Saturday, June 05, 2004

Abstinence-Only: Does It Work?

The New York Times > Health > Health Care Policy > Personal Health: Abstinence-Only: Does It Work?

my sister and i learned about sex because of our german shepherds. one morning, or afternoon, i looked out the back porch window and saw them stuck together. puzzled, i got my sister. we thought it looked funny. then we thought it hurt. especially for baba, the bitch. so we got dad, who explained in graphic detail, what mating dogs really did. and of course, this led to what people did. also, in graphic detail. gross. we were around 9 or 10.

then, maybe a year or so later, i was in the 6th grade and brought home a letter from school asking permission to include me in a short series of classes on sex education. there were going to be films, books, gender-specific classes and discussions. nothing co-ed (probably thinking that boys and girls were already too skeeved out to actually talk about it together.) my parents signed the paper and i got to learn about sammy sperm and olivia ovum. fast forward a couple of years to junior high health classes, high school health classes (i hit high school just as AIDS hit the airwaves) and the story is about the same: the school telling parents, hey we're about to talk about sex to your kids, and the parents saying, go ahead.

two things are happening here. one, my parents talked about sex in one particular context: monogamy and marriage. sex before marriage was a huge no-no because of our faith community, primarily, but also because...well, nice girls just didn't. (of course, i'd learn later what nice girls did in my church, but that's a different story.) the word NO was our mantra. NO, you may not ask me out. NO, you may not kiss me. NO, euww, that's gross. we learned our lessons well.

but we also went to school. i learned about condoms in school; in fact, i held one for the first time when i was in 10th grade. i learned about STDs, birth control (and all the stats on which were the most effective for which kind of activity), abortion and what erogenous zones were. i watched movies about herpes, chlamydia, syphillis, crabs, gonhorrhea, genital warts and, because of AIDS, was totally indoctrinated in what safer sex was supposed to be. and, of course, i was heavily armed with the parental NO.

then college. in my summer orientation i learned how to put a condom on a banana. i learned what a dental dam was. i learned about other things like cunninglingus, rimming and lube. i learned about the sponge, spermacide, different kinds of condoms, why latex is better than non-latex, and i learned about other types of sexuality. and, i was still armed with the parental NO. in fact, we were more than armed with it; the parental NO was being praised from the pulpit on a regular basis. my sister and i, daughters of the church, were pretty much the only ones not pregnant by the time we graduated college. in fact, we were the only ones to graduate college.

does abstinence only sex education work? by definition, no. because it isn't sex education. sex education teaches you about sex, albeit not all of it, but the general things - what it is, what the accessories are, the types that exist, and how to prevent some of the accidents of sex. abstinence is only one small part of that education; like the condom, it is a tactic in a whole strategy around sex. like the dental dam, abstinence is a tool that allows you to negotiate how sexually active you want to be - or your kids to be. there are two different arguments being made when we talk about sex education; if you want to talk about preventing young people from having sex, that's one thing. if you want to talk about how to teach young people to be sexually responsible, that's something else entirely.

let's get back to the church and its role in shaping sexual attitudes toward sex; clearly, in the church where i grew up, there were some slippages. as far as i knew we were all on message when it came to sex. publicly, the church's position was firm on NO sex if you weren't married. how many teen forums did i sit through listening to how premarital sex was inappropriate for christian teens? tons. how many panels on teen pregnancy avoided talk of comprehensive sex education even while admitting their churches were filling with single teenaged mothers? tons. how many groans of disappointment in our church when a promising young college bound guy admitted to getting his girlfriend pregnant? tons. so where was the slip? despite the message, what was going on?

i remember one conference, my father was on a panel and i was in the audience. i was spending my saturday morning at a teen conference and i could have been reading or something. i was already in college by this time. (and,yes, still armed with the NO.) there was much hand-wringing about the increasing stats of teen pregnancy in los angeles; there was much stern lecturing. i could totally tell not a single teenager in the room believed anything that anyone was saying - about saving oneself, about rules of God, about christian fortitude. i wanted to see what would happen if a different point of view was heard, so i raised my hand and asked, well since it's clear that this isn't working, why not tell teenagers better ways to protect themselves and actually prevent becoming pregnant? like condoms?

and that's when my dad said, christians don't believe in condoms, since premarital sex is outside the bounds of behavior for us. and that was the end of that topic. we moved on. i settled down thinking, well, clearly somebody didn't get that memo.

and the memo is still being unread. despite the popularity of abstinence pledges, and even despite the years of AIDS and HIV, sexual activity among young people is still increasing. sexually transmitted diseases are increasing within populations of color and young people. so, there's something that's not being transmitted by the 'just say no' message. one, it's too simplistic. saying NO doesn't mean anything unless there's a value system, a consistent one, to back it up. the parental NO worked on me and my sister because we saw it followed through; our family was vigilant, man. if you had a penis, you had to suffer through a fbi-level background check. you had to endure a conversation with my dad about sex that was so harsh, it would make you sick. you had to earn the right to come near us.

just say no is also a failure in logic. it's like saying 'the only way to not be drunk is to not drink.' yeah, well, good luck with that. the failsafe way to not get drunk isn't not to drink. it's not to mix, drink in moderation, and don't drink when you're not legally allowed (because, frankly, you're a teenager and you don't know about limits.) the 'just' in just say no is always a little too pat. it's much better to show how making bad decisions can have a larger effect on your life. because a teenager having sex isn't always about a teenager having sex. sometimes it's about something that's missing that they need filled.

which gets us back to those two separate questions when it comes to sex education.
do you want to prevent them from having sex as kids, or do you want them to be sexually responsible adults?

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