April 7, 2010

Abstinence Breeds Ignorance

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This past February The New York Times published an article entitled “Quick Response to Study of Abstinence Education.” This article discussed a research study that found that abstinence-only sex education significantly delayed the age of first sexual intercourse, as compared to comprehensive sex education and safer-sex only sex education.

As a proponent of comprehensive sex ed, this article seemed troubling to me. So I did what any Cornell science major would do: I went onto the library gateway to pull up the original research article. But even after a librarian tutorial on the library gateway before every science class I’ve taken, I still can’t figure out how to get access to scholarly articles. So I schlepped over to Club Mann to pull up the article.

What I found was incredibly alarming. The study used self reporting in order to determine how many students had engaged in sexual intercourse in the 24 months following the education interventions, meaning the eighth graders had to be willing to admit to the researcher that they had sex.

Self report?! Really? What eighth grader in their right mind is going to admit to sexual intercourse after sitting through an eight hour course on not having sex? Of course the students in the sexual health course reported higher rates of sexual activity! When you’re taught that something is permissible, you have no reason to lie about doing it. Abstinence-only sex ed on the other hand, provides the perfect reason to lie about sexual conduct on the follow up survey.

The results of this study were so controversial that the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine ran an article on the adjacent page explaining that educational policy should not be based off of a single study and politicians should wait for similar study results before making any decisions. However, studies with poor design such as this one are all the abstinence-only movement needs in order to fill in the holes in their argument. We can no longer claim that abstinence-only sex ed has no successes found in scientific research. This article says abstinence-only sex education works! With a p-value of .02!

Not only did this article depend upon less reliable data collection methods, but it also found that the abstinence-only students were more likely to have multiple sexual partners than any of the other interventions. This seems somewhat paradoxical: these students were less likely to report that they had sex, but those that did report it reported riskier sex behaviors. I’m seriously doubting this study’s validity.

It is also important to realize that the abstinence-only sex education in this study would not have met federal standards. This program did not have any moral undertones, did not stress the inadequacy of condoms, had no faulty information on contraceptives and only stressed abstaining from intercourse until a later time when the students were more mature.

However, as of yesterday the Obama administration revived federal funding for abstinence-only sex education as a concession for the health care reform bill, despite an eight-year congressional research study which found that these programs are completely ineffective in reducing teenage pregnancy and STI rates.

Sex is going to happen. It’s a natural biological process that the survival of the human race depends upon. We are doing a disservice to the students of America by not educating them on how to protect themselves from this potentially-risky behavior. Everyone agrees that teenage pregnancy and chlamydia/syphilis/HIV infection is undesirable. In fact, teenage pregnancy is associated with decreased health, education, wealth, and social development for both the mother and child. So why aren’t we giving everyone the tools they need to protect themselves?

It seems the answer lies within the strong religious undertones of our society.

It’s fine if  your religion teaches you that sex is purely for procreation, but public education should not be a vehicle to force religious belief onto others. My religion tells me I shouldn’t eat milk with meat, but you don’t see the Jewish community protesting that their tax dollars should not be used to fund cheeseburgers for the National School Lunch Program. If we aren’t allowed to stress the principles of one religion over another in public school, how are we allowed to teach sex ed infused with Christian morality? Or better yet, how are we allowed to teach a program that has been proven time and time again to be completely ineffective?

Abstinence-only sex education simply does not work. In a country as educated as ours, it is nonsensical to withhold protective scientific information about sex solely in order to preserve moral ideals. Sex feels good for a reason. Everyone has the right to choose abstinence, but we also have the right to know how to practice safe sex.

I’m lucky enough to have gone to a high school with a great sex education program and a bowl of condoms in the nurse’s office. But I know that not everyone at Cornell practiced putting condoms on a banana in ninth grade English class. So please, if you’re sex ed consisted of little more than “don’t do it,” stop by Gannett, reach out to a SHAG volunteer or even email me for a crash course in safe sex. You’re future is in your hands, especially if those hands know how to put on a condom.

Jess H. recently graduated from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She may be reached at jessh@cornellsun.com. Girl On Top appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Jess H.