Archive for January 3rd, 2009

The Thinker

If you love your kids, give them a real sex education

Four years ago, I wrote about the folly of teaching substandard or abstinence-only sex education. Now we have proof, or at least a darn convincing clinical study.

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge,” but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

For most teenagers taking a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage is an exercise in satisfying their parents’ anxieties rather than a sincere conviction. It is hard to know just how sincere teenagers were when they took the pledge. In many cases, they make pledges like this long before they have the maturity to do so. Whether sincere or not, the lure of Mother Nature seems to trump Mom and Dad’s counsel. All that abstinence sex education, sermons in church and lectures from Mom and Dad seem to have no effect on whether and when you decide to have premarital sex. The study started tracking teenagers who took the pledge in 1995. Curiously:

By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises …

Apparently, if you take the virginity pledge and become sexually active, you are also more reticent to take precautions. Did taking the pledge at least delay the onset of sexual activity? Apparently not:

… and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

So there was no benefit for taking an abstinence pledge except falsely assuaging Mom and Dad’s anxieties. However, by taking the abstinence pledge when your child does decide to have sex they are more likely to get pregnant or pick up a disease. They could even pick up AIDS, which is currently incurable and will eventually kill them. This could be the price you and your child pay for trying to assuage your anxieties about premarital sex.

How about trying something different? How about insisting that your children get a comprehensive sexual education rather than one that leaves them woefully ignorant on vital information they need to know? If you are pro-abstinence, it is perfectly correct to point out that, unless your child is raped, it is the only way to guarantee they will not become a parent or pick up a social disease. Of course, abstaining until marriage is no guarantee that they will never pick up a social disease. They may marry a philanderer for a spouse. I know you think your wonderful son or daughter would never do this, but just in case they do, wouldn’t you want your son or daughter to at least be aware of what might await them?

Ignorance is always stupid. To some extent, when it comes to sex education the inclination toward ignorance is understandable, since it is typically an uncomfortable topic for both parent and child. Yet, this inclination must be resisted. If you love your son or daughter you have to make sure they have a comprehensive sex education and that they are prepared to handle the emotional and physical consequences of their choice. For it will be their choice. Even if they do “just say no”, this does not really help them resolve the difficult transition from sexually inactive child to sexually active adult. You can preach as much virtue as you want, but statistically by the time your son or daughter is 21 they will have had on average three sexual partners. Since people are marrying at later ages, they are almost certain to have premarital sex. It is better to get them prepared for that reality.

You can do it by insisting that your school system provide complete and unbiased sex education and by making sure your child takes the course. Abstinence can certainly be mentioned, but it needs to point out that for most teenagers it will be ineffective. Mother Nature fills them with hormones and sexual curiosity. The need to be sexually active is not unlike a hatchling needing to learn how to fly. It is innate and entirely natural. Since most of our precious children are going to be sexually active before marriage, if you really love your children, you must arm them with the information needed to succeed in this transition.

If your school district, like most of them, gives sex education short shrift, there are alternatives. You likely are not a Unitarian Universalist, but you can inquire with a local church to find out when their program, Our Whole Lives, will next be taught. It is one of the few programs out there that is unbiased and covers not only the physical aspects of sexuality but the emotional aspects too. Most UU churches do not require you or your child become a member of the church to take the course.

There is also a lot of online information, with the most reputable information on the Planned Parenthood or the SIECUS web sites. In my humble opinion, these are a poor substitute for classroom teaching but it is better than nothing. If your children are not too squeamish, they probably would be helped hearing your experiences, how you dealt with them and how you felt about each sexual relationship.

Your child must absolutely know how to protect themselves from premature parenthood and social diseases. You must step up to the plate. You could bring home a sample of over the counter birth control products. You can show your son or daughter what a condom looks like and feels like and how it is used, using your fingers as an example.

If you have an excellent relationship with your child, they may even feel free enough to come to you when they feel close to being sexually active. If you have a daughter, you can take her to a gynecologist. Planned Parenthood clinics are in most communities of a certain size. You could show them where the local clinic is and make sure they know that they can get birth control products and STD information confidentially, cheaply and safely.

You may be aghast at some of my suggestions. Let me assure you though that after the initial shock wears off, your child will have a higher opinion of you. Many parents, including mine, skipped most of these steps. I like many ignorant young adults made many preventable mistakes in my journey toward being a sexually active adult. Providing comprehensive tools and information for your children to make the choices they will have to make is a sign of deep love. Your children deserve nothing less.

 

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