The Texas house recently passed an extreme bill that could force most of the state’s abortion clinics to close. Many of the debates over the bill were heated, but one of the more interesting ones started last Tuesday night after a house committee vote was over and three members of the committee had a conversation that was audio-taped by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. In that conversation, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) pointed out to two of her Republican colleagues, Reps. Steve Toth (The Woodlands) and Bill Zedler (Arlington), that sex education that includes information about contraception can help prevent unintended pregnancies, and therefore can reduce the number of abortions that are performed. Toth was quick to disagree about the merits of sex education.
My wife worked at a home for unwed moms, and one of the little kids that was born, his name is David. David came about as a result of his mom and dad, who were just 16 at the time, going to a Planned Parenthood deal where they taught them how to use contraceptives. They were not sexually active at that point. They got into the car, and they were so hot and bothered from this deal, he couldn’t even get the condom on.
Does this remind anyone else of an urban legend, like the one about the guy who woke up in a bathtub full of ice to find one of his kidneys missing, or the one where the spring breaker opens a present after a one-night stand to find a note saying “Congratulations, you have AIDS”? What stories like these have in common is that despite how crazy they sound, they always seem to be told by someone with a connection to the events. “No, really, it totally happened to my cousin’s friend!”
Toth had much the same response. When Howard replied, “That’s an interesting anecdote,” he shot back, “It’s the truth.”
I will get back to Toth’s main point—that sex education makes kids hot and bothered—in a second, but I’d like to start with the other reasons I don’t believe this story. First, I suspect there’s no such thing as being so hot and bothered that you can’t get a condom on. If the young man in the story was that turned on, wouldn’t he simply have had a premature orgasm while he was pulling down his pants or unwrapping the condom? Second, despite what movies might want us to believe, the first time a person has sex isn’t generally a roiling rush of “I’ve got to have you this instant!” Not to be too graphic, but it takes a little while to figure out where exactly everything goes, which contradicts the theory that these teenagers were so turned on by learning about IUDs that they couldn’t use birth control.
Finally, though it is possible to get pregnant the very first time you have sex—and, as a sex educator, I am contractually obligated to remind everyone of that—it is statistically pretty unlikely. A woman’s chance of conceiving varies every day, depending how close she is to ovulation, but her average risk of getting pregnant from one act of intercourse is 3.1 percent. (At its peak, the day before ovulation, it’s 9 percent.) Don’t get me wrong; lots of people have unintended pregnancies, and some of them do come from one very unlucky, unprotected act, but most probably come from taking risks over a few days, weeks, or months.
Toth’s main point, however, is not that “David”‘s parents were unlucky enough to have gone to a sex education lecture on the teen girl’s most fertile day, but that the lecture itself was so arousing it caused them to have sex. I have no idea what lecture the teens listened to, but I can all but guarantee it was far less sexy than anything they could have seen on basic cable that day, let alone the vast amounts of porn they likely had access to on their computers and smartphones.
I’ve been to sex education classes, and I’ve taught them. They are not titillating—especially lessons on contraception. We hope they are thought-provoking and inspiring, but there really isn’t anything sexy about putting a condom on a banana or seeing which part of your arm a contraceptive implant would go in. Contraceptive lectures are so tame that I brought my six-year-old to one last semester. I was not worried that she would see or hear anything inappropriate. I was only worried that she’d be so bored she would constantly interrupt me. (And she did.)
If Rep. Toth would like more to go on than my opinion, however, he’s in luck, as we have years of research showing that sex education does not make kids any more likely to have sex. Rigorous evaluations of programs that teach young people about both abstinence and contraception (as any “Planned Parenthood deal” would) found that they do not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse, do not increase the frequency with which teens have sex, and do not increase the number of sexual partners teens have. In fact, they do just the opposite: Teens who go through these programs start having sex later than their peers who did not, have sex less frequently, have fewer partners, and are more likely to use condoms and contraceptives when they do have sex.
Toth’s story may never turn up on Snopes, like those other urban legends, but it still seems apocryphal to me. And even if it is true, it doesn’t mean we should give up on sex education. If anything, those two teens are proof that we need to provide young people with more tools to make sexual decisions—like a reminder that no matter how turned on you are, you can always stop and a promise that the sex is going to be just as good, if not better, if you wait the 30 seconds it will take to put on a condom.