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Where Do Kids Learn About Sex?

Birds, Bees, and Teens

One Million Teen Pregnancies Each Year continued...


The answer depends on whom you ask. Groups promoting abstinence until marriage say their message is finally getting through, and statistics do suggest fewer teens are having sex than a decade ago. High-profile celebrities who have gone public with their virginity, such as pop singer Jessica Simpson and NBA star A.C. Green, have helped to give the abstinence movement a certain cachet among the young.


"I go to a private school, and the majority of my peers are abstinent," 18-year-old high school junior Nick Reid tells WebMD. "I don't know if you can say that at most public schools, but that may be a gross generalization." Reid, who lives in Nashville, serves on the NCPTP's youth leadership team.


A report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the nation's largest nonprofit organization studying reproductive health, suggests three-fourths of the recent decline in pregnancies among teens is due to better contraceptive use and only one-fourth is due to abstinence.


"If people are suggesting that abstinence is the primary reason for the decline in pregnancy rates, that is just not accurate," says Cynthia Dailard, senior policy analyst with the institute. "We see politicians, including the president, pushing abstinence-only education and calling for teens to abstain from sex. But research shows that comprehensive methods of sexual education that discuss methods of contraception, while encouraging teenagers to delay sexual activity, are most effective."

Abstinence vs. Contraception

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush repeatedly expressed his support for abstinence-only school-based programs, saying a top administration priority would be to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal." In a speech delivered in July 1999, candidate Bush said, "It seems like to me the contraceptive message sends a contradictory message. It tends to undermine the message of abstinence."


The comments appear to contradict the findings of the nation's top public and private health organizations. A National Institutes of Health report, published in 1997, called sexual abstinence a desirable objective, but added that, "programs must include instruction in safer sex behavior, including condom use." The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the issue in a report published early in 2001, noting that "all adolescents should be counseled about the correct and consistent use of latex condoms to reduce the risk of infection."


And a newly released NCPTP study evaluating sex education programs found that education efforts that discuss contraception use do not hasten the onset of sex, increase the frequency of sex, nor increase the number of sexual partners among teens. Likewise, making condoms and other contraceptives available in schools does not hasten or increase sexual activity, the report concluded.


A survey of parents, conducted last year by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, found that four out of five agreed that information about contraceptives should be included in school-based sex education programs. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy survey found that more than 90% of adults and teens said a strong abstinence message is important, but 69% of adults and 67% of teens said it was also important to teach contraception.

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