Saturday, September 6, 2008

Where "abstinence only" gets us

Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and who has a pregnant teenage daughter, opposes sex education programs in schools. In a state that has one of the broadest line-item veto laws in America, Palin either eliminated or severely slashed spending for even sensible initiatives, including the types of early intervention programs that have worked in many of the lower 48. She also cut programs to help teenagers who actually got pregnant.

The problem, as many see it (as do I) is that this is reflective of a puritanical attitude towards sexuality; one that treats the accidental exposure of a nipple on live TV for 9/16 of one second a greater threat to morals, than a terrorist who would make women slaves in their own homes and their own country and his minions who enthusiastically support this. And while worrying about threats that many not even exist, so many families are so worried about even talking about sex that they don't realize the ticking time bomb developing under their feet -- a huge teenage pregnancy rate and the burden on social programs that come with that; if there are any left.

Sex is not a comforting topic, discussing it with our kids even less so. But is America and to a lesser extent Canada so afraid of sex, that we think that hoping for the best will solve the problem? That young teens will actually keep their promises at so-called "purity balls"? Don't get me started on those, but there's something telling about someone who claims to be Christian and then insists on a strict following of the law rather than upholding its spirit. By making people follow the so-called rules, we suppress their spirit and thus undermine the basis of healthy marriages which is love based on total surrender rather than mechanical submission and suppression.

Which, inevitably, leads to marital breakdowns; many of which break down because one of the partners (usually the man) was able to manipulate the other (usually the woman) into unspeakable acts, including sex without their consent.

We also imply that while it may not be okay to have intercourse pre-marriage, it's quite okay to have unprotected oral sex and/or mutual masturbation. Thus ignoring a base fact: Sex organs are like a solenoid switch. One will go into the other eventually.

Didn't Jesus criticize the Pharisees for precisely that? For being so concerned about what others did that they dinn't care about their own souls?

In my opinion, we should encourage our kids not to have sex; to wait until they get married or are at least in a committed relationship. We also need to be realistic and understand that whether educated or not on the issue, kids will have sex. The last thing we need are unwanted pregnancies, which inevitably lead to unwanted abortions.

Here's a column I found interesting, from today's NYT. It notes the rate of teenage pregnancies, abortions and sexual activity in many developed countries. Note that teen pregnancies and / or rates of abortion are high in countries with an overall lack of sex ed programs or where parents simply choose to duck the issue (including the Us and Hungary) while they are low where sex ed is par for the course and sexuality is celebrated.

Consider that Canada, which has no abortion law at all but where sex education is strong, has a teen abortion rate 27% lower than the States, and a teen birthrate 52% lower. The rate of teen sexual activity is identical in the US and Germany, but the abortion rate among teens is 82% lower and the birthrate 75% lower. Denmark which has the highest rate of sexual activity among teens, even higher than America, has a teen pregnancy rate 85% lower.

Similar trends can be found within the States. As a general rule, states with better comprehensive sex education programs have lower teen pregnancy rates than those that have lesser programs or none at all.

It's counterintuitive but it seems that where kids are armed with knowledge, they have the power to make the right choices (abstinence, best choice) or at the very least make sure they aren't reckless (safer sex, second choice).

What about those of us who went to a Catholic high school where the official line was abstinence only? Please. We passed around condoms, diaphrams and pills in the locker room and real sex education material in the cafeteria; surrepticiously of course. The level of sexual activity was much higher than in the non-demoninational system yet the rate of pregnancies was way lower. Many guidance counsellors actually encouraged us to have sex as well if we thought it was the right thing to do. And they told us where to get birth control, too.

What does that tell you? Must have been we students (and the more enlightened teachers and psychologists on the staff) knew better than our so called masters and mistresses.

What did I do with this knowledge? None of your business. But you don't see me having an ungrateful kid who's graduating from high school this year.

I believe that it begins with the parents. Parents should tell their kids flat out it's not okay to have sex but if they're going to to be prepared. It should also start early by telling younger children about the "bathing suit test," that if someone touches a part of the body that a bathing suit would cover it's not okay for the attacker to do that (which I think would greatly reduce the levels of unreported child abuse, something we should all stand up for). It should continue to progress with increasing levels of maturity.

But the education system should also be permitted to stand up to the plate. If the best the anti-abortion crowd can do is the promise to "reverse Roe v Wade," they're only going to make the problem worse. The best abortion is one that never has to take place because it doesn't have to be considered at all -- since an unwanted conception didn't take place. Knowledge is power, and I'm convinced the more information they have, the more likely they are to wait. After all, their potential partners who are also armed with this knowledge will know that they themselves are as much worth the wait as their Miss or Mr. Right.

Having free clinics in schools handing out morning after pills to girls as young as 11, as they do in the UK, may be pushing it; but at least the system in Great Britain and Northern Ireland gets it -- since pre and post natal care costs the NHS a heck of a lot more for a woman who's under eighteen.

It's not too late to stand up for families and responsibility. Ignoring the issue, as Palin wants to do, is just about as irresponsible as we can get.

Abstinence first? Definitely. Abstinence only? Not in the real world. Ignorance is not bliss -- it is a recipe for disaster.

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