Saturday, August 18, 2007

Stop that Sex!: The Puritans Waste More Money

From the Chicago Tribune:

Congress has spent $1.5 billion in the last 10 years on programs that deliver a single message: Abstain from sex until you marry. That's a good message for young people about how to stay healthy and safe. Taken alone, though, it doesn't appear to be a terribly effective message.

A recent study of 2,000 children who were tracked over 10 years found no evidence that abstinence-only programs delayed the start of sexual activity by teens. The study found that such programs didn't increase condom use by teens who do have sex. The study was commissioned by the federal government and conducted by the non-partisan firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

Sexual activity by teens declined through the 1990s but has essentially been level since 2001, roughly tracking the time Congress has put big money into abstinence education. That doesn't argue for the effectiveness of the programs.

Yet the U.S. House recently approved $204 million for abstinence education, a $28 million increase over current spending. Democratic leaders in the House say they agreed to the increase to draw Republican votes to a health and education spending bill.

The view here has been that the federal experiment in funding abstinence programs should be given a chance to see if it works. It has had the chance, and the evidence isn't encouraging. If Congress is going to put money into sex education in schools, it ought to promote broader programs that stress abstinence, but also include information on the correct use of contraception and the treatment and testing of sexually transmitted diseases.

Under federal law, abstinence-only programs cannot include discussion about contraception, except to discuss its failure rates. An increasing number of states -- 11 so far -- have rejected the federal money.

I've been following the abstinence debate for a few years now. The Mathematica study cited here has done the most rigorous research to date on this question, and it's good research, looking at the subject over a range of years to see how instruction given in elementary and middle school affect "sexual debut" and other sexual behaviors in the teen years.

Lots of conservatives keep hanging on, though, because they want it to be true: just tells kids how really, really dangerous sex is, and they'll wait until they get married to have it.*

Abstinence-until-marriage is a fairly freaky concept, when you think about it. If young people adopted it as a credo in any number, we'd have 17- and 18-year-olds marrying in order to have sex, the way many teenagers did, say, in the '50s. (My own parents, for example.) And when people do that, you not only get immature, ill-considered marriages (hardly good for society), but you get a social ethos that has elevated sex beyond its true importance, with all the inevitable skewing effects that will follow.

(To see what puritanical sexual policies can do to a society, check out our good friend and ally Saudi Arabia.)

I'm all for encouraging abstinence til maturity. Talk to teenagers, and you'll find how clear-thinking many of them their readiness for sex. But come on. Very few of us were "abstinent until marriage," and our kids won't be, either. If we feel uncomfortable with the hypersexualized society we're raising our kids in, let's change it. Please.

But it's our own immaturity that has us falling back on religious and paternalistic sensibilities that only waste our money and time. Religious and social conservatives need to pick up these particular marbles and go home.


*This is what abstinence-until-marriage programs teach. "E" wins some sort of award for hypocritical, fear-mongering psycho-nonsense.

Table 1. A-H Definition of Abstinence Education for Title V, Section 510 Programs
A Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
B Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
C Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
D Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity
E Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
F Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
G Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
H Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity


CRDM said...

It is true that sexual activity outside the context of marriage can have harmful psychological and physical effects upon some individuals. This is one of several messages that young people should hear regarding sex. In fact, this same message is more or less applicable to adults I've known.

Anonymous said...

huh?? are you kidding?

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