Upsetting news indeed for young people: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported March 12 that one in four teen girls (approximately 3 million) is infected with a sexually transmitted disease. This study came on the heels of the CDC's December announcement that teen birth rates rose in 2006 for the first time in 14 years.
It isn't altogether surprising, given the prevalence of abstinence-only education programs across the country. These new findings indicate that nationwide, teens are not receiving the sex education they need to protect themselves from STDs and unintended pregnancy. The situation, while disturbing, is not without remedy. Honest and complete sex education is essential to reducing STD and unintended pregnancy rates.
We are thankful that Washington passed the Healthy Youth Act last year. It takes effect this September. School districts must now either teach comprehensive sex education programs or stop their sex education programs altogether. It is up to local school boards to make sure their curricula satisfy the standards set forth in the law.
Comprehensive sex education is age-appropriate, medically accurate information that includes abstinence as an option. Sex education programs in Washington will require teachers to provide accurate information about how STDs are transmitted, the effectiveness and safety of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods and local resources for testing and medical care for STDs and pregnancy.
Some people would rather teens learn about abstinence only; they believe that giving them information about sex will encourage them to have sex. There has been no recognized correlation between comprehensive sex education programs and an increase in sexual activity. Further, studies have shown that many teens become sexually active before leaving high school; giving them medically accurate sex education will only help them to be safer.
There is, however, an increase in STDs and unintended pregnancy following a $1.5 billion effort to promote abstinence-only education in the U.S. The University of Washington recently released a study on the failure of abstinence-only education: It results in a higher teen pregnancy rate than does comprehensive sex education. And there is recent evidence of the failure of incomplete sex education programs in Washington.
Student reporters at Puyallup's Emerald Ridge High School interviewed their peers last month and they found that many were alarmingly underinformed about the repercussions of risky sexual behavior. They also found that 37 percent of students there had engaged in oral sex, believing it to be safer than intercourse. The reporters advocated for the inclusion of oral sex in sex education classes, so that students would understand the risks involved.
When sex education isn't comprehensive, it is the students who pay the price. Prior to the passage of the Healthy Youth Act, more than 300 students rallied in Olympia in support of comprehensive sex education. Students are not asking for these programs so they can have sex without consequences; they simply want to understand what the consequences are.
More than ever, it is crucial for school boards to move forward with comprehensive sex education programs. The boards must go beyond the narrow-minded and unrealistic abstinence-only programs and take action to provide the youth of this state with honest, accurate and appropriate sex education that will keep them safer and healthier.
Alison Mondi is communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.
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