One in five teens report having sex before they turn 15.
In fact, nearly half of American teens ages 15 to 18 are sexually active, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in its 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey — and that number has been hovering around the 50 percent mark since at least 1991 when the biennial survey began.
But intercourse isn’t the only kind of sex kids are having. By the age of 18, 80 percent of males and 59 percent of females have masturbated; 75 percent have engaged in “heavy petting;” about 55 percent have had oral sex; and by age 19, 11 percent of have had anal sex.
It is against this backdrop that a fierce battle is being waged regarding how best to educate our nation’s children about sex.
On one side, there are proponents of “abstinence-only” education that does not include information about contraception or disease prevention. This side is currently being led by President Bush as well as citizens like Cindy Wright of Lubbock, Texas, who contend, "The Bible says you are supposed to get married before you consummate a relationship — I don't think teaching anything other than abstinence is right.”
On the other side, are those who favor a more comprehensive approach which includes information about contraception and disease prevention. This side is made up of every prominent American health organization, including the American Medical Association, as well as over 90 percent of American parents.
Nevertheless, by all accounts, the abstinence-only side is winning.
Federally funded abstinence-only programs have been around since President Clinton, who amidst a swirl of criticism from his own party, placed his signature on the Republican Congress’ 1996 welfare reform bill. Though Clinton himself admitted the bill was "far from perfect," he offered, "We can change what is wrong. We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right." (Among the law's most controversial features were several provisions promoting abstinence-only education.)
In the meantime, under President Bush, funding for abstinence-only programs has skyrocketed — going from $80 million annually by the last budget of the Clinton administration, to $170 million in 2005. "When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral," Bush has explained.
By contrast, no federal funds are dedicated to supporting programs that teach comprehensive sex education. In fact, to receive federal funds for sex education programs, grantees must offer curricula that have as their "exclusive purpose" teaching the benefits of abstinence.
Even more troubling, a recent federal survey lambasted the erroneous information being propagated by several abstinence-only programs. One such claim, shamefully unrefuted by Senate majority leader (and medical doctor) Bill Frist (R-TN) on ABC’s "This Week," stated that HIV can be transmitted via sweat and tears. Another assertion was that condoms fail one in seven times — a statistic that is accurate only if people are counted who use condoms incorrectly or forget to use them at all.
So is the “just say no” approach working? As abstinence-only programs have become more common, rates of teenage pregnancy have indeed dropped — by one-third for girls ages 15-19 from 1991 through 2003. In addition, a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded that girls who took the pledge were 12 times more likely to forgo premarital sex.
But the big picture contains several caveats. Two prominent researchers of adolescent sexuality, Peter Bearman of Columbia and Hannah Brueckner of Yale found that while teenagers who took virginity pledges as part of abstinence-only programs were more likely to delay sexual activity (by about 18 months), they were just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases — and tended not to use contraceptives once they did become sexually active. Moreover, virginity pledgers are five times more likely to have oral or anal sex in the belief that such activities do not violate their pledges.
Ultimately, more data is needed in order to determine what, if any, positive effect abstinence-only programs have had. Unfortunately, many abstinence-only proponents are opposed to the kinds of surveys researchers rely on to gather such data because they include specific questions about sex. “Questions plant ideas,” warned Peter Brandt of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. "Individuals involved with condom programs shouldn't have a role in evaluating abstinence programs," he argues. "And who cares what those people think, anyway?"
Interestingly, California (one of three states that refuse to accept federal sex-education funds and opt instead to provide a more comprehensive sex education) saw its teen pregnancy rate drop 40 percent between 1992 and 2000, well ahead of the national average during that period of 24 percent. And the Netherlands, which has long had a comprehensive sex education curricula has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world — just 8.1 per 1000 for girls ages 15-19.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world at 93 per 1000 — at least twice that of Canada, England, France, and Sweden, and 10 times that of the Netherlands. “As a direct result, abortion rates are twice or three times as high as European countries,” said Sharon L. Camp, president of the Guttmacher Institute, a non-partisan research organization. Moreover, one of every two young Americans will get a sexually transmitted disease by age 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So what’s the bottom line? Abstinence-only education is short-sighted, dangerous, and against the will of both health professionals and parents. In a country where 93 percent of men and 79 percent of women report having sexual intercourse prior to marriage, a federal policy that seeks to prevent its citizenry from obtaining the information it needs to protect itself is unconscionable. As Isabel Sawhill wrote for Brookings Institution, “Family and community values, not a federal mandate, should prevail, especially in an area as sensitive as this one.”
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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.