Refighting Yesterdays

By the 2000s, the standard 90-second volleying between dueling teen-sex foes in the news media had become a hollaback drill: Sex education! (SENDS ... TEENS ...DOUBLE ...MESSAGES!). Give me abstinence-only! (DENIES ... TEENS ... LIFESAVING ... FACTS!). For all the sound and fury lamenting teens having sex and/or babies, these issues get raised the way jousters raise lances. On the progressive shows and blogs such as RachelMaddow, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Huffington Post, and Salon, teen pregnancy's main utility seems to be to jab at former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (she of loud morals and prego daughter), Democratic senators who oppose health care reform, corporate advertising, southern-state legislators, conservative lobbies, Fox News, and anyone else they are otherwise annoyed with who also supported abstinence-only.

Truth and fairness are no more provinces of the Left than the Right. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow declared that in Texas, where abstinence was righteously preached, "a teenager gets pregnant every 12 minutes."52 (Understated, actually; figures from the Alan Guttmacher Institute suggest it is every six minutes.) True, Texas has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, 20 percent above the national average. However, the problem is, next door New Mexico, whose sex education curriculum is not limited to abstinence-only, has the nation's fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate, 23 percent above the national average. As for Palin's gravid daughter, the sex-versus-abstinence arguers exploited Bristol's pregnancy as a prime example upholding whatever they advocated without mentioning that the Wasilla, Alaska, high school Bristol attended provided comprehensive sex education and abstinence classes. Though I am pretty sure no one cares, Guttmacher Institute figures show Alaska's teen pregnancy rate ranks thirtieth in the country, well below the national average, even as its native Inuit teens have very high pregnancy rates.

What do Texas, New Mexico, and Inuit youth have in common that Alaska white youth do not? A high rate of poverty, which is an issue progressives like Maddow used to talk about. But in privatized debate concerning powerless populations like youth, no one feels compelled to consider, let alone mention, inconvenient truths. Tom Wolfe keyed the national tone for a teen-sex discourse that long ago stopped being about teens.

Still, I do not mean to imply that everyone involved in the issue has become as cynical and deceptive as combatants at the national level. From Internet sites to school and storefront clinics, there are hundreds of reproductive health programs and information providers serving clients of all ages at low or no cost. They help teenagers obtain contraception and other services, including getting around cruel and dangerous efforts by policymakers to deny adolescents any assistance neopuritans worry might facilitate their having sex without suffering consequences. If right-wing bluenoses cannot have a little indiscreet whoopee without getting love children or blackmailed or sued, why should some swarthy kid get away with it?

The irony is that as the quarrelers debating sex-versus-abstinence education insist in rising stridence that teens will screw and reproduce and die from poxes by the millions if the hated other side wins, the proliferation of online and localized services has rendered what schools teach increasingly irrelevant. Not only are school curriculums becoming less important in young people's larger world of sex and contraceptive information, but politics at the national, state, and school-board level is rendering schools unreliable sources of sexual information. Teens are much better off consulting a variety of Internet sources (note: variety) and local health clinics than in depending on politically warped school classes to provide truthful and useful information. Teens who feel the need to have abstinence preached at their wholesome faces can find PG-rated sites to do that as well.

I do not pretend neutrality in the old-school quarrel. As detailed in Chapter 10, my doubt that what schools teach has any great effect on teen pregnancy rates in either direction should not be taken as indifference to the factual and moral atrocity that abstinence-only education represents. Abstinence-only (including abstinence-lite that pushes chastity while short-shrifting alternatives) is not only ineffective and misleading; it is morally objectionable. It is simply not true, as Congress's 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) insisted, that "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage" is "the expected standard" Americans observe. Surveys, unwed pregnancy rates, STD rates, divorce rates, and other measures confirm that, as a class, American adults—most especially adults age 20 and older who cause the large majority of what we call "teen" pregnancies—do not follow any such standard. In particular, grownups in the "red" states from whence the most conservative lawmakers pushing abstinence-only hail, and which have the highest unwed pregnancy and divorce rates, are the least likely to follow marriage-only edicts. As detailed, brothel-loads of conservative politicians and religious moralizers feel no compulsion to follow abstinence-outside-marriage standards themselves. The AFLA's mandate to teach abstinence to the exclusion of all other issues trashes the Ninth Commandment against bearing false witness and Ecclesiastes's warnings against vanity. It allows grownups, especially the most compromised, to indulge pleasing pretenses about ourselves amid the rosy glow of sternly telling the kids to keep it zipped.

What kids learn from abstinence education, then, if they are paying attention at all, is how to lie about sex like a grownup. Witness the peculiar "teen panel syndrome" (as San Jose State University library science professor Anthony Bernier terms it), which refers to conference organizers selecting certain teenagers for the mandatory "teen panel" according to their reliability in denigrating their youthful peers while affirming adults' rights to engage in the same behaviors for which they denigrated their peers.

This, then, is why comprehensive, objective sex education uncluttered by phony values preaching and abstinence-slanted misinformation is necessary as a school curriculum. First, sex, reproduction, contraception, sexual health, and related issues are normal parts of biology and health disciplines and thus normal topics for instruction. Second, adults owe honesty to teens because we, as a society, have made teens a part of the adult sexual world. Of the girls under age 18 who gave birth in the most recent years reported, California's tabulations (the most comprehensive in the country) show the ages of fathers ranged from 13 to 62. Just 20 percent of the fathers were also under 18; half were 20 and older; and as many were 30 and older as were under age 16.

There are around 4,500 births every year in California involving fathers 21 and older with mothers age 17 and younger—and births reflect just a fraction of all sexual behaviors involving teens with teens and teens with adults. Although teenagers may find better information sources online, schools have an obligation to guarantee that no young person lacks objective, useful information on the realities they face. The practical reality, with a few exceptions, is that adult-teen sex even with large age gaps remains acceptable, and the younger party usually will be blamed for any consequences.

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100 Pregnancy Tips

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