By Valerie Huber, Executive Director, National Abstinence Education Association
The sex education mandate in New York City repeats the same approach flaunted since the 1970s. Simply put, it goes something like this: “We’ve got a problem with teen pregnancy, but instead of any meaningful emphasis on restraint and sexual delay, let’s make sure teens have ready access to contraception.” One would think that the contraceptive-centered approach would effectively lead to a decrease in pregnancies and STD infections, but the numbers don’t treat this approach favorably. Nationwide, teen condom usage has dramatically risen since 1991[i] (the first year the CDC began tracking it), yet STD rates for teens have skyrocketed during this same time period. In fact, the chlamydia and gonorrhea rates among teens are four times that of the rest of the population.[ii] Teens are told that sex plus a condom equals “safe sex,” but science tells another story. Two of the most infectious sexually transmitted infections, HPV and Herpes (HSV) can be easily transmitted even with the use of a condom. [iii] This is because both STDs can be passed from partner to partner through skin-to-skin contact, including skin not normally covered by a condom. Teens need to receive all the information they need to make the healthiest decisions, which insists that they also be told that while condoms might reduce their risk for contracting STDs or becoming pregnant, condoms will not prevent or eliminate the risk. Only sexual risk avoidance education will adequately equip teens with the skills they need to avoid sexual risk and successfully navigate through the possible consequences of teen sex. So why would Mayor Bloomberg censor this important information for teens? Nationwide, the National Center for Health Statistics reveals that 68% of boys and 67% of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 have never had sexual intercourse. [iv] And these trends are continuing to move in the right direction. Why, then would we not want to encourage these healthy decisions and positive trends by providing genuine sexual risk avoidance education that is an intrinsic part of abstinence-centered programming? The mayor can (and must) make a policy correction. Abstinence-centered education must be permitted in New York City. It’s what’s best for NYC youth.
[i] Centers for Disease Control (2011). Trends in the prevalence of sexual behaviors: National YRBS: 1991-2009. Atlanta: CDC. Accessed August 28, 2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/pdf/us_sexual_trend_yrbs.pdf
[ii] Centers for Disease Control (2011). STD rates by age. Atlanta: CDC. Accessed on Aug 28, 2011 from http://www.cdc.gov/std/health-disparities/age.htm
[iii] Centers for Disease Control ( 2010) Genital Herpes – CDC fact sheet. Atlanta: CDC. Accessed Aug 28, 2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/std/Herpes/STDFact-Herpes.htm
Centers for Disease Control (2011) Genital HPV infection – Fact sheet. Atlanta: CDC. Accessed Aug 28, 2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/std/HPV/STDFact-HPV.htm
By Dr. Nanci Coppola, Healthy Respect
Abstinence-centered education teaches adolescents to avoid sexual activity; as such it is a primary prevention strategy that can fully prevent the harmful and costly consequences of teen sex. Perhaps this is why the American College of Pediatricians strongly endorses abstinence education and recommends its adoption by all school systems in lieu of “comprehensive sex education”. This position is based on “the public health principle of primary prevention – risk avoidance in lieu of risk reduction,” upholding the “human right to the highest attainable standard of health.”
In a public health model, the first level of prevention, known as primary prevention, refers to inhibiting the development of disease or habit before it occurs. Since successful primary prevention helps avoid the suffering, cost and burden associated with disease, it is typically considered the most cost-effective form of health care. Secondary prevention measures are those that identify and treat persons who have already developed risk factors but in whom the condition may not be apparent. Screening tests are examples of secondary prevention activities. Tertiary prevention activities involve the care of an established disease, with attempts made to minimize the negative effects of disease, and prevent disease-related complications.
Society has consistently promoted a primary prevention model in drug awareness programs with the goal being to intervene with students before they begin using. Substance abuse has come to be seen as both a health problem and as a barrier to educational achievement. The goal is to prevent the onset of the use of illicit substances. All around our culture the message is clear and consistent: we do not say “Don’t smoke, but if you do use low-nicotine cigarettes.”
Yet when it comes to sex, many people have difficulty with a prevention message. Teen pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) have come to be seen as both health problems and as a barrier to educational achievement. So why is it difficult to realize that the goal should be to use the rules of primary prevention—to prevent the onset of teen sexual activity?
The goal of prevention is primary—to intervene with individuals before they begin sexual activity—to delay the onset of sexual activity. A good public health model does more than secondary prevention, which would simply limit the number of sexual partners, and teach risk reduction options.
Clearly, health promotion in general and teen pregnancy/STD prevention in particular are vitally important to the healthy physical, emotional, and educational development of our nation's youth. So the real question should be: don’t our children deserve the most effective form of sexual health education? Since abstinence is primary prevention, isn’t that what they deserve?
By Mike Rosich
When I heard the term the “curse of knowledge” I thought it peculiar. How could knowledge be a curse? Certainly we attend school to gain knowledge, and we read books for the same reason. What then is this curse?
The term curse of knowledge stems from the assumption that everyone else knows what we know. It was first introduced in the business world as a tool to explain how customers think verses how the business owners think. People often assume that since they think in a certain way so does everyone else. This unfortunately can lead to erroneous conclusions.
