Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sex scandal

Nick Kristof offers an excellent op-ed today on the sex scandal in the Bush White House. Didn't know there was one? There is. It's called abstinence only education. And while the National Writing Project and scores of other worthy programs got the budget axe last week, abstinence only programs will receive additional funding.

According to Kristof:

In the old days, social conservatives simply fought any mention of sex. In 1906, The Ladies' Home Journal published articles about venereal disease - and 75,000 readers canceled their subscriptions. Congress banned the mailing of family planning information, and Margaret Sanger was jailed in 1916 for selling a birth control pamphlet to an undercover policewoman.

But silence about sex only nurtured venereal diseases (one New York doctor, probably exaggerating, claimed in 1904 that 60 percent of American men had syphilis or gonorrhea), so sex education gradually gained ground. Then social conservatives had a brilliant idea: instead of fighting sex ed directly, they campaigned for abstinence-only programs that eviscerated any discussion of contraception.

That shrewd approach succeeded. In 1988, a survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that only 2 percent of sex-ed teachers used an abstinence-only approach. Now, the institute says, a quarter of them do.

Other developed countries focus much more on contraception. The upshot is that while teenagers in the U.S. have about as much sexual activity as teenagers in Canada or Europe, Americans girls are four times as likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as French girls to have a baby, and more than seven times as likely as Dutch girls to have an abortion. Young Americans are five times as likely to have H.I.V. as young Germans, and teenagers' gonorrhea rate is 70 times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands or France.

Some studies have claimed that abstinence-only programs work, but researchers criticize the studies for being riddled with flaws. A National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy task force examined the issue and concluded: "There do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy."

Worse, there's some evidence that abstinence-only programs lead to increases in unprotected sex.

Perhaps the most careful study of the issue involved 12,000 young people. It found that those taking virginity pledges had sex 18 months later, on average, than those who had not taken the pledge. But even 88 percent of the pledgers had sex before marriage.

More troubling, the pledgers were much less likely to use contraception when they did have sex - only 40 percent of the males used condoms, compared with 59 percent of those who did not take the pledge.

In contrast, there's plenty of evidence that abstinence-plus programs - which encourage abstinence but also teach contraception - delay sex and increase the use of contraception. So, at a time when we're cutting school and health programs, why should we pour additional tax money into abstinence-only initiatives, which are likely to lead to more pregnancies, more abortions and more kids with AIDS? Now, that's a scandal.

Indeed it is. What's even more of a scandal is this ridiculous response from the Abstinence Clearinghouse. They claim that Kristof is encouraging kids to have sex. Did they read the article? He, like most reasonable people, advocates an approach called abstinence-plus. Teach abstinence first, but teach students about contraception and STD prevention, too. Hell, Kristof even plugged their website in his op-ed as a place to get T-shirts and boxer shorts promoting abstinence. I guess they have a funny way of saying thank you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an aside, but why do they keep trying to kill off the National Writing project? It also was threatened with the ax last year.

It is one of the best programs I ever went through as a teacher, and I think most educators would agree that it improved their teaching of writing substantially.

8:59 PM  

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