Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sexual Miseducation

So, I hear the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina is hosting a sex-ed film festival in Chapel Hill on February 19th. I wish that the sex-ed that I went through had been so enjoyable, as my friend assures me that "Saved!" is hilarious, and the other two films being shown don't look too terrible either (though perhaps not as amusing). It makes me wonder what kind of sex-ed the average American teenager gets.

For me, sex-ed brings to mind my experiences in high school (It was called "Family Life" of course; sex is a dirty word and heaven forbid we expose our teens to that kind of linguistic smut!), where the teachers informed girls in their classes that boys had no interest in lasting relationships and that any sexual escapades would follow the lines of "wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am" and then end in STDs and pregnancy. I hear the boys were told that, should they have sex, they would be infected with every STD ever and their penises would shrivel up and fall off. Condoms were never mentioned, nor was birth control. I didn't attend some little tiny high school in the middle of churchland; this was at the largest public high school in a large school district.

From what I've seen, using such scare tactics only leads to a group of teens that ignore the whole overly dramatic lesson, and go right ahead doing whatever it is they were going to do. Teens aren't stupid; they can tell when the consequences you threaten them with are inflated and, quite frankly, wrong, and when they realize that they're being lied to, they'll write off everything that accompanied the lie as either false or unworthy of their respect.

Basically, I feel that in many situations, educators forget that their students are intelligent people in their own right. Not being informed is not the same as being stupid, and this seems to be overlooked. You can't expect teens (or even children, in many cases) to take you seriously when you tell them that the consequences of their actions will be overwhelming when they can infer from their own experiences that this is not the case. You can't act like the worst-possible-scenario is always the result and hope to retain their respect.

Educators need to be realistic and remember that the teens they are working with do have a good deal of knowledge about the sexual realities of the world around them already, even if this knowledge is sometimes flawed or incomplete. Teens are not a blank slate on which you can write "Sex is a bad thing that leads to bad consequences and you should never do it!!!!" and then go on your merry way. Sex-ed instructors need to look at what teens already know, and take steps to augment that knowledge.

Teens should know about how things like condoms and birth control work. There needs to be dialogue about what to do if they're not remaining abstinent. They already know that condoms and birth control exist. Now they need to know how to obtain and use them.

Abstinence-only programs sometimes claim that their success rate is higher than that of programs that actually educate teens. They cite studies like the one mentioned in the Christian Post's article on North Carolina's sex-ed film fest, which claims that abstinence-only programs kept two-thirds of a sample group of middle schoolers from becoming sexually active, whereas programs teaching about contraception kept only one-half of the teenagers from engaging in sexual activity.

While I don't condone underage sex, I think that these numbers are not the ones that are most important. After all, shouldn't the main objective of these programs be to keep teens from becoming pregnant? Note that even with the abstinence-only program, a third of students still engaged in sexual activities. Unlike the half of students who were taught about contraception and then engaged in sex, these teens did not have any formal grounding in how to prevent pregnancy.

The numbers I'd really like to see are how many of those teens in the abstinence-only program got pregnant as compared to those whose program included information on contraception, because in every class I've taken that mentioned the subject, abstinence-only programs are consistently cited as resulting in higher numbers of teen pregnancies than programs that teach rather than terrorize.


  1. You're absolutely right: as soon as students see you're lying about one thing, they discount it all.

  2. I think that a huge problem that we as a society have in our dealings with our not-quite-adult members is our insistence on treating them as if they are our intellectual inferiors, and are not capable of understanding "adult" things. We would get a lot farther, I believe, if we engaged in dialogue more often than in lecturing, and if we maintained a modicum of respect.

    One of the things I've always hated is a demand for respect and obedience based on the fact that someone else has lived longer. Youth does not necessarily mean stupidity, ignorance, or incompetency, and I wish that society would recognize this more.