This December’s hot new indie movie is Juno, in which a teenage girl gets pregnant and tries to figure out what to do about the situation. And with real life imitating art, we have Jamie Lynn Spears of Nickoledeon fame (and the little sister of Britney) making a public statement about her pregnancy at 16 by her 19-year-old boyfriend. This has led to parents feeling under pressure to discuss ‘adult’ topics with their young girls. And perhaps that is at the heart of the issue: Is teenage pregnancy an ‘adult’ topic, given that it has to do with teenagers and sex? At what age should children be taught the biology of reproduction? Furthermore, at what point should they be learning about the social rules of dating and the sexual behavior-related moral standards embraced by their parents?
A recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which did not distinguish between comprehensive sex ed and abstinence-only programs, found that teen girls were 59 percent less likely to have sex before age 15 if they had sex education. For boys, sex education reduced their likelihood of early sex by 71 percent. Teen boys were three times more likely to use contraception if they had sexual education (but it would be hard to imagine that abstinence-only programs could achieve this goal). However, it did not seem that going to sexual education classes increased the likelihood of girls using contraception; an interesting finding that reflects the complicated way in which these decisions are made. And, to be effective, the CDC argues that sex education must come before young people become sexually active. This data should be considered in light of a near 50 percent rate of sexual activity among the nation’s high school students in 2005, with a third of those not using condoms.
Across the country, and in US aid-funded programs around the world, the focus of sexual education has been abstinence, (with the often unspoken end point of this abstinence being marriage) due to federal policy that mandates these programs. Abstinence-only education is defined as education in which abstinence is the only method of prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Teaching abstinence until marriage teaches that pre-marital sex is harmful. Comprehensive sexual education includes the biology of reproduction as well as knowledge of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. According to Healthy Youth Alliance, 30 percent of all schools in Washington State teach abstinence-only curriculum. Numerous studies have found abstinence-only education to be ineffective at preventing premarital sex and promoting behaviors that prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.
In April of 2007, our state passed Senate Bill 5297 by a vote of 63-34. The bill was signed by Governor Gregoire on May 2. This bill mandated that all schools teach medically and scientifically accurate sexual education that is age appropriate, with the latter concept being undefined in the policy. “…Abstinence may not be taught to the exclusion of other materials and instruction on contraceptives and disease prevention,” the bill reads. The bill acknowledges the primacy of parents in educating children about these topics but also acknowledges the role of schools and the community. It states that it is “in the public’s interest to ensure that young people are equipped with medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate information that will help them avoid unintended pregnancies, remain free of sexually transmitted diseases, and make informed, responsible decisions throughout their lives.” This policy is not just about being a teenager, but preparing for adulthood. Schools have until September 1, 2008 to implement this policy using curriculum that must be approved by the Department of Health and the superintendent of public instruction, who are going to use publications in peer-reviewed journals to measure what is medically and scientifically accurate information and effective curriculum. Parents have the right to request that their children not participate in these programs.
As someone who spent many years of her career studying and writing sexual education curriculum for adolescents, I know that comprehensive sexual education includes a heavy dose of abstinence, as it is the only way to have 100 percent prevention of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, though it may seem a simple concept, what constitutes abstinence can be open for discussion, because many adolescents see abstinence as no penis/vaginal contact, but see other acts as up for grabs. Thus, some youths who practice abstinence still end up having sexually transmitted diseases in their mouth and anus while they preserve their virginity. Epidemiological facts like this one have bolstered the arguments against an abstinence-only education and argue for explicit, open and honest discussions about sex. Also, one can expect many discussions in our state about what is ‘age-appropriate.” Nevertheless, this policy is a very big step in a good direction.
Unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are public health issues -- not private problems -- and the state has a vested interested to intervene. No one in the business of educating youth about reproduction and sexual behavior would argue that parents should not be the ones to start the education, but many adults are ignorant of what it is they are supposed to teach. And many who are not ignorant are too uncomfortable talking about the topic to transmit a healthy understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of our reproductive health processes. Many parents do not want to acknowledge that their children experience desire. They may choose simplistic messages to address what are very complicated feelings.
If our goal is to have an educated populace, comprehensive sexual education is the only choice, because this is a major biological function of our body and reflects the evolutionary drive to reproduce. Teaching students about the biology of reproduction and sexually transmitted disease may help prevent early infertility, which is a serious outcome of untreated sexually transmitted infections. Understanding our bodies allows us to control our bodies. We cannot control what we do not understand, and fostering belief in mythologies related to sex does not advance public health. It is still up to parents to teach moral values that should drive their children’s sexual behavior, just like our own health values dictate what our children eat and the degree of their physical activity.
Many sex educators believe that a 5-year-old can understand the physiology of reproduction, and there are many books on the market for that age group that teach children where babies come from. Teaching about head and shoulders, knees and toes while avoiding the whole area in between teaches children that there is something ‘different’ and ‘shameful’ about that part of their body, but it does not stop the 3- or 4- year-old from trying to figure out what is going on with their penises and vaginas, even though they may have gotten the message that it was not appropriate to ask adults about it. So begins the mythology that can lead to a 30-year-old woman not fully understanding her fertility cycle and the science of getting pregnant.
Ruth C. White teaches social policy analysis and advocacy in the social work program at Seattle University. She is the mother of the fabulous 10-year-old Maya.