged students to wait until they were more mature. It encouraged abstinence as a way to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, had youngsters draw up lists of the pros and cons of sexual activity, and taught strategies for resisting pressure to have intercourse.
A curriculum that helps junior high kids think through the pros and cons of waiting until they are mature enough to have sex is actually better described as sex education that prepares people for life. Almost no human being abstains from sex for his or her entire life. Teaching kids only to say no until marriage does not prepare them for the day that they say "I do," and all the years that they'll say yes after that. Even married couples need to know how to protect themselves. (Of course, the agenda behind many of these proponents of abstinence education have no interest in helping married couples prevent unwanted pregnancies or the spread of STDs, either. The special world they inhabit, no one has sex before marriage - except boys because that's what men do - or strays, and obviously there is nothing to worry about when it comes to infecting a partner.)
Am I crazy to think it is OK to introduce kids to the idea that they should wait until they are ready to have sex, and as they get older, teach them about what they can do to be sexually healthy teens and adults? Maybe not. Emily at Feminist Looking Glass has some important doubts about this latest study, but she also notes that:
the study focuses on delayed behaviors– not safer ones. Nowhere in the NYT article does the author call in to question whether the goal of sex education should be to delay sex, or teach healthy, safe methods? Is this about not having sex early, or not having sex dangerously?
In the midst of a post about a disturbing racially exploitative ad campaign that a "right-to-life" group in Georgia is running, Renee at Womanist Musings reminds people why thoughtful sex education programs are needed in low income schools:
The way to stop abortion is not by outlawing it but by ensuring that sex education is offered from an early age. We already know that schools which are located in impoverished neighbourhoods fall short in terms of education. Is it not possible to suggest a co-relation between this fact and a lack of good sex education?
And maybe that's what has me most nervous about this new study. Good programs usually cost money. And schools that are looking to save money take the easiest cuts. Introducing kids to the idea that they should wait to have sex is only great when more information is offered later. Otherwise, you get back to Emily's point that we are only delaying kids from engaging in risky behavior. Further, it is entirely possible that the other control groups had less success in discouraging kids from having sex at a young age because they also didn't let kids go through the same pros and cons process as the "abstinence" group did. Are we comparing apples to apples or are we talking about bananas and kumquats?
Helping kids understand their sexuality is an important step in preparing them for their relationships and lives as men and women. We can think about this in a compartmentalized way, or we can think about it as a lifelong education course that people of all genders can benefit from.
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