Don't abstain from common sense sex ed | Amy Johnson

Somewhere between “Just don’t do it” and a Brazilian carnival where 55 million condoms will be handed out, I know there is a range of common sense sexuality education for American youth.

Recently, a study showing positive results from an abstinence-only education program has prompted abstinence-only advocates to call for revisiting federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Meanwhile, $110 million of federal money is up for grabs for programs that can prove they help prevent teen pregnancy (www.thenationalcampaign.org).

With stakes this high, here’s what the discerning spender of federal dollars needs to know about the new abstinence-only study.

With any research, it’s important to know who did it and how was it done. This study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and used sound methodology. The next thing to know is that the study involved 662 sixth- and seventh-grade students in Philadelphia who were randomly given either 1) abstinence-only education; 2) safe sex education; 3) both abstinence and safe sex education; or 4) healthy lifestyles education (the control group).

The results of the study showed that students who received abstinence-only education had a lower percentage of students who were sexually active two years later than any of the other groups.

What is noteworthy about this abstinence-only program is how it differs significantly from those previously funded with tax dollars under the Bush administration.

In the abstinence-only group in the Philadelphia study, condoms were discussed and effectiveness accurately reported, whereas under the federally funded abstinence-only programs of the past two decades, discussion of contraception was prohibited.

In abstinence-only-until-marriage programs previously funded with federal dollars, if condoms were discussed in relationship to disease prevention, facilitators were required to criticize their effectiveness and focus on failure rates.

In the new study, scare tactics were not used, and the program purposefully did not contain inaccurate information or portray sex in a negative light (for examples of previously federally funded programs where this was the case, see www.justsaydontknow.org).

If you think I’m exaggerating about the inaccurate information and scare tactics, consider this: In 2007, Washington state became one of several states to say “no thanks” to federal dollars for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — and passed its own law. The Healthy Youth Act requires that if sexuality education is taught by schools in our state, it must be medically and scientifically accurate, developmentally appropriate and inclusive. Yes, you heard correctly. It took special state legislation and a willingness to say “no” to millions of federal dollars to make sure that information provided to our children in Washington schools regarding sexuality is medically and scientifically accurate. And because it is an unfunded mandate, many districts, Federal Way included, are still working to come completely into compliance with this law.

About a third of the students who had this abstinence-only program in Philadelphia were sexually active two years later, which begs the question: Were they practicing safer sex? Did they know how? Also, according to Elizabeth Schroeder of Rutgers University, "nearly a quarter of these sixth- and seventh- graders had already had sex by the time they became a part of (the Philadelphia) study."

Bottom line? There is no one-size-fits-all sexuality education program. Effectiveness depends on the quality of the program in addition to who is being served. What works for students who live in inner-city environments may not have the same effectiveness for youth in upper-middle class suburbs. What succeeds for one culture or religion may not see the same success rates in another. What helps students with parents who discuss this topic regularly may not be as helpful for those who live with drug-addicted parents or parents who won’t talk about it.

What is certain is this: Doing nothing doesn’t work. If we really want to see teen pregnancy and disease rates go down, we need to stop abstaining from the work of providing a broad range of programs to reach as many youth as possible.

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