Teaching Chastity 101: Reviewing Our Notes

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Since regaining our composure, we've decided to delve a bit more deeply into this minefield, and explore the whys and wherefores of the storm surrounding sex education. The original analysis grew out of two recent studies by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reported that fully one third of American public school districts follow an abstinence-only curriculum in their sex education classes. We wondered if abstinence education was working, and suggested that perhaps such an approach was unrealistic in light of what we know about sexual behavior among teens. And people let us know exactly what they thought, no holds barred. Whatever the opinion, it's been expressed — vociferously — this week. In our daily articles, limited space doesn't permit a great deal of depth in a single analysis. Here, in a longer format, we can address some of the concerns raised so prolifically in our virtual mailbag.

First, in response to popular demand, some statistics: The Department of Health and Human Services reports that teen pregnancy rates have fallen significantly each year in the 1990s; in 1996 there were fewer teen pregnancies than at any time in two decades. Analysts at HHS attribute this decline to several factors, including decreased sexual activity, increases in condom use and the adoption of new (injectable or implant) contraceptive devices. In other words, the good news about teen pregnancy is traceable to a combination of abstinence and contraceptive education, or an inclusive curriculum. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of Americans favor inclusive sex education; according to HHS, more than 80 percent of Americans over 30 and 90 percent of Americans under 30 believe that birth control information should be made available to teenagers. The American Medical Association recently announced its support for comprehensive sex education — specifically, a curriculum that includes both abstinence and contraception. Their researchers found that students who received this kind of education were likely to initiate sex later in life, and also tended to use contraception correctly when they did choose to have sex.

As in any heated debate, misconceptions about "the other side" plague discussions about sex education. Some advocates of abstinence-only education harbor fears that "sex education" is a thinly veiled excuse to distribute pro-sex, free-love propaganda to unwitting students. On the other hand, many of those who favor a more inclusive attitude toward sex education (one that includes discussion of condoms and other contraceptives) worry that abstinence-only programs will, in their refusal to address the mechanics of sex, condemn students to disease and pregnancy that might have been prevented by condoms. The truth of the matter, of course, is that neither position is quite as absolute as its opponents might believe.

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