Young Feminists: Lets Talk About Sex (Education)
By Samantha Greenberg
When I was little, my mother taught me about sex with the help of Per Holm Knudsen’s book The True Story of How Babies are Made. I remember laughing at the book’s goofy cartoon illustrations while attempting to grasp its detailed explanations of sexual intercourse and conception. As my mother and I looked through the book, she told me that a man and a woman must get married before becoming sexually intimate. To do otherwise, she said, would be a sin against God.
Throughout my life, my mother emphasized the psychological and spiritual consequences of premarital sex, but omitted any discussion of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, or contraception. I understood her moral perspective on the issue, but the idea of waiting until marriage to experience sex did not appeal to me, even as a young child. If marriage meant having sex with one person for the rest of my life, I wanted to make sure I liked having sex with that person first. I made up my mind that I was not going to wait until marriage and I ignored every platitude about premarital sex I heard thereafter.
As a young adult in a stable relationship, sex seemed like a natural step after six months of dating. Growing up with a parent who emphasized abstinence from sex until marriage created a problem for me, though: I understood the physical act of sex, but I did not know the first thing about practicing safe sex or using birth control. Sex education classes in my conservative school district were inadequate at best, my friends were less than helpful, and I would have risked my life having unsafe sex before asking my parents for guidance.
My saving grace was the local county health department, which offered free gynecological exams and birth control for students. The fact that the health department provided contraceptive services without parental consent was a well-kept secret in my county. Fortunately, I found out about the health department through a friend whose mother worked there, and I walked out of my first appointment with a year’s supply of birth control pills and a bag of free condoms. To this day, I credit that appointment for instilling in me a lifetime of safe sexual habits.
Like me, many young people do not learn about contraception or safe sex from their parents or in school. Without access to information about contraception, young people who choose to have sex are likely to engage in risky behaviors without understanding how or why they are risky. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 47 percent of sexually active teens admit to having had intercourse without a condom, and 34 percent say they have had intercourse with no birth control method at all.1 In the same survey, 65 percent of teens cited maintaining secrecy from their parents as an important consideration in their decisions about sexual activity and contraception.1 This indicates that perceived parental disapproval plays a role in young people’s lack of access to information about safe sex.
Teen concerns that their parents will react negatively to sexual activity are well-founded. While times have changed, there is still a high level of parental disapproval of premarital sex in the United States. A 2006 Gallup poll on the moral acceptability of a range of behaviors reported that 37 percent of Americans believe sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally wrong.2 In addition, many parents who are concerned about the risks of STIs and pregnancy attempt to completely prevent their children from having sex, rather than emphasizing the importance of safe sexual practices. With parents conveying this attitude to their children, it is no wonder young people are afraid to ask questions about safe sex.
School sex education is often the only reliable source of information for kids who cannot talk to their parents about sex. Comprehensive sexuality education has been associated with significantly lower rates of teen pregnancy and higher rates of contraceptive use and STI testing than has abstinence-only-until-marriage education.3 Students who receive comprehensive sexuality education contract STIs half as often as students who receive abstinence-only education. And, in contrast to the claims of its opponents, comprehensive sexuality education has not been shown to increase the number of adolescents who engage in sexual activity.4
In recent years, the overwhelming scientific evidence that associates comprehensive sexuality education with a reduction in risky teen sexual behavior has broadened public support for including information about contraception in school curricula. According to a survey by National Public Radio and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 46 percent of the public supports comprehensive sexuality education if it also promotes abstinence, and 36 percent of the public supports comprehensive sexuality education that focuses mainly on contraception and safe sex.5 Currently, no Federal law mandates that sexuality education be taught in schools. For the most part, decisions about what to include in school curricula are left to each state. Thirty-five states require some type of school sexuality education, but only seventeen states require that contraception education be included in school curricula. The lack of a standardized sexuality education curriculum in the U.S. leaves a significant gap in sexual knowledge among adolescents. In 2002, one-third of adolescents said they had never received formal education about contraception or safe sex.6
Given that the Obama Administration supports comprehensive sexuality education and 82 percent of the public favors providing some content on contraception in school curricula, it is counterintuitive that national sexuality education standards have not been implemented. The Obama Administration made progress toward eliminating ineffective sex education by reducing Bush era funding for abstinence-only programs in 2009. Unfortunately, a provision of the recently passed health care bill resurrects abstinence-only education by allocating $50 million per year over 5 years to abstinence-only programs. While the health care bill also provides $75 million per year over 5 years for comprehensive sexuality education programs, the renewal of abstinence-only funding sends a message that abstinence-only programs are as effective as comprehensive programs at reducing risky sexual behaviors. Studies show this is simply not the case.
While the Obama Administration is still in power, we should advocate for a federal law requiring that comprehensive sexuality education be taught in all schools. We should demonstrate to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that every scientific study on sexuality education shows abstinence-only-until-marriage education to be ineffective. We should express to parents that comprehensive sexuality education does not make their children more likely to have sex, but protects them if they choose to have sex.
Implementing national comprehensive sexuality education programs will curb increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy and will improve the health and safety of young people. The Obama Administration and a majority of Americans support including information on safe sexual practices in the sex education curriculum. With no significant barriers in our way, we just need to make it happen!
Samantha Greenberg is a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing a degree in Public Policy. She aspires to a career in feminist advocacy and community outreach.
1. Retrieved August 22, 2010 from http://www.kff.org/entpartnerships/upload/SexSmarts-Survey-Safer-Sex-Con....
2. Gallup News Service, Republicans, Democrats Differ on What is Morally Acceptable, May 24 2006. Retrieved August 22, 2010 from http://www.gallup.com/poll/22915/republicans-democrats-differ-what-moral....
3. Dodge B, Reece M, Herbenick D, “School Based Condom Education and its Relations with Diagnoses of and Testing for Sexually Transmitted Infections Among Men in the United States”, American Journal of Public Health 2009; 99: 2180 -2182.
4. Kohler PK, Manhart LE, Lafferty WE, “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy”, Journal of Adolescent Health 2008; 42: 344–351. Retrieved August 25, 2010 from http://www.planetwire.org/files.fcgi/7689_Ab_Only_Ed_Kohler_.pdf.
5. NPR. Sex Education in America, 2004, Washington, DC: NPR, 2004. Retrieved August 24, 2010 from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1622610.
6. The Guttmacher Institute, Facts on Sex Education in the United States, New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2006. Retrieved August 22, 2010 from http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_sexEd2006.html.