Thou Shalt Not

Name: Lynn
Gender: Female
Age: 36
Location: Toronto
I’m a mother of three great kids. My oldest, who is in middle school, went to camp for the first time this past summer. A local church group sponsors the camp every year. When my husband and I asked him about his time away from home, he said rather noncommittally; “It was ok.” He seemed to like it well enough, but you know how uncommunicative kids can be at that stage.
Anyhow, yesterday I was packing away some summer stuff for the winter and discovered a pamphlet in my son’s backpack that he used at camp. It was for an “Abstinence Only” program. It was full of the most dreadful sex-negative fear and shame. It was awful. We are not raising our kids like that; my husband and I were appalled.
Now we’re wondering if this is why our son was so unenthusiastic about his camp experience. Do you think we should quiz him on this?
What gives with this kind of indoctrination anyway? I thought that those “Abstinence Only” programs had been discredited.

So wait; are you sayin’ that you think just because a social engineering strategy, like abstinence-only, has been debunked that it wouldn’t still be employed by certain factions of our culture? Oh hun, I think you oughta rethink that supposition right away, don’t cha know.abstinence_only-1

I mean, come on! There are loads of outdated and discredited philosophies still being promulgated as a means to ensnare the uninformed and gullible. I don’t know about ya’ll up there in Canadaville, but here in Amercanski land we have a whole segment of our population who believes that creationism as a viable explanation for the universe. In fact, one or another of these idiots runs for national office, even for President of these here United States, as a Republican in every election cycle.

So, as you can see, there’s not necessarily a connection between what has been discredited and what is still wildly popular in some segments of our population.

Way back in the spring of 2007, a long-awaited congressionally funded national study concluded that abstinence-only sex education does not keep teenagers from having sex. Nor does it increase the likelihood that, if they do have sex, they will use a condom.

Authorized by Congress in 1997, the study followed 2000 children from elementary and middle school into high school. The children lived in four communities — two urban, two rural. All of the children received the family life services available in their community; in addition, slightly more than half of them also received abstinence-only education.

By the end of the study, when the average child was just shy of 17, half of both groups had remained abstinent. The sexually active teenagers had sex the first time at about age 15. Less than a quarter of them, in both groups, reported using a condom every time they had sex. More than a third of both groups had two or more partners.

So if abstinence-only programs don’t work, at least the way they are supposed to; why do we still have them? Ahhh, good question. We still have them because for a large segment of the population, especially those who are makin’ all them babies, it’s easier to just tell their kids “NO” than to step up to the plate and educate their kids about sex in a wholesome and holistic way.

Bennett editorial cartoonAnother problem is that the word abstinence often means something quite different to kids than it does to adults. That’s one reason why abstinence-only programs do not have strong effects in preventing teenage sexual activity. At least that’s what a University of Washington study found.

The researchers found that interventions that encourage abstinence treat abstinence and sexual activity as opposites. Teenagers, on the other hand, don’t consider them to be mutually exclusive concepts. Like in the congressionally sponsored study, the UW researchers found abstinence-only programs are less likely to work than more comprehensive sex-education programs because they are not speaking the same language as adolescents.

The study also showed that attitudes and intentions about sex were more powerful than attitudes and intentions about being abstinent. No surprise there, I suppose.

Again, I don’t know how things are there in Canada, but down here there is no federal funding for comprehensive sex-education. But there’s a shit-load of funding for abstinence-only programs. Funding mushroomed from $9 million in1997 to $176 million in 2007. Leave it to congress to dump loads of money into a program that doesn’t work. But such is the power of the conservative religious lobby. They are the people who back these programs.

This wouldn’t be such a big issue if it didn’t hold such dire consequences. For example, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate among all first-world nations. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases in this country are also astronomical. If we want to keep our young people safe from the negative aspects of casual sex, abstinence-only programs are not the way to go.abstinence

However, more comprehensive programs that include abstinence as one choice are much more likely to have a more productive outcome. Besides, is it ever a good idea to try and motivate people with fear and shame? I don’t think so.

Since abstinence-only programs often only look at the negatives of sex, it doesn’t really empower a young person to take responsibility for his/her behaviors. This is particularly thorny for young women who often bear the brunt the peer pressures to be sexual. And they have way more at stake in terms of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

When kids aren’t expected to take responsibility for their behaviors, especially in terms of sexuality, it cripples their ability to make good life-affirming choices. Abstinence-only programs disqualify all sexual options, even the relatively innocuous behaviors like mutual masturbation and oral sex. So if all sexual options are equally out of bounds, there’s no way for the average kid to distinguish between harmless and risky behaviors. And this is what leads to the high rate of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.

If we want our kids to grow up with healthy and integrated attitudes about sex, ones that will lead to more loving and fulfilling sexual relationships later in life, we ought teach from a more sex-positive theory.

Back to the other question you raise; the one about quizzing your son about his camp experience. I think that would be great. It would let him know that you care, that you don’t support this fear and shame-based approach to human sexuality and that he doesn’t have to embrace it either.

Good Luck

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