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Let’s Pledge to Stop Being Stupid About Teen Sex

Posted on Jan 1, 2009

By Ellen Goodman

    I hate to bring this up right now when the ink is barely dry on your New Year’s resolution. But if history is any guide, you are likely to fall off the assorted wagons to which you are currently lashed.

    I don’t say this to disparage your willpower. Hang onto that celery stick for dear life. And even if you stop doing those stomach crunches and start sneaking out for a smoke, at least you can comfort yourself with fond memories of your moment of resolution.

    Compare that to the statistic in the newest research about teens who pledge sexual abstinence. The majority not only break the pledge, they forget they ever made it.

    This study of teens and pledges comes from Johns Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum, who took a rigorous look at nearly 1,000 students. She compared teens who took a pledge of abstinence with teens of similar backgrounds and beliefs who didn’t. She found absolutely no difference in their sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners.

    In fact, the only difference—aside from apparent memory impairment—was that the group that promised to remain abstinent was significantly less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they did have sex. The lesson many students seemed to retain from their abstinence-only program was a negative and inaccurate view of contraception.


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    This is not just a primer on the capacity for teenage denial or the inner workings of adolescent neurobiology. What makes this study important is simply this: “Virginity pledges” are one of the ways that government officials measure whether abstinence-only education is “working.” They count the pledges as proof that teens will abstain. It turns out that this is like counting New Year’s resolutions as proof that you lost 10 pounds.

    We have been here before. And before that. And before that.

    When he was running for president, George W. Bush promised, “My administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal.” Over the last eight years, a cottage industry of “abstinence-only-until-marriage” purveyors became a McMansion industry. Funding increased from $73 million a year in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. That’s a grand total of $1.5 billion in federal money for an ideology in search of a methodology. And half the states refused funds to pay for sex miseducation.

    By now, there’s an archive of research showing that the binge was a bust. Programs mandated to teach only “the social, psychological and health gains (of) abstaining from sexual activity” and to warn of the dangers of having sex have been awarded failing grades for truth and effectiveness. As Rosenbaum says, “Abstinence-only education is required to give inaccurate information. Teens are savvy consumers of information and know what they are getting.”

    Our national investment in abstinence-only may not be a scam on the scale of Bernie Madoff. But this industry has had standards for truth as loose as some mortgage lenders. It manufactures a product as ill suited to the environment as the SUV. All in all, abstinence-only education has become emblematic of the rule of ideology over science.

    The sorry part is that sex education got caught in the culture wars. It’s been framed, says Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as a battle between “those who wanted virginity pledges and those who wanted to hand out condoms to 14-year-olds.”

    Meanwhile, six in 10 teens have sex before they leave high school and 730,000 teenage girls will get pregnant this year. We see them everywhere from “Juno” to Juneau—or to be more accurate, Anchorage, where Sarah Palin, advocate of abstinence-only education just became an unplanned grandparent.

    What the overwhelming majority of protective parents actually want is not a political battle. They want teens to delay sex and to have honest information about sexuality, including contraception. The programs that work best combine those lessons.

    Soon Congress and the new administration will be asked to ante up again for abstinence-only programs. As Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood says, abstinence-only education was “an experiment gone awry. We spent $1.5 billion and can’t point to a single study that says this helps. If it doesn’t help, why fund it?”

    Teens are not the only masters of denial. But we are finally stepping back from the culture wars. We are, with luck, returning to something that used to be redundant—evidence-based science. That’s a pledge worth signing ... and remembering.
    Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)
    © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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godistwaddle's avatar

By godistwaddle, January 5, 2009 at 11:45 am Link to this comment

ONLY the religious, after all, consider sex as something to be avoided.  We are evolutionarily crafted to have sex when we’re teens.  Denying that is one thing making teens so squirrely.

And we find that religiously motivated (but stupid) kids who take the “abstinence pledge” are too stupid, as well, to remember they did so, AND too ignorant to use contraception.

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By Jim Yell, January 5, 2009 at 9:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Years ago there were studies which showed that pledges were not a brake on sex. The only brake I know on sex is not having an opportunity. On the other hand, age can put the brake on the urge.

It after all isn’t a problem until we make it one. Now pregnancy is much more problematical. As we begin to drown in humanity and starvation increases it should be a crime to procreate beyond your means, but not a crime to have sex.

If you want to help teach people proper sex rules and to be respectful of each other, the rest will take care of itself. Being a virgin just means you haven’t any measure of what to expect or how to do it leaving yourself confused and disappointed, not to mention your partner.

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By Allan Gurfinkle, January 5, 2009 at 8:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Because AIDS has been politicized we don’t have mandatory testing and effective prevention, so that every sexual encounter with anyone other than your partner of long standing carries the risk of an incurable life threatening disease.  I’m glad as hell AIDS wasn’t around when I was a kid. And I think any discussion of sex for teens to seniors has to consider the impact of the AIDS.

Also, I think the idea that kids are going to reliably use condoms is probably out of touch with the reality of teen hormones.  So that’s another factor.

Another factor is that technology, that is the pill, radically changed everyone’s and the culture’s concept of the consequences of sex and made it completely disconnected from procreation.

Also, there is the history of the human race up to about 50 years ago, when premarital or teen sex was (probably, as far as I know) prohibited (to the extent possible) in every culture.

Taking all the above into account, I don’t think prohibition is such a bad idea.

