Everyone wants to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But how?
Conservatives demand limiting school sex education to promotion of abstinence until marriage. Liberals insist on lessons about contraceptives and STI prevention, which means promoting condoms. The two sides are locked in passionate antagonism, but actually, they share remarkably similar core values, and neither of their strategies has been shown to reduce teen sex, pregnancies, or STIs.
Meanwhile, the research literature reveals that the real key to reducing teen sexual irresponsibility is parents willing to discuss their sexual values with their kids. If schools jettisoned sex education classes and instead sponsored classes to help parents become better sex educators at home, it’s clear that teen pregnancies and STIs would decline. Parents might also encourage teen sexual responsibility based on a concept totally foreign to both the Liberals and Conservative agendas, the simple idea that safe sex means better, more erotic sex.
Surprise: Teens Are Sexually Conservative
Both Liberals and Conservatives rail about the “teen sex crisis.” Hence the political tug-of-war over sex education in schools. If there ever was a teen sex crisis, it has clearly abated. Over the past 20+ years, surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that teens have become considerably more conservative and responsible. Since 1991:
* The proportion of teens reporting intercourse has dropped from 54 percent to 47 percent.
* Teen condom use has jumped from 46 percent to 63 percent.
* Births to teens have fallen 33 percent.
* And teen STI rates have remained largely unchanged, despite billions of Web pages of free pornography and the unprecedented sexual content of hip-hop song lyrics.
Who Deserves Credit?
Conservatives insist that the decline in teen sex proves the value of abstinence education. However, the abstinence push began in 1998, but the teen birth rate started falling seven years earlier. Abstinence-only sex education is most deeply entrenched in the South and less popular elsewhere. Guess where the teen pregnancy rate is highest—the South. Teen birth rates in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are two to three times higher than those in Vermont, New York, and Michigan. Many abstinence programs ask teens to sign a vow of virginity until marriage. But a CDC study shows that only 12 percent of those who make virginity vows keep them. In other words, abstinence education has an 88 percent failure rate. Finally, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, analyzed 26 studies of programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy. Abstinence-only programs did not delay first intercourse at all. In fact, pregnancies increased.
Liberals sex education fares no better. Before I became a journalist, I worked in family planning. I talked up contraceptives and STI prevention in countless middle and high schools. I thought I got through to the students, but I didn’t. The McMaster analysis included many Liberal programs. They, too, had no impact: no delay of intercourse, no increased use of contraceptives, no reduced risk of STIs, and no fewer pregnancies.
The schools in my hometown, San Francisco, teach a Liberal sex education program in grades five through eight that beats kids over the head with information about contraceptives and STI prevention. Nonetheless, when my son was in fifth grade, he came home and announced that only one contraceptive is 100 percent effective—abstinence.
Nonsense. Another method is 100 percent effective—not to mention, popular, lots of fun, and free. It's non-intercourse lovemaking: genital massage (hand jobs), oral sex, and sex toys. But even the most Liberal school sex education programs never mention it. Doing so would acknowledge that kids might experience sexual pleasure, which would negate the core value that unites Liberals and Conservatives more than anything divides them, namely, that for teens, sex is dangerous. Forget “sex education.” What schools teach is “dangers-of-sex” education.
The Answer: Parents Talking About Sex
If neither Conservatives nor Liberals deserve credit for the substantial long-term decline in teen sexual irresponsibility, who does? Parents. They have been discussing sex with their children—and getting through to them.
Now I hasten to add that I parented two children (now in their twenties), and like most parents, I was convinced that my kids rarely, if ever, listened to me. As a result, it was hard for me to believe that parents actually get through to kids about sex.
But yes, parents do get through. The research consistently shows that when parents discuss sex, teens delay it, and, when they become sexual, teens are more likely to use condoms. According to the CDC, compared with teens whose mothers never mentioned condoms, those whose moms did were three times more likely to use condoms during first intercourse and 20 times more likely to use them subsequently.
Sex educators moan that parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex, refuse to do so, and are often misinformed—hence sex education in schools. I contend that to be effective sex educators, parents need not be comfortable, eloquent, or erudite. All they have to do is try.
Parents are trying—even if they don't want to. AIDS forced it on them. AIDS was identified in 1981, but wasn’t widely perceived as a threat to heterosexuals until the early 1990s, when parents flipped out that sexual irresponsibility might kill their children. Uncomfortable as they felt about discussing sex, they felt an urgent need to protect their kids from AIDS, so they started talking—and that’s when teen sex began its steady decline, and when teen condom use began increasing.
Welcome to Sex Education Class—For Parents
A Bruce Springsteen song says, “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” As far as sex education is concerned, that’s true. It doesn’t matter if school-based sex education programs embrace the Liberal or Conservative approach, they have no impact on teens. They’re a waste of money and should be abolished. Instead, schools should invest their sex education dollars in offering classes to parents to help them discuss sex with their children, whatever their values. Conservatives argue that sex education belongs in the home. They’re right—not just because parents control the message, but because home-based sex education actually works.
Could parent-empowerment classes work? Yes. Penn State researchers offered mothers of teens two brief classes on discussing sexual issues. Afterwards, their children said it was easier to talk about sex with their moms, and the mothers and teens spend more time discussing sexual issues.
If Conservative parents want to urge abstinence until marriage, that’s their prerogative. But my wife and I took a different tack with our kids. We promoted consent, condoms, lubrication, and pleasure.
* Consent. No coercion ever. If you feel coerced, do whatever is necessary to extricate yourself from the situation.
* Condoms. When used carefully, condoms virtually eliminate pregnancy and STI risk. Conservatives vastly over-estimate condom failure rates. As contraceptives, condoms are 85 to 98 percent effective. This does not mean two to 15 pregnancies per 100 acts of condom-covered intercourse. It means that if 100 couples use condoms exclusively for a year, two to 15 can expect an accidental pregnancy, and when used carefully and consistently the failure rate is much closer to two than 15. When condoms are used carefully, they’re almost as effective as the Pill. Overall, they’re better than the Pill because they also prevent STIs, including AIDS.
* Lubrication. Vaginal lubrication reduces risk of condom breakage and increases comfort during intercourse. Many women don’t produce much natural lubrication, among them many teenage girls anxious about sex. Commercial lubricants are inexpensive, take only a few seconds to apply, and greatly enhance sexual comfort. When my children became sexually active, my wife and I gave them vials of lubricant. They thanked us.
* Pleasure. The most enjoyable sex is fueled not only by lust, but also by trust and relaxation. Who can trust a lover who ignores the risks of pregnancy and STIs? Safe sex is more than public health hype. It’s crucial to the deep relaxation necessary for sexual pleasure.
This country sells everything with sex. Why not use sexual pleasure to sell sexual responsibility? It’s one of the few places where a “sex sell” is actually appropriate.
My wife and I told our kids, “When you feel ready for partner sex, embrace sexual responsibility because it leads to better sex.” A radical notion, perhaps. But I believe our approach might further reduce teen pregnancy and STIs. It might also help teens grow up to be something they all truly want to be, namely, good lovers.