Comprehensive Sexuality Education or Abstinence-Only
Sex has been a hot topic throughout the ages, with differences in opinion ranging on either side of the spectrum. Some view the choice to have premarital sex as a battle between worldly desires and spiritual salvation, in essence: A battle between good and evil. Another group may promote its spiritual benefits, claiming it holds the key to healing through its life force. Still another group may brush it off to mean nothing more than casual connections and fun. Yet one thing holds true for anyone who chooses to partake in sexual activity: It is a personal choice for each individual to decide for themselves. Whether it be decided for the intention of procreation, or the motive to "have a good time", it is an act that most humans will experience in their lifetime. There is no argument against the fact that sex is a natural part of adulthood in some respect. Yet age-old questions remain: At what age should sex be discussed with youth? What topics are off-limits, and what topics are integral to the foundation of sex education? If some topics are not taught, should they be? With the right counseling, services, and education on the topic- no matter what the belief system entails- it should aim to offer a fundamental understanding of health, protection, and safety. This begins with knowledge, and knowledge is obtained through schooling. Offering a well-rounded sex education course as opposed to abstinence-only education in public schools will allow youth to make healthy, informed decisions about not only their bodies, but about their sexual health and mental health surrounding sex.
Religion and politics have historically had an influence on American culture, including on the sex education curriculum that is taught in schools. Those who are religious may believe premarital sex is a moral failing or believe teaching about sex in schools' sex education courses may conflict with the beliefs they teach at home to promote abstinence. Yet in terms of lived experience and through the experiences of others, it should be acknowledged that youth- especially teenagers- do not always follow in the footsteps of their parents or take the path their parents may have planned. Even still, America is the only nation in the world who uses abstinence-only education as a form of sex education (Bruggink). Why is this significant, and is this an effective cultural norm? This form of education opposes premarital sex instead of educating and promoting safe sex for those who may choose to have sex before marriage. This curriculum, while it may be inclusive to a certain population, begs the question of policy as it remains limited in its sectarianism. In public schools, religion should hold no weight, and not only does this keep youth uninformed- but it introduces a broader range of problems- that is, the fundamental idea of separation between church and state. In some states, teachers are even required by law to promote abstinence as of 2019 (Buchholz). Should religion influence public school education? As far as the policy of allowing parents to have a choice in the curriculum their children are taught, there remains the option of private or religious schools wherein religion and education are part of the curriculum concurrently. However, this should remain an option, as opposed to the rule. Political influence has also held weight over the implementation of abstinence-only education in America's schools. Historically, the republican party has provided funding to abstinence-only programs over a span of years (Bruggink). Regardless of political affiliation, the rights of youth and our duties to provide a fair, unbiased education regarding sex should come first. Nevertheless, American history has proven time again that political affiliation does hold an influence over which types of policy, reform, and decisions are opposed or supported and by whom. According to Kantor, a survey indicates that democrats were more likely to support education on topics such as healthy relationships and sexual orientation, whereas republicans were more likely to support abstinence education. Yet support or opposition of a program- governmental or otherwise- is not always reflective of its effectiveness. Instead of altering our schooling to fit the narrative of our beliefs, should we as a nation offer a narrative that aligns with the reality of the current situation instead?
