Feb. 21, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Assembled in the auditorium of Mackenzie Junior High School in Lubbock, Texas, 15-year-old John Karras -- and the other students who returned a parental permission slip -- sat quietly while a guest speaker discussed S-E-X. "The speaker talked about some things that your parents and teachers wouldn't be comfortable talking about," says Karras. The virtues of abstinence were discussed. Contraception, on the other hand, was not -- except in passing, according to Karras. The group was told: "Condoms can't stop AIDS all the time and won't prevent pregnancy all the time," recalls Karras. The bottom line message: Sex is good, but only if you're married.
"Abstinence Only" Vs. Contraception Information
This take on sex education is known among educators as the "abstinence-only approach," in which totally refraining from sex outside of marriage (including masturbation) is generally the only option presented to students. The "abstinence-only" message, in which contraception information is either prohibited or limited to a mention of its ineffectiveness, is used by 34% of schools that have a district-wide policyto teach sex education, according to a study conducted by The Alan Guttmacher Institute published in the November/December 1999 issue of Family Planning Perspectives. Obviously this message is embraced -- although surely not solely or entirely -- by conservative and religious groups. Critics say that such edited presentations rob teens of critical information and ignore the realities of teen sexual behavior.
The majority of U.S. schools (66%) provide information about contraception, such as condoms and birth control pills, as well as about other practices that fall in the safer-sex category. However, this does not mean that the benefits of abstinence are not stressed in these programs or that they take a backseat. On the contrary, the majority of schools that include contraception information in their sex-ed curricula promote abstinence as "the preferred option," the Guttmacher Institute reports. And according to surveys reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 82% of parents who have children 18 and younger support schools that teach this "comprehensive" approach (the term used by educators and legislators).
The Risks Teens Face
The supporters of abstinence argue that it is the only infallible way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. But, by definition, abstinence works only when teens are sexually inactive -- without exception. Unfortunately, statistics indicate that one-fourth of 15-year-olds have had sexual intercourse at least once, and more than half of 17-year-olds are sexually active, according to the Institute.
The risks are even more startling: A sexually active teenage girl who has sex without contraception has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year, according to the Institute. Just as disturbing is that in a single act of vaginal intercourse with an infected male partner, a female teenager has a 30% risk of contracting genital herpes, a 50% chance of contracting gonorrhea, and a 1 in 100 chance of acquiring HIV.
Which Approach Is Best?
To advocates of the abstinence-only approach, these disturbing statistics make it abundantly clear that a simple message of "no sex outside of marriage" for teens is the only appropriate one for educators to take. "The responsibility of a public institution serving kids is risk avoidance, not harm reduction," says Peter Brandt, President of the National Coalition for Abstinence Education in Colorado Springs and the parent of twotwenty-somethings. "Schools teach 'no smoking' and 'no drinking.' They don't say 'if you smoke, use a filter' or 'if you drink and drive, wear your safety belt.' Why should sex be treated differently?"
To advocates of an approach that includes contraception information, the answer to this question is easy. "Unlike smoking, which is always bad for you, sexual behavior is a basic human need which can be a positive experience -- although it requires maturity and responsibility," says Michael McGee, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City and the father of two teenagers. When it comes to prohibiting or limiting information about contraception, McGee says,"pregnancy and STDs are not something teens should be ignorant about preventing. I think it is morally irresponsible to deprive young people of information that can save their lives."