When it comes to sex education, the curse is alive and well. Many proponents of condom based education assume that teenagers are going to act and think as they would. What could be easier: If you want to avoid disease, and unplanned pregnancies use a condom. Case closed.
The results from the last ten years of sex education prove otherwise. Any classroom teacher will tell you that what is taught is not always what is learned. Even in the best circumstances students do not fully appreciate the value of their classroom experience. If they did, teachers would never have to tell a student to bring a pencil to school, nor would they ever have to remind students to take out a notebook. Less experienced teachers often complain about how it is students come to class unprepared. Don’t students understand that going to school is their job and being prepared to take notes is what they are supposed to do?
Now let’s look at this in terms of sex education. Do we really believe if we teach a student to use a condom that they are actually going to use it in the prescribed manner? Do we think that the condom will protect their emotional well-being? Teenagers do not think the same way adults do and assuming they are going to act in an adult manner when it comes to such an important issue is also erroneous. This is exactly why abstinence centered education is a better solution.
Teaching students the consequences of their actions and how to prevent them is a much more straightforward and practical solution. Even young children know they are not supposed to have sex and that doing so poses a risk, even if they are not sure what that risk is. Working from a knowledge base that already exists helps avoid all the perils and obvious shortcomings of the current sex education curriculum that tries to teach a student to use a condom, knowing full well that condoms do not always prevent pregnancy or disease. Until teenagers have the ability to think and act like adults we should not try and treat them as adults. Teaching them that a condom makes sex “safe” is unfair and doomed to failure. Perhaps it is time to teach something even a child can understand.
By Dr. Nanci Coppola, Healthy Respect
Opponents of abstinence-centered education contend that these programs are “just say no programs” existing only for the purpose of telling kids not to have sex and keeping them from encountering information about condoms and contraception. Abstinence-centered education is not about teaching kids to say “NO” to sex; it is about teaching them to say “Yes” to a physically and emotionally healthy future.
With all of the debate about “comprehensive” sex-ed versus abstinence-centered education it seems that we are forgetting a critical issue. We need to focus not only on what we are fighting about, but who we are fighting for!
The sex-ed mandate focuses on students in middle and high school, and therefore we are talking about children – some as young as eleven or twelve years old. As such we need to concern ourselves with the physical and emotional well being of these children. What we should consider are ways to teach students to build healthy relationships and to set goals and boundaries for themselves. Abstinence-centered programs provide these kinds of proactive methods.
The human cost of teen sexual activity is easy enough to measure in the many thousands of new cases of sexually transmitted infections each year and the high teen pregnancy rate. The figures are numbing, yet each number is the life of a young person whose hopes for the future is inalterably changed due to a sexually transmitted infection that may be incurable, or a pregnancy that a teen girl (and often a teen boy) struggles to deal with.
The economic cost of teen sexual activity is more difficult to determine. After all, how do you put a price tag on a young person’s health, dreams, goals and hopes for a healthy and productive life?
Welcome to the NYCParentsChoice.org blog! We will be updating the blog regularly with information about NYC’s mandated “comprehensive” sex education curricula and the effective evidence-based alternatives we are demanding. In this first blog post, I want to discuss in broad terms the two philosophies of sex education that are driving this controversy over curricula.
The term “comprehensive” sex education is one developed by the boosters of such curricula and it refers to the idea that the programs teach both abstinence and contraception as methods of avoiding unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and diseases. “Abstinence-only” is also a term concocted by the purveyors of “comprehensive” sex ed, and is intended to connote that such programs only exist for the purpose of telling kids not to have sex and keeping them from encountering information about condoms and contraception. We prefer to refer to such programs as abstinence-centered programs.
So what is the difference? In reality, condom-based “comprehensive” programs are based on the premise that kids will have sex, and there is nothing we can do about it. They treat abstinence and condom use as equally valid means of avoiding pregnancy and disease. So the curriculum recommended for middle school students can say, for instance, “Unplanned pregnancy is a risk of unprotected sex.” Strictly, this is absolutely true; but its implication is false, namely that unplanned pregnancy is not a risk of protected sex.
Abstinence-centered education, on the other hand, wants to make clear that pregnancy and disease are risks for both protected sex and unprotected sex. While protected sex certainly reduces the risk in any particular instance, it does not eliminate it, and proponents of abstinence-centered education think that we do young people a disservice by leading them to believe otherwise. Abstinence education advocates argue that young people can be challenged to remain abstinent, and many of them will. In fact, recent evidence shows that more and more young people are abstaining from sex through high school. For those who don’t, abstinence centered programs do inform students about contraceptive methods—and their limitations. If they decide to have sex, they do so with full knowledge of the risk they are taking. It is a fact-based, common sense approach to sex education: kids need to know that the only way to avoid the risk of disease and pregnancy is to be abstinent.
Condom-based sex ed says, “Unprotected sex makes babies.” Abstinence-centered sex ed says, “No, sex makes babies.” With teen pregnancy rates static and sexually transmitted diseases at epidemic levels, more young people need to learn that their risks are serious, even if they use protection. Kids need to be encouraged to make the best choice: abstinence.