My side gig when I’m not being a professional blogger is teaching high school English at an inner city school in Philadelphia (well, maybe it’s the other way around, but let’s pretend). The other day, as a reward for finishing their state tests, I was letting my students talk quietly in groups and do word games. I sat next to three of my ninth graders (three girls and a boy) and quickly joined in on their discussion.
They were talking about teenage pregnancy, noticing the high number of girls in the school who were currently pregnant. The tone of the conversation started playful, but the students were asking some very serious questions. The sole male student in our group directed the following question to me:
“Yo, Miss– who do you think is more responsible for getting pregnant—the boy or the girl?”
Before I could answer the girls quickly interjected their own opinions. It was the boy’s responsibility, because he was the one who needed to use a condom. It was the girl’s responsibility because she shouldn’t be letting a boy go that far. It was the parents’ responsibility because they should be monitoring their kids.
Reeling the conversation back in, I answered, “First of all, I think it’s everyone’s responsibility because the consequences affect each person. But I think that’s the wrong question. My question is: why are teenagers getting pregnant, in the first place? And I think the honest answer is that you guys just don’t receive a good sex education in school.”
To my surprise, the kids enthusiastically agreed. Many were quick to point out that they had had no sex education in their public schools. And they were even quicker to insist that they needed it.
What followed was a barrage of basic sex-ed questions on topics from prophylactics to periods to pregnancy, some of which astonished me in their naïveté. For example, one of my students asked if using condoms was even “worth it” because “a lot of times they don’t work.” Astonished to find that several of my students were nodding in agreement, it dawned on me that this is a direct consequence of the misinformation spread with abstinence-only sex education.
In abstinence-only “sex education,” educators must emphasize abstinence as the only true method of birth control. Information about prophylactics, disease, birth control, etc. gets spun to reflect the abstinence-only rhetoric. Rather than facilitating a discussion about the importance of using condoms for safety, then, educators must state something like: “Condoms are only effective a certain percentage of the time and they can break. The only 100% safe method is abstinence.” While this information is technically true, it causes teens to believe that there are no other birth control options. This is a dangerous misconception that can lead teens to engage in risky behavior that they might otherwise have avoided with just some simple information.
What has been proven, time and time again, is that abstinence-based sex education is ineffective. The reason is simple. People have sex. And I’m going to say something truly shocking to everyone: teenagers have sex, too. While this may affront our Puritan sensibilities, what should shock us is that teens are having sex without the necessary information to protect themselves, prevent unwanted pregnancy, and feel respected and safe at all times. Furthermore, the scare-tactics used in abstinence-based sex education are making teens too afraid to ask appropriate questions about sex— something that perpetuates the ignorance that leads to high-risk behavior.
This is not to say that families cannot impart their particular moral values around sex to their children. Such values should be the basis of a youg person’s decision to have sex. But regardless of that decision, all young people should have all of the information necessary to be safe if they choose to have sex.
For my students, as part of my moral responsibility, I did my part to dispel any myths or misinterpretations they had been forming. I told them the effectiveness rates for condoms when used correctly and incorrectly. I gave them resources where they could go to find other age-appropriate information. We talked about the subject maturely, objectively, and scientifically, and the students appreciated the candor.
As the discussion progressed, more and more students moved their desks toward our group. All of this tells me that teens are crying out for information. More than that, they want to be able to ask questions in an environment where they feel respected as the young adults they are and not judged for their curiosity. It’s time that we stop shaming teens for trying to educate themselves and do our part to make sure they have the correct information so they are better prepared to make potentially life-altering decisions.