Teenagers Think Abstinence Is Cool?

As Scott mentioned when he introduced this series yesterday, I attended a conference in Chicago last weekend titled "Contraception Is Not the Answer." You may be wondering who would oppose an essential part of many Americans' lives – one that protects people from disease and helps them plan if, when, and how many children to have. Ian provided an insightful preview to the event with background information in Friday's blog. In this series I will address the main themes of the conference and provide a much-needed reality check on their arguments.

The multi-faceted, no-holds-barred attack on all contraception began with a session called "Comprehensive Failure: The Harm Done by Pro-Contraception Sex Ed," presented by Libby Gray Macke, Director of Project Reality. Macke gave a high-energy lecture using material that she presents to teenagers in an abstinence-only education program.

Macke cheerfully started with "Facts about Teen Sexual Activity," which described the risks of STDs and teen pregnancy. (Both sides often start in the same place and then move on to different solutions; the difference is that comprehensive sex ed has proven to affectively address these problems, while abstinence-only ed has not.) Macke's next step was to examine the changes in our culture in the past 20 years – blaming it on… the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s.

According to Macke, "Young people are suffering because of previous generations." Hold the phone – really? The monsters in the closet are advances in women's rights, civil rights, and technology? Young people are in trouble because of their parents (or because of what their parents did)? Well, I guess I can see her logic – after all, the conferees want women to stay home and pop out lots of babies, which fits in with the idealized vision of returning to "the good old days" of restrictive social norms. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This was the first, but not the last, reference to the cultural change that apparently destroyed American morals.

Then she moved on to examine the teenage brain. Macke has come up with two characters to illustrate the main players in an adolescent's head: the caveman (which represents the amygdala) and the professor (representing the pre-frontal cortex). Supposedly, comprehensive sex ed addresses the amygdala portion of the brain by assuming teenagers cannot control their sexual urges. In contrast, Macke says that abstinence-only education helps teenagers develop their pre-frontal cortexes by talking about hopes and dreams.

Let's step back for a second to examine an underlying assumption that giving teenagers information about contraception encourages them to be promiscuous. This argument is incorrect. What is correct is that delaying sexual activity decreases the risks of disease and pregnancy – and while abstinence education may contribute to that goal, it does not actually prevent sexual activity. Comprehensive sex ed delays sexual activity AND gives teens the information needed to protect themselves when they do eventually have sex.

And appealing to kids' hopes and dreams to teach them about sex sounds nice, but we've seen what happens when schools teach abstinence and withhold information about contraception. Macke told the audience that "condom-based sex ed" requires kids to repress feelings of embarrassment about condoms, which is an interesting twist to the reality: abstinence-only education tries to keep teenagers from having sex by using tactics based on fear and shame.

To put a positive spin on her message, Macke says that she tells teenagers: "I am not here to tell you what to do. I can't make your decision for you. I am here to give you the information to make choices." But the truth is that she doesn't give them enough information; she only gives them a small piece of the overall picture. She acknowledges that teens have free will and can make their own decisions, but she doesn't give them the knowledge they need to be safe when they do make the choice to have sex. Abstinence may work for some, but realistically, not everyone is going to choose to wait for marriage to have sex. So if a teenager makes what Macke would consider to be the wrong choice, they're screwed.

What makes Macke a serious threat to sexuality education and reproductive health is that she presents misinformation in an entertaining, dynamic bundle targeted towards teenagers. Behind her friendly, upbeat demeanor is the belief that this issue isn't "just a side issue from pro-life, it's the heart of the issue" and that "abstinence stops abortion." Despite her protestations, contraception has been proven to effectively prevent unwanted pregnancy, therefore preventing abortion, and – like it or not – is in sync with reality.

Check out more facts about sexuality education for additional information. Check back tomorrow for another reality check on the conservatives attack on contraception.

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