Updated March 27, 2006Why are we re-fighting so many social battles that seemed put to rest in the 60s and 70s? Why is America obsessed about sex: the horror (and network fines) provoked by nano-second exposure in Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" stands in stark contrast to what passes for art on primetime network offerings, in bedroom romps on daytime soaps, in MTV music videos and in commercials for Viagra (and other products).
We have ongoing battles about abortion coupled with struggles (still!) about sex education (what to teach, if to teach, when to teach). America's sexual psyche seems forever entangled with its Puritan settlers. Not to mention our money: we've spent more than $1.1 billion ($1,100,000,000) on abstinence-only programs for teens. Which don't work.
Many Europeans look at America's predilection for images of graphic violence with dismay. Many of us look at Europe's images of scantily clad females and topless beaches with equivalent revulsion. We turn a blind eye to the fact that we have double the teen pregnancy rate and more handgun deaths per capita than any other Western country on the planet. What higher road?
It is against this backdrop that I read this offering by About's Conservative Politics Guide Amy Hess. She takes the Rhode Island Department of Education to task for banning a "specific abstinence-only program" and characterizes those who oppose that program as "think[ing] that people should be free to have sex with anyone or anything they please."
I've not run into a sex education program in public schools that makes such a cavalier argument. Nor have I encountered educators who make this argument for teens. Consenting adults? Well, that's another kettle of fish, as they say. But we're not talking about adults: we're talking about teens.
This tempest has me scratching my head in puzzlement: I was reared in rural, Bible-belt (red state) Georgia. And yet in 1968 or 1969, in what is now called middle school, I had a female-only class called sex-ed. Let me repeat: almost 40 years ago, southern Bible-belt schools saw the need for sex education.
Sex-Ed: 40 Years Ago!
Now, sex education 40 years ago was about basics. In retrospect, it was a crash course in female and male biology. There was nothing, in my memory, about "sexuality." I'm sure if there was something about condoms (which I doubt), I probably would have thought it "icky." But I'm guessing that in today's political climate, even bare bones exposure to biology would be greeted with a chorus of objection.
This was long before the, admirable in my view, classes where students are given infant surrogates and are thus exposed to the 24x7 care associated with being responsible for another life. In another era, that role might have been filled by caring for a dog, cat, hamster or parrot.
In my opinion, the "rub" comes when we start trying to teach values -- and elevate one "value set" above all others. And "abstinence only" is a value proposition. Did my parents push abstinence? You bet. And that was, in my opinion, their responsibility. It was not the responsibility of "the state" in the form of a public school lecture.
However, I might be persuaded -- based on overarching social costs/savings -- if the research showed that abstinence-only programs were successful. But that's not the case. MSNBC reports from one Texas study:
The study showed about 23 percent of ninth-grade girls, typically 13 to 14 years old, had sex before receiving abstinence education. After taking the course, 29 percent of the girls in the same group said they had had sex.
Boys in the tenth grade, about 14 to 15 years old, showed a more marked increase, from 24 percent to 39 percent, after receiving abstinence education.
Abstinence-only programs, which have sprouted up in schools across the nation, cannot offer information about birth control and must promote the social and health benefits of abstaining from sex.
During President Bush's tenure as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, for instance, with abstinence-only programs in place, the state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old females. Overall, the teen pregnancy rate in Texas was exceeded by only four other states.
Next: Research Supports Sex-Ed, Not Abstinence-Only