When I was a teenager birth control meant statements like, you can’t get pregnant the first time.
In college friends told me they believed they were sterile because they’d never used birth control and had never gotten pregnant. I can think of at least one friend who was very surprised when, after a year or so of sterility, she did indeed conceive. She said it was a miracle.
The gulf between wishful thinking and sex education may have shrunk in the last generation, but there are still a lot of things kids don’t know and aren’t being taught about sex.
Case in point is the scene from “Mean Girls” when the PE coach utters, “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and then you’ll die. Okay, everybody, take some rubbers.” There you have it: both sides of the abstinence debate spelled out in a cacophony of contradicting absolutes.
The first conversation about sex I had with my kids was a kind of milestone with the sweet refrain of, “when two people love each other very much…” After a couple of years passed and the need arose to address the topic with a little more detail - well, that’s when I started to feel sick to my stomach. Not a lot of eye contact going on. Stilted wording, very small bits of conversation shuffling about.
Many teenagers don’t like talking about sex with their parents either. For adolescents, it’s a time to guard the private gate protecting the rain of hormonal changes and physiological leaps while they simultaneously test drive their opinions and beliefs in preparation for the adults they will become. If nothing else, they are completely self conscious, suffering from a horrible case of chronic audience syndrome. Talking about their impending puberty is (and pardon me for using this term but it’s one I hear in my household almost every day) AWKWARD. Sharing a tidbit or two about a situation at school usually surfaces more easily than talking about sexual urges.
Some parents overwhelmingly state they would like a better sex education for their teens on the “what if’s” than what they had back in the day. Many don’t hold a lot of stock in public schools when programs like Family Life Education are abstinence-only, which they feel lacks delving into the realities of situations they’ll be faced with. Discussion in FLE includes the down side of teenage pregnancy and STD’s and it touts the wonderfulness of waiting until marriage to begin sexual relations. Yet, when kids in FLE have questions about birth control, they go unanswered. When the kids want to talk about pregnancy options, the only topic is adoption. There are drawbacks of ending the discussion here.
We tell our children that they should wait until marriage, but deep down we ask ourselves how realistic is it when the average age of matrimony is now in the mid to late twenties? And to add more fuel to the fire, studies show that marriage more often is successful when the couple waits up until age 30 or so to get hitched.
Sociologist Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University found distinct benefits to marrying older. "We found that the delay in marriage was actually a good thing and it actually improved the average marital quality by a fair amount," he says.
"Older marriages (30’s vs. 20’s) were more cohesive in the sense they did things more often together as a couple. And couples who married at older ages were less likely to report thinking about divorce or that their marriage was in trouble.”
I contacted Caroline Fuller from the Virginia Dept of Education who told me the School Health Advisory Board determines which type of abstinence plan teens (usually in the 8th grade) from a particular school district will receive. This means that the plan which FLE will offer, at least in Virginia, is locally controlled. The program can either be abstinence-based or abstinence-only: abstinence-only focuses solely on abstinence while abstinence–based promotes abstinence but also includes discussion on contraception. The latest evidence shows which of the programs is working.
The University of Georgia conducted a large scale study across 48 states linking teenage sex education and pregnancy rates. In states where abstinence-only programs are the only programs available, the teenage pregnancy rate continued to rise. Researchers also found that abstinence was part of the most effective sex education programs ONLY when it’s used alongside contraception.
Further, CDC centers reported a 9% drop in teenage motherhood in a 2009 -2010 study. Teens aren’t having less sex, they say. They aren’t having more abortions either. Kids are getting better at using contraception, have better access to contraception and they’re choosing to wait to have sex. Years ago, doctors would rarely prescribe IUDs for teens and nowadays teens can sometimes get a prescription for the pill without a pap smear.
Faith based and community organizations launched an abstinence-based program a ways back called Our Whole Lives, aka OWL, a sexuality education program for youth that addresses the attitudes, values, and feelings that youth have about themselves and each other.
OWL provides a non-judgmental co-ed forum for kids to learn about listening to their own inner conscience in the face of pop culture messages and peer pressure. Sexuality is viewed in a holistic light as a part of the human experience. Sessions are dedicated to learning about how sexuality is damaged by violence, exploitation and abuse of power. Other sessions become more controversial. OWL addresses sexual diversity, contraception and abortion as well as adoption and parenting. And there is the ongoing two most mentioned tenets of all: It is healthier for adolescents to postpone sexual intercourse and it’s good to talk to your parents about these issues.
If kids are uncomfortable asking what’s on their mind in an OWL session, there’s always the question box, where questions get anonymously placed. Every question gets answered. Issues are as widely ranged as there are people on this earth. A girl asks, do guys really care what girls wear? A boy asks, is it all right to talk to other guys about personal things? Questions about pornography, rape, contraception, pregnancy and a host of other issues all surface from the box oftentimes due to what students pick up on from the news and in their community.
Teenagers who have completed OWL understand the responsibilities and possible outcomes in romantic relationships. When other kids make some off-the-wall comment about sex, such as you can’t get pregnant the first time, they will not surrender to the typical teenage angst born of uncertainty. They will know the difference between truth and wishful thinking. Some parents voice concerns that this gives kids the green light to promiscuity, but I beg to differ. As one OWL teacher put it, Sex Ed causes sex about as much as umbrellas cause rain.
Wilson, Pamela M. Our Whole Lives, Grades 7-9. Boston: UUA, 1999.