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The Boulder Daily Camera (Colorado)

Truth About Abstinence

Clint Talbott

Simple answers to complex problems are often appealing. Given the nuance and complexity of the human condition, however, simple edicts are the wrong way to change the behavior of the masses.

That is particularly true when the targeted audience is adolescent, when the subject is sex, and when the message involves a lie of omission. For that reason, Colorado was right to reject nearly $500,000 in federal funds for "abstinence-only" sex-education programs.

Most parents discourage casual sex among teens. As a general proposition, adolescents are ill-equipped to cope with the powerful bonds and heartbreaks that flow from sexual relations. They make poor decisions about whether to have sex, with whom to have sex, and how the sexual act -- if it is to be done -- should be undertaken to maximize personal safety and minimize unwanted pregnancy.

The easy answer is to tell kids that having sex before marriage can leave them emotionally scarred, pregnant or afflicted with AIDS. "Just say no until marriage" is the simple message that underpins the abstinence-only programs like those of Longmont's Friends First.

But they don't work.

Chuck Stout, Boulder County's director of public health, notes that our county has one of the lowest teen birthrates in the state. But that success was not uniform across the county. Some 65 percent of teen births are in Longmont (where schools employed the Friends First approach).

"I don't think that's accident or coincidence," Stout said. "I think it's cause and effect."

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Abstinence-only programs could be palatable if they suggested abstinence as the sure-fire way to prevent the problems that can follow teen sex, but also stressed an important, corollary message: that if one chooses to have sex, one should do so as safely as possible.

As Stout notes, lots of young women who've been through abstinence-only programs are sexually active, but they and their partners are either not using condoms or not using them correctly.

Under the law, states accepting abstinence-only funds may not discuss the proper use of condoms. They may only discuss the failure rate of condoms. But by not teaching kids the proper use of condoms, adults ensure a higher failure rate. Catch-22.

People assume that the failure rate of condoms (touted by abstinence-only curricula) stems from condoms that break. Wrong. Failure rates stem from errors like storing condoms in wallets, tearing packages open with one's teeth and putting condoms on too tightly.

If kids were urged to be abstinent but given scientifically accurate information about condoms, we could prevent a lot of suffering. But abstinence-only programs propound a specific code of morality with an incomplete telling of the truth. Catch-22.

Censorship, the condition of accepting the federal abstinence-only money, is an odious tool. And, as Stout notes, its effects are appalling. "It is never appropriate to lie to our children," he says. "Whether it's a lie of omission or a lie to their face, both are absolutely immoral. And it's certainly not right not to tell them information that could save their damn lives."

Stout speaks plainly. As he should. That state made the right move, for the sake of honesty and for the health and well-being of kids.

Clint Talbott, for the editorial board

© 2008 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC.

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