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By Folktruther, January 4, 2009 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

Naz-  It is not only that religion has inherited the Purity ideology of the Holy Bible, conceiving of unauthorized sex as dirty, but we have also inherited its presuppositions that people are sexual property.  My wife or daugter is mine and no one else can fuck her. Indeed, the Purity and Property ideology inherited in our demented relgious traditions prevent a the development of simple language about sex that is not clinical or vulgar.

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By MzScarlett, January 3, 2009 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment

human beings are sexual beings: just as they are THINKING & EMOTIONAL beings; grow up, get real & get over it! If you are not adult enough to speak openly & freely to your own children & OTHERS: you need to get an MRI to see if you have a brain to begin with!  The interests of the people in the Gov are NOT the same interests of the people & they like to throw in “emotional” issues, etc, just to distract you from the diabolically evil things that they are up to: like overthrowing countries & oppressing every single one of them & they are NOT being a blessing at all; & the simple fact that we have military bases in over 100 countries: there to OPPRESS & ABUSE: never ever there to aid & heal: there to only harm, destroy families, & do the utmost harm & abuse to all. Apparently THIS is THEIR (corrupt Gov) “method” of “birth control”;

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By Purple Girl, January 3, 2009 at 6:59 am Link to this comment

If we are going to talk about Sex, we must discuss contraceptive methods, thus Reproductive Rights. And since it takes Two to tango, the Balls must be added to the kitty.
Let’s be Frank…We don’t need all you boys to reproduce, Hell one of you could be sufficient for several Women…And sometimes you are but are not around to help anyway!
If I can be forced to give birth, then my ‘partner’ should then be forced have a vasectomy.If the State can require Me to have a child, then the State must enforce the same level of interference on the co Producer.
Of course this is Tongue in cheek…But the Logic for Personal Rights and Freedoms remains the same.
Want to finally end this BS Politcal wedge issue, go after their Balls!

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By Naz, January 3, 2009 at 12:24 am Link to this comment

I’m surprised no one mentioned that the ideology of abstinence-only comes straight from religious belief that sex is a sin. It’s dirty. It’s pornography. It’s prostitution. It should be illegal throughout the country. These beliefs are insane.
All the religious institutions in this country should be taxed because they are and have been making political policy. I’d love to see them have to show how much they are pulling in each year and how much they are paying in taxes. Unfortunately, I’ll never live to see the day.

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By tdbach, January 2, 2009 at 2:01 pm Link to this comment

Lichen - It certainly IS my business if my son or daughter have sex, because if they get sick or pregnant from it, I am the one who has to pay for it. That’s putting just the dollar sense on it, putting aside the emotional pain of seeing someone I love above all else suffering or having his/her future shattered. I don’t advocate abstinance-only sex ed, or even abstinence-advocating sex ed, but like everything else they experiment in at this stage in their lives (drinking, drugs, power playing, etc.), I want them to know that I care and I’m available to talk about it. To simply say, “it’s none of my business” is completely irresponsible, lazy, and unloving.

Leisure - Your mileage may vary, but most teenagers I know are less mature and ready to embrace adult challenges than we were at their age only 40 years ago, and we were probably less prepared than the teenagers of the 19th century. The industrialization of society and the modern family structure postpones the transfer of real responsibility from very early ages until, sometimes, well into their 20s, which has “softened” them. This isn’t true for all kids or all families, of course, but it is true generally.

Purplewolf - I agree. It is a hopeless enterprise to try to teach against nature, particularly reproductive nature, which is the very force of biological nature. The challenge, it seems to me, is acknowledge and work within those forces, but somehow leverage our “wisdom” (ability to see a bigger picture) to get our offspring through to adulthood with minimal damage to their future prospects.

Which makes Anarcissie’s comment particularly funny and true.

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By purplewolf, January 2, 2009 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

I worked for the Red Cross in the late 60’s in the maternity ward. We had 13 year old mothers and even a few at age 10 who were pregnant or had just given birth back then. I graduated high school in 1971 and when asked where I went to school, even people from California had heard of Grand Blanc Mich., where if you were a virgin after 13 y.o you were a freak. I was one of those freaks. I am certain many other cities can equal the sexual initiation at or before a child’s 13th year, but by trying to teach/force abstinence only programs is illogical.

Hormones rule over logic and teachings in most cases. Instead of wasting money for these programs, since many parents do not want the responsibility of teaching their children about their sexuality, educate them in what they need to know, like safe sex, birth control and their consequences should they decide to engage in sexual activity. Let them at least be armed with the knowledge of preventing unwanted pregnancies before they are ready to provide for that child and to prevent diseases.

What’s next the resurgence of the chastity belt?

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By Anarcissie, January 2, 2009 at 9:17 am Link to this comment

I agree with lichen in principle, but I wonder what older people will have to be excitedly scandalized about if they stop dwelling on what teenagers are up to.

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By Leisure Suit Larry, January 2, 2009 at 9:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I suppose getting advise on “abstanance” from a guy who uses “Leisure Suit Larry” for his screen name is equivelent to getting stock tips from Bernie Madoff. BUT it is a fact that like it or not, what wwe refer to as “children” are sexually ready at increasingly younger ages, and at the same time we are (as a society) attempting to delay their sexual activity for longer periods of time.

This should be a discussion about reality, instead both right and left are pushing policies from OZ.

How about this; End High school at age 16. Then college would be over (for most) at age 20. This is realistic, anything which attempts to delay “adulthood” further is not!

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By lichen, January 1, 2009 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

It is none of your business whether teenagers have sex, and yes, they should do it whenever they want to, and yes, condoms and other methods of birth control should be freely handed out to them.  There are no health, social, or psychological benefits to “waiting” for sex.

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