I feel like these come out once every couple of months, but another study into the effectiveness of abstinence focused sexual education has hit, and its results are entirely unsurprising.
In true journalistic fashion, the Washington Post article uses the inverted pyramid technique and puts the money statement right at the top.
Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.
I know it’s not any surprise that I’m skeptical of most abstinence programs, but this article highlights one of the reasons for my jaundiced view. Regardless of how you view the morality of sex before marriage, these programs just don’t work. The range of study results runs the tiny gamut between “does nothing to reduce sexual activity” to “does nothing to reduce sexual activity but does reduce practice of safe sex.” Why there is even a debate in any government anywhere about instituting these programs in our public schools is beyond me.
I think what this study makes clear is that there’s a certain percentage of the teenage population that’s going to have sex regardless of what you teach them. Pretending like a promise to your pastor and a piece of jewelry are going to mean anything in the face of, say, a suddenly topless girlfriend is silly. Not everyone has sex before marriage, but study after study shows that abstinence vows have nothing at all to do with it.
I have two close friends who are pastors. Of the three of us, only one was never promiscuous. By promiscuous I mean only one of us had sex only with one partner, and that partner is now their spouse. That would be me, the agnostic who never attended an abstinence program and stopped going to any gathering held in a church by 9th grade. My friends, on the other hand, did a fair amount of fooling around through high school and college despite regular youth group attendance.
What does that mean? Absolutely nothing. It means that some people have a lot of sex and some people don’t. There are a thousand reasons for it, but it’s a fact that no amount of education is likely to change. We’re programmed to have sex. Our bodies and minds are built to seek it out as often as possible. Teenagers have it the worst, as a flood of hormones overwhelms what little ability to reason they have. People talk about teenage sex being some kind of crisis, and the idea is just ludicrous to me. Biologically, that’s when we’re supposed to start having sex. Thousand of years of 14 year-olds getting married should be proof of that.
I think that the delayment of marriage into adulthood is a good thing, and I think trying to keep teenagers from getting someone pregnant or catching the clap is as well. We’re living a lot longer than we did when Romeo and Juliet consummated their teenage marriage, and because of that we’ve extended adolescence out further and further. Creating an environment in which our kids can grow up unburdened with the consequences of a stupid hormonal mistake is exactly what we should be doing.
But we have to do something that works. That’s my biggest problem with abstinence vow programs. Every study finds that “ineffective” is the best case scenario. More likely than not, they’re actually dangerous. They either ignore protection or lie about its effectiveness, so that when their students inevitably end up in bed they’re more likely to get pregnant or sick because of it. We need to accept that by pushing marriage into adulthood, we’ve inserted a decade between our sexual maturity and when we’re supposedly allowed to have sex. Abstinence vow programs ask our kids to hold off biology for years, but refuse to point them towards protection should their resolve fail. This, I’m sorry to say, is just plain wrong.
If I have children, I’ll do what I can to teach them to restrain themselves, but I’ll also teach them to protect themselves. You can recover from having sex with the wrong person. AIDS not so much. If premarital sex will send you to hell, you still might as well wear a condom. No reason to catch that train any earlier than necessary.