For the past several days, reproductive health advocates have been wrestling with something of a sexual counterrevolution. A new study appears to support abstinence-based sexuality education, which, on the surface, may undercut the case for comprehensive sex-ed, which focuses on giving youth all the facts about sexuality and reproductive health, as opposed to “just say no.” So is this a victory for virginity school? Not quite.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month on a study of an abstinence-focused program for middle-schoolers that could have helped delay their first sexual activity:
Only about a third of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active.
The demographic profile of the subjects reflects the racial subtext of the sex-ed controversy. The study covered 662 Black middle-school students in the Northeast. Historically, Black and Latina teen pregnancy rates have been remarkably high, and Black and Latina youth have suffered alarming rates of AIDS infection. So the study’s focus on Black youth veers into the anxious politics of disease and teen motherhood in communities of color.
Previous studies have underscored the ineffectiveness of conservative abstinence-only education. And the Obama administration recently reversed the Bush administration’s longstanding policy of funneling huge amounts of taxpayer money into various programs that often fixate, unscientifically, on inculcating abstinence until marriage. But progressive advocates argue that the new findings don’t contradict earlier research. Advocates for Youth, which promotes the comprehensive approach, points out that the program in the study doesn’t demonize all sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Instead, it counsels kids on being in control of their sexual decisions. In fact, one of the main tenets of comprehensive sex ed is that the program aim to promote responsible behavior through “age appropriate” instruction. The comprehensive model is less interested in scaring kids about losing their virginity than in helping them handle sex in a mature way. Proponents don’t want middle-schoolers to jump into bed with each other; they’re pro-informed choice, not pro-hedonism. Amanda Marcotte at RH Reality Check says the study is hardly a vindication of the hellfire-and-brimstone chastity talk that some would prefer to see in the nation’s classrooms:
This successful program very narrowly taught a bunch of 6th and 7th graders to wait until they were ready, accepting that for the vast majority of them, “ready” is going to come before marriage. “Wait until prom” is a much different message than “wait until marriage”. There was no denouncing of contraception you get in the standard abstinence-only curriculum, and in fact the teachers were told that if a student expressed misinformation about condoms, that they were to correct them. As Jill Filipovic noted in the Guardian, “In other words, the programme was exactly what the abstinence portion of a good comprehensive sex-ed class would look like.”
The program in the study appears to broadly reflect holistic sex-ed principles. Researcher Loretta Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing said in an interview on NPR’s Tell Me More, “Our program didn’t focus on the moralistic issue of waiting until marriage. It focused on waiting until you’re responsible to be able to handle the consequences of sex.” So it seems this approach could fit with a long-term comprehensive program that teaches children about abstinence and safe sex in gradations that match their age and circumstances.
In Washington, the sex ed debate flares along ideological lines, but the communities most at risk seldom enjoy the luxury of polemics. Access to information as a major factor shaping sexual behavior among youth of color, and the additional barriers many of them face—poverty, neighborhood violence, housing and food insecurity—complicate the task of fitting sex education into their everyday lives.
HIV/STI and teen pregnancy prevention programs targeting youth of color are also most likely to be effective when they—
- Are culturally competent and in the language of the target population
- Involve community members and youth in planning and implementation
- Focus on the assets of teenage participants and on the needs of the whole young person
- Consider the social and cultural factors that influence behavior
- Provide peer support to change peer norms
- Offer gender-specific opportunities and activities
- Aim at building skills
- Use multiple pathways to reach and empower youth in the community.
Sadly, the communities hardest-hit by sexual health issues are not only disempowered on an individual decision-making level, but marginalized from the political discourse about who teaches what to their kids. The program in the study is a relevant example in that it tries to be conscious of the needs of youth of color. That, and not the Beltway culture wars, should be the focus of policymakers as well.