Sex education is key to sexual responsibility

    The New York Times delivered heartening news to my inbox over Christmas break: Teen birthrate and abortion numbers are down, implying that fewer girls and young women are getting pregnant. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that the pregnancy rate for girls 15 to 19 years old dropped from 11.5 per 1,000 in 1991 to 8.5 in 1999.

    I take a special interest in such figures ‹ maybe because I work in secondary education and am invested in the well-being of American high schoolers, maybe because my mother was just 19 when she became pregnant with me, or maybe because sex and family have long been interests of mine. In any case, I can’t help but cheer what seems to be increasing sexual responsibility among the nation’s youth.

    Naturally, both sides of the sex education debate are claiming victory ‹ and credit ‹ in response to Guttmacher and the Centers for Disease Control numbers. Abstinence-only sex education advocates ‹ those like President Bush, who hope to prepare American children for adulthood with only platitudes about the sanctity of marriage and notoriously sketchy figures about the failure rate of condoms ‹ point to indications that teens are, in fact, having less sex. A CDC survey shows that while 51 percent of high school girls and 57 percent of high school boys reported having had sex in 1991, in 2001 the respective numbers were 43 percent and 48 percent. Couple this with last decade’s ascendant abstinence-only sex education programs and virginity-pledge campaigns, and social conservatives have plenty to be happy about.

    So do comprehensive sex education advocates like me. The aforementioned CDC survey also reported that while fewer than half of sexually active high school students reported using condoms in 1991, by 2001 the figure was up to 57 percent ‹ still not nearly high enough, but a promising increase. Two-thirds of public school sex education programs teach about condom usage, and many UCSD students may remember the cheerful educator who commandeered their classroom one day armed with statistics and suggestive vegetables. Teens’ awareness of safer sex has also benefited from pop cultural exposure: condom commercials, radio programs like “”Loveline”” and even rap lyrics from the likes of Snoop and Ludacris promote protection.

    A combination of both approaches ‹ comprehensive and abstinence-only ‹ is probably behind the Guttmacher and CDC numbers. For whatever reason, kids are having less sex, and when they do have it, it’s smarter and safer, with fewer potentially disastrous consequences (like babies).

    That’s great, but it doesn’t allay my fear of abstinence-only sex ed, and of the Times report that instead of distributing condoms, as comprehensive sex-ed workshop leaders often do, one chastity-belt-hawker “”urged any students who had condoms to drop them off in a box near the counselor’s office.”” It’s admirable to encourage teens to save sex for the ideally nurturing, safe and satisfying confines of marriage, but to promote the disposal of condoms is downright idiotic. In such cases, it becomes clear that much of abstinence-only sex ed goes beyond the legitimate secular desire to reduce the teen birthrate, and crosses into the slantwise promotion of the religious conviction that only sex between married people is acceptable.

    But maybe I’m hopelessly biased. I consider myself a comprehensive sex ed success story. As a fifth-grader, I volunteered at my city’s AIDS Task Force, stuffing envelopes with safer-sex brochures and handing out condoms at drag queen softball games. My elementary, junior high and high schools had frank and open programs that emphasized abstinence as the only one-hundred-percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and disease, but recognized the overwhelming likelihood that most of us students would have more than one sex partner in our lives and thus taught us how to be safe if that was our decision. And here I am, 21 years old, sexually active thank-you-very-much, and not pregnant or diseased or plagued by troubling sexual encounters.

    Interestingly, the CDC has linked mother-adolescent communication to future sexual practices. Teens whose mothers talked to them about condom usage before the kids became sexually active were three times more likely to use condoms than those who never discussed condoms with their moms or only discussed it after already becoming sexually active.

    This study was conducted in 1998 ‹ about the time my mom and I had our most serious in an intermittent series of “”talks”” about sex. I was sixteen ‹ I had been caught making out with my first high school boyfriend ‹ and I think she was suddenly overwhelmed by the obvious change in a daughter who had been insisting just a few years before that she intended to wait until marriage for sex. So over the course of a few days, over dinner at Acapulco or in our little house, we chatted. It was probably here that my sexuality was cemented.

    “”The thing about women in our family and sex,”” my mother said, perched on my bathroom counter, “”is that we like it, and we’re good at it.”” I suddenly felt like part of a grand tradition of strong, healthy women with strong, healthy appetites, and that feeling was a crucial part of my decision to wait almost four years before actually having sex. I wanted to live up to the tradition, which did not involve getting carried away in cramped backseats with fumbling high school boys. I would wait until I knew the time was right, and I did.

    When I was sixteen, my mother succeeded in keeping my virginity intact for a while, and maybe that was her only terrified goal, but I like to think she also set out to give me that positive attitude about my own sexuality ‹ the best protection against physically and psychologically risky business like unprotected sex or encounters one regrets the next morning.

    Could it be that public school sex education ultimately pales in comparison with the information and attitudes one receives at home? Lots of studies emphasize the importance of the school day, with its instruction from teachers and peers, in child development, but it’s important not to underestimate the effect parenting can have, for good or ill. If framed in the right way, the events of my childhood and adolescence might seem to lead to sexual and romantic disaster: divorced parents, running with a “”fast crowd”” and some things the editor of this publication would undoubtedly prefer I not mention here. But because my mother was wise enough to impart wisdom and foster self-respect in me, I have not become a statistic ‹ or a prude.

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