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Want Fewer Teen Pregnancies?

December 7, 2009
by Michael Castleman

Then abolish sex education in schools and help parents become sex educators.

Everyone wants fewer teen pregnancies and fewer cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The question is: How do we get there?

Conservatives demand that school sex education programs be limited to promotion of abstinence until marriage. Liberals insist on lessons about all the contraceptives, and STD prevention, which means promotion of condoms. The two sides appear to be passionately antagonistic. But that’s an illusion. Actually, they share remarkably similar core values. And neither of their approaches has been shown to reduce teen sex, pregnancies, or STDs.

Meanwhile, a large body of research reveals the real key to reducing teen sexual irresponsibility: parents’ willingness to discuss their sexual values with their kids. If schools jettisoned sex education classes and instead sponsored seminars to help parents become better sex educators at home, it’s clear that teen pregnancies and STDs would decline. Parents also might encourage teen sexual responsibility based on a concept foreign to both liberals and conservatives, the simple fact that safe sex is better sex.

Surprise: Teens are sexually conservative

Both liberals and conservatives rail about “the teen sex crisis.” Hence the political tug-of-war over sex education in schools. If there ever was a teen sex crisis, it has abated. Over the past 15 years, surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that teens have become considerably more conservative and responsible. From 1991 to 2003:

  • Teens reporting intercourse dropped from 54 percent to 47 percent.
  • Among sexually active teens, condom use jumped from 46 percent to 63 percent.
  • Births to teens fell 33 percent.
  • Teen diagnoses of the most prevalent STD, chlamydia, have remained roughly the same for the past 10 years.

Who deserves credit?

Conservatives insist the decline in teen sex proves that abstinence education is paying off. They are mistaken. The abstinence push began in 1998. But according to the CDC, teen STD (chlamydia) rates have not changed significantly in ten years. The teen birth rate started falling seven years earlier. Abstinence-only sex ed is most deeply entrenched in the South, and notably less popular in the rest of the country. Guess where teens are most likely to become pregnant—in the South. According to the CDC, teen birth rates in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina are two to three times those in Vermont, New York, and Minnesota. Abstinence programs ask teens to vow virginity until marriage. But a CDC study shows that only 12 percent of those who take virginity vows keep them. In other words, abstinence education has an 88 percent failure rate. Finally, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, analyzed 26 studies of efforts to reduce teen pregnancy. Abstinence-only programs did not delay first intercourse. In fact, pregnancies often increased.

I hate to say it, but liberal sex education fares no better. Before I became a journalist, I worked in family planning. I talked up contraceptives and STD prevention in many middle schools and high schools. I thought I got through to the students. I was mistaken. The McMaster analysis included many liberal programs. They, too, had no impact: no delay of intercourse, no increased use of contraceptives, and no fewer pregnancies.

“Dangers-of-sex” education

Where I live, San Francisco, the liberal sex education program includes STD prevention and all the contraceptives. Nonetheless, my son came home and announced that only one contraceptive is 100 percent effective—abstinence.

Nonsense. Another method is 100 percent effective—not to mention, popular, enjoyable, and free. It’s non-intercourse lovemaking, genital massage, and oral sex. But even the most liberal programs never mention it. To do so would acknowledge sexual pleasure, and negate the core value that unites liberals and conservatives more than anything divides them, namely, that for teens, sex is dangerous. Forget “sex education.” What schools provide is “dangers-of-sex” education.

The answer: Parents talking about sex

If neither conservatives nor liberals deserve credit for the 15-year decline in teen sex, who does? Parents. They have been discussing sex with their children—and getting through to them.

Now I happen to be the father of two teens, both great kids, but do they listen to me? Rarely. As a result, it’s been hard for me to believe that parents actually get through to kids about sex.

Parents get through. A great deal of research consistently shows that when parents discuss sex, teens delay it, and, when teens become sexual, they’re much more likely to use condoms. The most compelling evidence comes from a CDC survey. Compared with teens whose mothers did not discuss condoms, those whose moms did were three times more likely to use condoms during their first sexual experience and those who did were 20 times more likely to use them subsequently.

Sex educators moan that parents are uncomfortable discussing sex, refuse to do so, and are often misinformed. Hence sex education in schools. I contend that to be effective sex educators, parents need not be comfortable, eloquent, or erudite. All they have to do is try.

Parents are trying—even if they don’t want to. AIDS forced it on them. AIDS was identified in 1981 but wasn’t widely perceived as a threat to heterosexuals until about a decade later—until the early 1990s, when the teen sex rate began its steady decline and teen condom use began increasing.

Welcome to Sex Ed class—for parents

School sex education programs have no impact on teens. In other words, they’re a waste of money. They should be abolished. Instead, schools should invest their sex education dollars in another group. They should offer classes to parents to help them discuss sex with their children. Conservatives argue that sex education belongs in the home because it involves values, something parents should teach. They’re right—not just because parents control the message but because home-based sex education actually works.

Could parent-empowerment classes work? The research is scant, but Penn State researchers offered mothers of teens two brief classes on discussing sexual issues. Afterward, their children said it was easier to talk about sex with their moms, and the mothers and teens spent more time discussing sexual issues.

If conservative parents want to demand abstinence until marriage, that’s their prerogative. But my wife and I have taken a different tack with our kids. We promote consent, condoms, lubrication, and sexual pleasure.

Consent. No coercion ever. If you feel coerced, do whatever is necessary to extricate yourself from the situation. We’ll help if it’s at all possible.

Condoms. When used carefully, condoms virtually eliminate pregnancy and STD risk. Conservatives overestimate condom failure rates. As contraceptives, condoms are 85 to 98 percent effective. This does not mean 2 to 15 pregnancies per 100 acts of condom-covered intercourse. It means that if 100 couples use condoms exclusively for a year, 2 to 15 can expect an accidental pregnancy. That’s pretty effective. The fact is, when condoms are used carefully, they’re almost as effective as the Pill. Overall, they’re better than the Pill because they also prevent STDs, including AIDS.

Lubrication. Vaginal lubrication reduces the risk of condom breakage. In addition, adequate lubrication increases comfort during intercourse. Many women don’t produce much natural lubrication, especially teenage girls anxious about sex. Commercial lubricants are inexpensive, take only a few seconds to apply, and greatly enhance sexual comfort. When our son became sexually active, we gave him and his girlfriend a vial of lubricant. They thanked us.

Sexual pleasure. The most enjoyable sex is based not on lust but on trust and relaxation. Who can trust a lover who ignores the risks of pregnancy and STDs? Safe sex is more than public health hype. It’s crucial to the deep relaxation necessary to give and receive sexual pleasure.

This country sells everything with sex. Why not use sexual pleasure to sell sexual responsibility? It’s one of the few places where a “sex sell” is actually appropriate.

My wife and I have told our two teens: When you feel ready for partner sex, embrace sexual responsibility, because it leads to better sex. A radical notion, perhaps. But I believe our approach might further reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. It might also help teens grow up to be something they all truly want to be—good lovers.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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