As the choice to have sex should be an educated one, it is reflective in the teenage pregnancy and STD rates that many remain uninformed and ignorant to the effects of unprotected sex. According to an article titled, "Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.", America has the highest rate than any other country in teen pregnancy and STD rates (Stanger-Hall). Yet to those who may be the most vulnerable- the inexperienced and the naive, our nation should be the most supportive. This includes arming youth with facts pertaining to whichever route they so choose to take- abstinence or otherwise. It is proven that teenagers engage in sexual activity. According to Terri Daugherty who published a work titled, "A Significant Problem.", 70% of teens engage in sexual activity by 19 years old, and 14% engage in sexual activity by 15 years old. If a pregnancy is not planned, it can lead to financial and emotional repercussions. The cost of raising a child is more than a teenager may be able to provide, which is why it is important to discuss contraception and protection. This type of prevention should be taught to youth where they spend a good amount of time- in school. Some believe that the availability of birth control could in turn increase the teen pregnancy rate, as they state that teens may choose to engage in sexual activity solely because of this availability (Arcidiacono). Those same people draw a correlation between the increase of contraceptives, to the potential increase of failed contraceptives resulting in pregnancy. This conclusion is a fallacy as it refuses to acknowledge the statistic which represents the rate of sexual activity currently among those in their teenage years, between the ages of 15 and 19. In contrast, if the 70% of teenagers who currently engage in sexual activity used birth control, the pregnancy rate among the majority would inevitably decline. Even with the inclusion of the potential 30% who may begin to engage in sexual activity because of the availability- the teen pregnancy rates would not rise with the introduction of contraceptives. This fallacious reasoning points to fear rather than fact, which may even be the motivation for withholding information during sex education in schools. STD rates among youth are another factor in which statistics point to the need for prevention. According to Daughtery, STD rates among female teenagers are higher than any other population. Youth in general are 5 times more likely to contract certain STD's such as chlamydia than any other population (Daughtery). The effects of STD's and teenage pregancy, and therefore unprotected sexual activity are harmful. These rates need to be addressed and prevented among youth. If the nation were proactive in getting in front of these problems, as opposed to sweeping the problems under the rug in fear of promoting sexual activity, the sexual health of teenagers would improve. Sex education is health education, and the discussion of what sex entails and how pregnancy and STD's may occur is the elephant in the room that abstinence only education fails to address.
Abstinence-only education in America is ineffective in terms of offering youth health education surrounding their bodies and sexual choices. Not providing sex education in its entirety keeps youth uninformed, which has been shown to have detrimental effects, such as in the case of prevention. How can our society expect youth to make healthy decisions if options are not presented in an unbiased manner? It can be said that omitting information pertaining to sexual health and sexual activity is irresponsible and harmful. Trusted organizations such as the American Medical Association and the Institute of Medicine, among others, disprove of abstinence-only education (Bruggink). It does not offer alternatives to pregnancy and STD's such as access to condoms and birth control to those who may choose to engage in sex. Instead, abstinence only education refers to prevention only in terms of abstinence, offering little to no alternatives in terms of the choices teens may make in their sex lives. Furthermore, STD's can be transmitted through more ways than sexual intercourse. This is another topic abstinence-only education fails to address. Again, the topic of parental rights arises here, which is a topic that goes hand in hand with the discussion of sex education in schools. Arizona, for instance, is one of the few states that require parental consent in order for youth under 18 to receive sex education in schools (Buchholz). Yet, what about those who are not given a fair factual understanding of their options at home, either? If it is not taught in school by trusted adults, youth may get their information from unreliable sources such as their peers or the internet. If abstinence is promoted by the trusted adults in a teenager's life, at home and in school- whether it be for religious reasons or other-and if youth does decide to engage in sexual activity regardless, the decisions they will make regarding their sex life will be poor. Can they be blamed? Some believe that it is a moral failing to discuss other aspects of sex education, such as various forms of sexual encounters, in schools. One of these forms, "touching", has been notably opposed. George states that mandated courses in New York public schools who offer topics such as mutual masturbation are "horrifying" and goes on to call it a "violation of parents' rights" (George). Omitting forms of sexual activity that can cause STD's, including forms of sexual engagement other than vaginal sex, may be a contributing factor to the high STD rates among youth. The lack of discussion surrounding these topics could be just as detrimental as the lack of discussion surrounding sexual intercourse. Whether one agrees with youth engaging in such behaviors or not, it does not change its reality. Therefore, having youth sign celibacy pledges- a common tactic in abstinence-only education- is ineffective as it deprives youth of well-rounded sexual health education. So, what does abstinence-only education include, in terms of health? It seems most can agree on the