You could say I’m wearing three “hats” as I write this. First, I’m a mother of two Pennsylvania public school graduates. As an abstinence educator, I’ve spoken to students statewide for more than 20 years. Wearing this “hat” enables me to see the classroom side and the real-life results of various sex-education programs.
I’m also the director of the Women’s Choice Network where I personally oversee the services offered to thousands of young women seeking pregnancy testing and sonograms in our three area medical clinics.
It was at a Pittsburgh office that I met “Cassie.” Cassie was shocked to see that her pregnancy test was positive. As are so many of our teenage clients, she was well-schooled in contraceptive use. She quoted the statistics on her birth control of choice. “It’s 97.5 percent effective; I can’t be pregnant.”
“Rege” was equally upset when his girlfriend Sierra’s test was positive. “We use condoms every time,” he said, showing me a brochure he got at school. “They are 85 percent effective.” They quote the statistics they learn in sex ed, but these are best-case statistics that don’t play out in real life.
Those are just two examples of a shocking trend: 70 percent of our pregnant clients were using birth control when they got pregnant.
Clearly we’re all concerned about these students. But the sex education bills before the state House are a misguided attempt to address these realities and would move our schools in the wrong direction.
When I was first asked to speak in a school health class, the invitation came from a student. It was 1985, the year that HIV was first termed AIDS. Planned Parenthood was providing a talk the day before mine, so I sat in on it to be sure we weren’t duplicating information.
The presentation I heard that day is still in use today. The Planned Parenthood talk basically said: Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, but if you don’t abstain, here are the 13 methods of birth control. Thirty seconds on abstinence, 45 minutes on birth control methods.
The sex education programs mandated by the proposed legislation are simply the repackaged version of the failed “safe sex” messages in that 1985 presentation. These programs and those who promote them are stuck in the 1980s. Because they briefly mention abstinence only as one option, the message that students hear is about condoms and birth control, and that we expect them to engage in sexual activity as teens.
Authentic abstinence education, however, gives students a goal, a standard of sexual integrity. Abstinence is linked to marriage and therefore has a context. Abstinent students will experience less STD infection, teen depression and suicide. They will be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They will do better in school and have less marital difficulties later in life. Authentic abstinence education encourages students to abstain from all risky behavior and to set high standards and boundaries.
It clearly states that there is no “safe sex” for an unmarried teen.
In stark contrast, the comprehensive programs encourage risky sexual behaviors among ways to “abstain” from sexual intercourse: One leading program called “Focus on Kids” prompts teachers to: “State that there are other ways to be close to a person without having sexual intercourse. Ask youth to brainstorm ways to be close. The list may include body massage, bathing together, masturbation, sensuous feeding, fantasizing, watching erotic movies, reading erotic books and magazines.”
We set a standard for our kids by asking them to abstain from smoking, drug and alcohol abuse and even from eating fatty foods. We teach about the medical risks and long-term effects of these dangerous choices. We don’t abandon those standards just because they will shove down the occasional burger and fries. If we see teens smoking, we don’t revamp programs to help them “smoke safely.”
I tell kids (and adults) that abstinence is a reasonable, desirable, attainable goal. Kids get it. Many have thanked me for it. Abstinence from sex is the medical best. Anything less puts our kids at grave risk.
As a committed parent, a frequent guest in health classes and a professional serving women in crisis, I know that students are longing for honest relationships and need help in negotiating their journey to adulthood. If we cannot look to our schools to raise a standard, then our communities lose heart, families are left unsupported and students fail.
Amy Scheuring is an abstinence educator and author of the book “Sex: More Than a Plumbing Lesson.” She is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.