Can You Hear Me Yet?

[Yesterday's] Washington Post features yet another article about the failure of abstinence-only sex education programs, which have been one of the best-funded far right programs under the Bush administration. At last count, the US government has spent more than $1.5 billion on programs that promote "abstinence only until marriage."

A new report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, and features a study on the "virginity pledge," comparing the health outcomes for young women who pledge to remain virgins until marriage (news flash: they backslide) as opposed to young women who don't pledge. The data indicates that 82 percent of young women taking a pledge of virginity end up breaking the promise, making them no different then their peers for engaging in sexual activity. The study analyzed data collected by the federal government's National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, using detailed information from a representative sample of about 11,000 students in grades seven through 12 in 1995, 1996 and 2001,

The bottom line? "Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, However, there were significant differences in risky behavior among the "pledge" takers. The percentage of students who said they used a condom was about 10 points lower for those who had taken the pledge, and they were about six percentage points less likely to use any form of contraception.

At this point, it's hard to imagine how much more data the government and Congress need to collect to come to the conclusion that just telling kids to not have sex isn't working. The more that abstinence-only programs stress the failure rates of condoms and contraception, the less likely young people are to protect themselves against pregnancy and infection. What the vast majority of parents will tell you is that they want comprehensive sex education for teens in school, that includes abstinence but also information about birth control and preventing STDs.

Last spring, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in four teenage girls in America has a sexually transmitted infection -- and one in two African-American teen girls. That should be reason enough for Congress to end funding for a program that promotes far right ideology and at the same time gives bad or no information to help teens protect their health.

Any parent with teens (I have two myself) knows that too many young people are seeing teenage sex on every mainstream television show marketed for their age group - just watch Gossip Girl if you think I'm kidding - and yet we are pretending in the classroom that its enough to tell them 'just say no'. We'd all like our teens to delay sexual activity until their ready - and from our point of view that's probably still a long way off! But no one wants their teenager to become pregnant or a parent before they are ready to have and support a family.

We can't expect our teens to make responsible decisions unless we are prepared to give them the guidance and health information that helps them do so. Abstinence-only has been an unmitigated disaster -- our New Year's resolution as a country should be to take teens' health seriously and to invest funding in comprehensive sex education that teaches teens about abstinence as well as contraception, healthy communication, responsible decision making, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

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