How To Prevent Abortions: Stop Pretending Teenagers Don’t Have Sex

September 17, 2010, 11:58 am

Yesterday I was part of a Constitution Day celebration at the University of Connecticut – Storrs, in which three of us from the academic, activist and policy world were asked to focus on the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment ninety years ago. In one way or another, we all took the opportunity to connect women’s votes to a discussion of what it means for women to be full citizens, with equal rights to men across lines of class, race and region. One of the speakers, a founder of Shoreline Women’s Liberation, made the argument that debates over hot button social issues like abortion have become so polarized that, as feminists, we are left with few options about how to resolve them through rational debate. Inevitably, then, they become the stuff of power politics and embed themselves as wedge issues, allowing legislatures in places where conservatives dominate — Oklahoma, for example — to pass laws which effectively make women into second-class citizens by taking control of their bodies.

What this activist suggested was that we feminists must begin to reform political discourse by acknowledging other people’s moral and ethical concerns as legitimate even if we disagree profoundly with the factual basis of those concerns or the policy measures that our opponents advocate. I would agree with this. Increasingly, feminists are tacitly acknowledging that abortion is an ethical offense to some people when they argue for increased access to pregnancy prevention as an alternative to abortion. This also dovetails with safer sex agendas originally promoted by GLBTQ activists that are increasingly mainstream and also controversial: the distribution of condoms in public schools, the broader availability of birth control, and instruction on how to use these technologies to control reproduction.
What can hamper the prevention of pregnancy through education, of course, is the belief of many social conservatives that parents should be — and can be — in complete control of their children’s bodies, and that the public interest is co-terminus with the desire of parents to keep their children ignorant of the facts of human sexuality if they so choose. In recent history, this has led to sex education programs that do not educate the young about sex. Abstinence-only programs (begun in the Reagan years, and supported by the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations) not only emphasize, but are exclusively limited to, instruction about why the young must avoid sex (or at least intercourse) until they are married and in a position to raise children. A study of 2,800 teenage girls recently released by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that, although 97% reported having had sex education in school, only 2/3 had been instructed in how to prevent pregnancy with birth control. As one summary of the CDC report notes, “Lessons about saying no and STDs were more common than instruction on how to use a condom or other birth control….Overall, about two-thirds of teens got birth control instruction by the end of high school — about 62 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls.” By the end of high school is, of course, about six years too late: according to the nonprofit Connect With Kids, by the ninth grade 34% of kids have already had intercourse. And if you are loving those numbers, try these: according to Science Daily, “by age 12, 12 percent of students had already engaged in vaginal sex, 7.9 percent in oral sex, 6.5 percent in anal sex and 4 percent in all three types of intercourse.”
So here’s what I am offering as a compromise position. I won’t give up the right to a safe abortion. However, I will honor and respect the belief that “life” begins at conception (even though I don’t accept it) if my opposite number honors my belief that sex education ought to tell the full truth about sex and reproductive choice, making those choices real through the availability of birth control and insisting that both boys and girls are equally responsible for safer sex practices and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. In this vein, another panelist on my Constitution Day panel noted that all innovations in birth control, except for condom use and the Big Snip, can only be implemented by women. Decades after the sexual revolution, large numbers of adults continue to assume that girls are responsible for “it,” not boys. Think about it: when you imagine your average heterosexual teen couple on the brink of doing the nasty do you imagine: a) her saying no; b) him saying no; c) a chorus of two saying no; d) a group of teens of any gender talking about how much happier and better their lives are without sexual activity?

The logic of abstinence education is, of course, that keeping teens ignorant of sex makes them safer (interestingly, some of the same people would argue that teaching teens how to use and care for guns makes guns safer, a position with which I would agree.) In culture wars logic all sex, whether hetero- or homosex, is “an infectious idea,” as one scholar has put it. If you talk to the young about sex it will make them sexual, a patently absurd proposition if I have ever heard one, but a popular one in certain circles all the same. One of the scariest things I ever heard about teen sex was in a student paper in which I asked students to interview someone else about their experience in sex education. A gay man from Oklahoma City interviewed his best friend from high school, a woman who told him she was “still a virgin” and so was her boyfriend. Both were committed Christians, who wanted to remain “pure” until their wedding night. How did this work in practice? As the interview continued, it turned out that they had been having unprotected anal sex for three years, which she found painful and scary, but a good strategy to help them both wait for marriage.

Now you might argue from this example that the problem with abstinence education is that it doesn’t go far enough: “Say no to that — and that — and that. And, oh yes, there is that.” Perhaps that is so, but I doubt it: teenagers are remarkably creative in finding ways to do what they want without formally breaking the rules; hiding it when they do break the rules; and elaborating justifications for doing things you forgot to make a rule abo

And just in case you think telling students something causes them to learn it, ask any college teacher how many times they have announced their regular office hours, how many places they have written them down, and how many students — every week — come up after class and say “When can I come see you?”
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