Why we need comprehensive sex education

Thursday, 30 April 2009

I'm currently reading The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession With Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti. As a Christian feminist this is a subject which really interests me. I've known about abstinence-only sex education (where teens are taught that sex is only acceptable within marriage and are not taught about contraception or sexual health) for a long time now and had read some pretty shocking stories about the extent to which this 'education' involves lying to young people. In The Purity Myth, Valenti devotes a chapter to these 'education programs', which have received more than $1.3billion in federal funding since 1996. I could barely contain my rage this morning as I read through the chapter and discovered what passes for 'sex education' in many schools in the US - despite the fact that, according to a study in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 82 per cent of Americans support sex ed which teaches about contraception and half of all Americans completely oppose abstinence-only sex ed.

'Facts' teenagers are told

- Birth control can kill you - and abortion is likely to result in suicide

- 'Girls give in to sex not because they want sex - it's like a hug. If they can get that from their fathers, they won't need it from a boyfriend' (Abstinence educator Janice Turner on her 'Power of Purity' classes)

- Pre-marital sex is against the law and young people who engage in it could face a prison sentence

- Condoms have a failure rate of 14 per cent and cannot protect against STIs

- Even touching another person's genitals could cause pregnancy and HIV can be transmitted by skin to skin contact

- Having sex will have dire consequences for society

- 'Major Needs of Women: Financial Support; Major Needs of Men: Domestic Support'

- '(Virginity) the bride price is...an honour to the bride...she is valuable to the groom' (nothing like a good women-as-property analogy)

- 'A young man's natural desire for sex is already strong...Females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasise about sex as well' (because we never thought about sex before that and if we did, something must be wrong)

- If a young woman says she doesn't want to have sex but is wearing tight clothing, her actions are not matching her words (Sounds suspiciously like the excuses used by rape apologists)

- 'Sexual activity...is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects' (program guidelines for teachers)

The Purity Myth talks of teens being sent out of class for asking questions about condoms and STIs, of abstinence-only promoters using sticky tape or half-eaten sweets to illustrate how someone who has sex can easily become 'damaged' or 'dirty'. This is particularly disturbing when you think how many young people are victims of sexual abuse and rape and are now being told that a part of them is missing, that they're used or dirty - and that they will never be able to give the 'special gift of sexuality' to their future husband or wife.

It's evident that abstinence-only sex education is not helpful to young people and that it's part of a social movement rather than borne out of any real desire to help teenagers be responsible and well-informed. You might think after reading this post that I'm anti-abstinence and this is not the case - it's quite obvious to me that young people need to learn about contraception, sexual health and what they can do if they find themselves in various difficult situations. A small percentage of young people do choose to remain abstinent until marriage but the majority do not - and when they've been forbidden even from learning about using condoms, they face huge problems.

A 2004 report from Representative Henry Waxman found that over 80 per cent of federally funded abstinence programs contain false or misleading information about sex and reproductive health ('The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs', United States House of Representatives Committe on Government Reform, Special Investigations Div. 2004). And teenagers who have received abstinence-only sex ed are just as likely to have sex as those who have not. Even when they take a 'virginity pledge'. When they do, they're less likely to use condoms and more likely to engage in oral and anal sex (After The Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges, Journal of Adolescent Health 36, no 4 2005).

Young people deserve better.

Blog Design by Nudge Media Design | Powered by Blogger