Abstinence-only Sex Ed Programs Leave American Teens in the Dark

sex graphIf you feel that using the word "contraception" or "condom" is necessary to comprehensive sex education, don't move to Charlotte, North Carolina. The city's public school guidelines prohibit students, teachers and administrators from uttering these words within the walls of a classroom. The tendency to evade discussion and education about sexuality may be why the United States claims the top spot in birth, abortion and sexually transmitted disease rates among teens in the industrialized world, significantly exceeding rates in European countries. This startling discrepancy prompted the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Advocates for Youth, a non-profit organization that aims to help young people make informed decisions about their sexual health, to sponsor annual summer study tours to France, Germany and the Netherlands to explore why adolescents in Europe handle sexuality more responsibly than adolescents in the United States. Study tour participants -- policy makers, researchers, youth-serving professionals and youth -- spend two-and-a-half weeks in the three countries examining the European approach to teen sexuality by visiting schools and talking with youth, families, sex educators, ministers and government officials.

The United States has 13 times the teen birth rate of the Netherlands, 25 times the gonorrhea rate of Germany and three times the teen abortion rate of France, according to the 2001 National Vital Statistics Reports. American teenagers begin having sex at around age 15, an average of two years earlier than their European counterparts. Why are rates in the United States drastically higher than in European countries? "In general, young people in Europe are respected and seen as important to society -- people who contribute and add to the culture," says Barbara Huberman, director of education and outreach at Advocates for Youth. In the United States, "teens are viewed as delinquent, disorganized and deficient." Huberman also pointed out that since Europeans respect teens, they support the rights of teens to contraceptive services and access to sex information. As a result, sex discussion can take place without censoring essential information or pushing for abstinence until marriage. "The French minister even stated that the state has no right to tell teens that they can't have sex, and that teens do have a right to accurate information, services and access to resources."

President George W. Bush has responded to the nation's high STD and birth rates among teens by cracking down on sex education, proposing a 2003 budget that sets aside $135 million for "abstinence-until-marriage" education programs, according to the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Web site. The sum is a $33 million increase over the funding for 2002. No federal funding is currently allocated for comprehensive sex education.

Yet San Francisco Stop AIDS Project communications director Shana Krochmal believes that comprehensive sex education is a crucial means for preventing STDs. "It's important for us to be realistic about what teens will do," Krochmal says. "Although abstinence is the only 100 percent effective protection against AIDS, there will still be teens who choose to have sex. Because of this, we need to arm them with the tools that they need to be safe." According to Krochmal, a rise in AIDS rates among young gay men makes abstinence-only programs particularly problematic. "Teens will be taught that abstinence until marriage is the best choice, but what about the case of a 17-year-old gay boy?" Krochmal says. "He will never be allowed to marry another man, and it leaves him with even fewer skills of how he could have safer sex."

Junior Jack Jia, who visited France on a home-stay last summer, feels that Bush's attempt to control teen sexual activity with abstinence-only programs is flawed and dangerous. "To push a program like this is unreal," Jia says. "It's putting a law on human nature. The [teen sex] rates won't go down; they'll go up out of ignorance."

In 1988, only two percent of public schools taught abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study. In 1999 that number rose to 23 percent, and today the number stands at 33 percent. Most of these programs forgo any discussion of contraception outside of failure rates. Teen Aid, a pro-abstinence organization based in Spokane, Washington, that publishes some of the most widely distributed abstinence-only textbooks, cites the Holy Bible as a "medical reference" and defines abortion as "an intent to kill the unborn," according to Alan Singer's review of the textbook Sexuality, Commitment, and Family on the Rethinking Schools Web site. San Francisco Bible Church pastor Henry Tam says he believes that God made man and woman to come together in marriage, and that abstaining from sex until marriage would please God. "God designated sex to be enjoyed by married couples as one of the many joys that are part of a marriage," he says. Although Tam advocates abstinence until marriage, he does not believe that an increase in pro-abstinence education programs will decrease teen STD and birth rates.

California, the only state to reject the current federal funds, piloted pro-abstinence education programs a few years ago, according to Huberman. "The sex rates didn't change," she says. The state's Education Code does, however, currently require course material and instruction to "stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage" and to "teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage. According to Huberman, "European educators do not stress abstinence until marriage and instead are tolerant of teenagers' choices. "In Europe, we asked the instructors if there was anything that they couldn't talk about during class relating to sex," she says. "They looked at us like we were from Mars. Europeans are much more open."

Nicholas Moy, a French American International High School junior who visited France on a home-stay two years ago, noticed that Europeans do not consider sex a taboo the way Americans do. "Sex isn't viewed as a sin in Europe the way it is here," Moy says. "For them, (teens having sex) is universal and pretty much expected after a certain amount of time dating."

Yvonne Wong is a 16-year-old reporter for The Lowell, the student newspaper at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

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