implementation of biological health education for school children of childbearing age. According to a survey titled, "Support for Sex Education and Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Programmes in the USA: Results from a National Survey of Likely Voters.", both democrats and republicans support education on puberty and STD's (Kantor). Puberty includes hormonal changes and menstruation as well as the idea of females carrying eggs and men carrying sperm. Educating youth on the biological health of their bodies is not one of the "hot topics" that is commonly debated. Why is this? It seems that those who are for abstinence-only education attribute sexual activity as unnatural and immoral while teaching youth, yet can offer the unbiased health information as it pertains to the body's growth into the childbearing stage. Why wouldn't sexual activity be part of that discussion if it also leads to childbearing and procreation? To leave out that information is to create a gap in the educational process of youth as they learn about sex. Even offering STD education in some instances can be seen as more of a scare tactic than an informative discussion. Heidi Bruggink who wrote the article, "Abstinence-only funding (finally) set to expire--but don't applaud quite yet." states: "The No Second Chance program, for example, tells teens engaging in premarital sex 'to be prepared to die,' . . . as they then go on to warn: 'you'll probably take your spouse and one or more of your children with you.'". To tell youth that the effects are detrimental but omit how these can be obtained or how to prevent them is to leave out valuable information that would only help youth in their choices as they grow into adulthood. Rather than informing youth of how these can be contracted through various sexual acts, abstinence-only education seems to take more of a "Just Say No" stance, as if to proclaim a "War on Sex". According to "Sex Education Mandatory in Half of U.S. States.", currently in America, there are 22 states that require HIV education, that also do not require any form of "sex education". Some states do not require any form of reproductive health or sex education at all (Buchholz). Teaching youth about not only their bodies, but about the choices and alternatives they have when it comes to sexual activity will allow youth to be fully prepared for the decisions they may make in this personal matter. Yet there is a topic that should also be discussed, and that is the mental health surrounding sexual health, as many times they go hand in hand.
As opposed to celibacy, a more open-minded approach that includes mental and sexual health should be considered for its effectiveness. The decision to have sex is often a decision that encompasses many emotions, especially as society holds value on the idea of virginity, and shame can arise when a woman decides to engage in sexual activity. Not only that, but as young men and women are growing and their bodies are changing, so are their minds and personalities. Informing youth of a well-rounded sex education course is much more than providing the options "to have sex" or to "not have sex". A well-rounded sex education course is one that may discuss the mental health surrounding sex and its contributing factors. Why should this be discussed during schooling? Lifestyles are often taught to youth through school and their peers, which play an important role in the development of youth. As discussed earlier, sexual activity may be a reality in the development of one's teenage years. Education should include this aspect to ensure proper information is being taught. Sex is more than just a physical act. There are emotions involved, positive or negative, that reach far beyond "right and wrong" as it may be presented in a religious sense. Sexual health is both physical health and mental health and can either contribute to youth positively or negatively. There are factors surrounding sex that can contribute to negative mental health effects that should be taught in school, such as the idea of consent or lack thereof. For instance, the partaking of pornography can affect one's emotional state. So, too, can sexual activity. As the American College of Pediatricians states, Consumption of pornography is associated with many negative emotional, psychological, and physical health outcomes. These include increased rates of depression, anxiety, acting out and violent behavior, younger age of sexual debut, sexual promiscuity, increased risk of teen pregnancy, and a distorted view of relationships between men and women (American College of Pediatritians).
This is not to say that one should or should not consume pornographic material, but simply to point to the mental health effects that sex, in various forms, may pose. Well-rounded discussions that point to causes and effects, not simply effects (such as STD's) or precursor (such as puberty), but a well-rounded, open-minded approach would help to ensure healthier youth in all aspects of their sex lives.
Abstinence-only education is lacking in its efficiency as a form of sex education. Prevention of STD's and unwanted teen pregnancy should be a priority for an all-encompassing sex education course. Leaving youth uninformed will not aid in building their well-rounded health, which includes sexual health, as it is proven American youth engage in sexual activity before the ages of 19. The idea that sex can lead to STD's and pregnancy may be taught, but the specifics of how these can occur- for instance- through various forms of sexual encounters, remain tabboo. If youth cannot talk to trusted adults about all aspects of their lives, then where can they turn? Though abstinence-motivated sex education may include reproductive health education consisting of puberty education, this should also move to include the sexual health and mental health that surrounds sex. Mental and sexual health aspects of sex are an important factor in the sex lives of any individual, and as such, they should be discussed among youth as they grow into the mature adults that schools, parents, and society alike intends for them to be.