The birds and the bees. The "talk." Sex Ed is a hot-button issue, and when it comes to abstinence education, lines are drawn. After all, there's no "right age" to give up virginity—sex readiness is based on everything from religion and maturity to moral beliefs. Since teens are often influenced by peers and the media, getting the facts is important—it's the amount of information taught in schools that have parents and teachers riled up for debate. Proponents of abstinence-only education believe teaching teens about birth control and sexually-transmitted infections encourages them to try sex earlier, while critics feel that teaching teens comprehensive sex education will keep them safe from infections and unwanted pregnancies. According to a 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, on average, young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but they don't marry until their mid-20s. So can abstinence education be effective?
Unfortunately, there's a lack of research in evaluating abstinence education programs, making it hard to decide whether it's a more effective method than a comprehensive program. To make matters more difficult, the programs in operation nationwide share the fundamental belief of no sex until marriage, but the curriculum varies by region, school district and sometimes by classroom.
Here are some of the benefits of abstinence education:
- Focus on abstinence. A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows 70% parents and over 60% teens believe sex should be reserved for marriage. Because of these numbers, abstinence education supporters believe it should be the go-to sex education curriculum. Abstinence-only programs focus solely on teens saving themselves for marriage, and supporters feel that comprehensive sexual education doesn't put enough emphasis on abstaining—which supporters believe actually encourages premarital sexual activity.
- All in good ethics. Proponents argue that abstinence education is superior because it emphasizes the teaching of morality—or "right" behavior—by limiting sex to the confines of marriage. Society frowns upon premartial sex, and abstinence education teaches that sex comes with emotional risks.
- No sex is the safest sex. Supporters say abstinence education programs give students the real-life protection rates that a condom offers, compared to comprehensive education which gives adolescents a false sense of security using condoms. This false security gives adolescents the idea that it's safe to have pre-marital sex whereas in abstinence education, the focus is that abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy.
- A packed curriculum. Despite the widespread notion that abstinence education withholds information from students regarding methods of safe sex, supporters think it packs a powerful curriculum. The program not only studies the physical risks of pre-marital sex, but it also teaches that adolescents can be affected psychologically. Students learn about healthy relationships, abusive relationships, how to avoid sexual advances and more.
- Changing the cultural norm. Teen sex may be considered a cultural norm, but abstinence advocates are battling to change the public's perception. The proponents of abstinence education feel it's their duty to make teen sex a cautionary tale of the past—much like cigarettes today—rather than the accepted cultural norm it currently is.
- Across the board. Supporters believe there's an inconsistency when it comes to health curricula. For smoking, drinking, drugs, and guns, the message is just say no. However, when it comes to sex, teens are encouraged to practice safe sex, rather than no sex at all. Abstinence education proponents seek consistency when it comes to an adolescent's health and well-being.
Abstinence education isn't without perceived flaws. Here are some of the cons:
- Excludes information. Critics of abstinence-only curriculum feel that the program fails to provide enough facts for young people to make an educated decision about losing their virginity. Comprehensive sex ed teaches teens how to protect themselves against disease and unintended pregnancies, by using contraceptives, such as condoms and birth control pills.
- Misconstrued contraception rates. Comprehensive sex ed proponents believe abstinence education focuses only on the failure rates of contraception, even though most "accidents" happen to people who don't always or consistently use their birth control method correctly. These numbers don't paint an accurate picture of birth control—that condoms, the pill and other contraceptives are very successful at preventing STIs and providing protection when used correctly.
- Religion. There's no way around it—beliefs about sex are shaped by religion, and abstinence is a key component to Christianity. Since many supporters of abstinence education are Christian, critics believe teaching chastity in the classroom for moral reasons is a violation of the separation of church and state. It's possible that some religious educators may not teach students about certain topics because it doesn't coincide with their beliefs.
- Unrealistic approach. One of the biggest complaints about abstinence education is that it's unrealistic. According to the National Survey of Family Growth in 2006-2008, 13% of teens had slept with someone by age 15, and most initiate intercourse in their later teen years. By their 19th birthday, 7 in 10 young adults have had sex. Today, many people marry later in life, skip the walk to the altar, or can't marry their partners due to same-sex marriage laws. These statistics make saving oneself until marriage very difficult, if not unrealistic. So is abstinence education a lost cause?
The moral and religious disputes over sex education will likely continue, but no matter your beliefs, all parents and educators agree they want what's best for their children when it comes to sexual health. Over the last decade, teens have been waiting longer to have sex than in previous years, and the use of condoms has increased. Hopefully, with more well-prepared programs focused on giving teens the skills they need to make healthful decisions, we'll continue to see those numbers show positive change. Now that's something everyone can agree on.