Teens do it (whether you like it or not)

A ‘just say no to sex’ message isn’t going to work for all teens all the time

Educators and parents can say what they will; teens will continue to have sex. Teens should have the information they need to have sex more safely and responsibly.

Educators and parents can say what they will; teens will continue to have sex. Teens should have the information they need to have sex more safely and responsibly.

Photo By David Robert

Birds do it. Bees do it. But teens shouldn’t do it.

At least that’s how many adults would prefer things. Once upon a time, they too were young and subject to raging hormones. But did they listen to their parents’ warnings about the dangers of sex? Maybe, but they probably went ahead and had sex anyway, and there’s a good chance their kids will as well. But is it really such a tragedy that teenagers have sex? It’s nothing new, and there will be teenagers having sex as long as there are teenagers.

As a teen, I heard abstinence and safe-sex messages, and I understood the reasoning behind both stances, but I sneered at simplistic messages like “just say no” and “save yourself for the right person.” The instant adults started talking as though teens were innocent babes who should be protected from the sinister urges of the libido, my interest went out the window. I just couldn’t see why humans’ sexual drive was something to fear or be ashamed of.

That’s why I think abstinence-only messages aren’t going to work for every teenager. I was one of those teens who didn’t buy into the notion that I should remain chaste and “pure” until my true love found me and we got married and lived happily ever after. I won’t go into details about my first sexual experiences, but I think information about the dangers of unprotected sex and having access to birth control helped me make important decisions about sex.

But are today’s teens getting the information they need to make decisions about their sex lives? In today’s conservative political climate, parents, educators and lawmakers are pushing abstinence-only programs as the only method of teaching sex education. And it’s not all President George W. Bush. Welfare reform legislation signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 included a provision that abstinence-only education would be the only kind of sex education programs to receive federal funding through the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Still, President George W. Bush has advanced the cause, asking Congress for increased finding for abstinence programs.

The lack of information isn’t only in schools. Many teens have publicly pledged to stay virgins until marriage through religion-based organizations such as True Love Waits (www.lifeway.com/tlw). In this program, young people sign cards pledging to remain virgins until their wedding days.

The group encourages teens not to put themselves into situations that can lead to sex—and that includes looking at sexually suggestive or graphic photographs. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to remain a virgin, vows are harder to keep as teens become young adults who aren’t under the regular supervision of a chaperone or a virginity-vowing peer group.

Not surprisingly, one recent study shows that many virginity-pledging teens don’t make it to the altar before their first sexual encounter. They may be more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases than their non-pledging peers.

According to a study presented in March at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia, teens who pledged to remain virgins until marriage had the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who didn’t pledge to remain abstinent. The study examined the sex lives of 12,000 teens ages 12-18 over a period of six years. Eighty-eight percent of those who had pledged to remain virgins had sex before marriage. Out of that 88 percent, 40 percent had used a condom during sex. Of the non-pledgers, 99 percent had sex before marriage and 59 percent had used a condom during sex. In other words, pledgers were less likely than non-abstinent teens to use contraception when they had sex.

"[J]ust saying no, without understanding the risk or how to protect oneself from risk, turns out to create greater risk and heightened STD acquisition than should be the case,” wrote Peter Bearman of Columbia University, who co-authored the study with Hannah Brückner of Yale University. “Pledging does not protect young adults from STDs; in fact, in some contexts, it increases their risk and the risk of others.”

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States also cites statistics demonstrating that a “just say no” message doesn’t work for everyone. According to SIECUS, a comprehensive sexuality education program is “an effective strategy for giving young people the skills to delay their involvement in sexual behaviors.”

While the group supports abstinence as one way to curb adolescent sexual activity, it doesn’t treat teenage sexuality as a social taboo. In 1994, SIECUS convened the National Commission on Adolescent Sexual Health to develop a comprehensive approach to how our society should teach sex to teens. The commission recognized that adolescent sexuality is an emotional issue for adults, but it urged “that policymakers recognize that sexual development is an essential part of adolescence and that the majority of adolescents engage in sexual behaviors as part of their overall development” (www.siecus.org/policy/SReport/srep0003.html).

This is an idea I can buy into: an organization that doesn’t regard teen sexuality as an unnatural obsession among our youth. Sex is viewed as a natural development as adolescents mature into adults.

So why is it that some adults have such a hard time dealing with teen sexuality?

Perhaps they remember how irresponsible they themselves were as teens. They’re afraid their kids may do the same things or end up in a worse situation. But to always send a negative view of sex—you will die or get pregnant—isn’t going to stop many teens from doing it. The best thing adults can do for teens is to give them honest information about sex. Don’t preach and don’t judge. Teens should be shown the anatomically correct illustrations or photos and warned about the emotional, physical and financial consequences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

But adults must accept the fact that teenagers will decide what is in their best interest and prepare them for the consequences of decisions they will make. Perhaps, like generations of teenagers before them, they’ll get through adolescence relatively unscathed.