The young and the sexless
With teen pregnancy and STDs on the rise, abstinence is not off the table among locals pushing comprehensive sex education
A recent federal report that found teen birth rates reversed a 14-year trend in 2006 by rising 3 percent has ignited a barrage of “see-we-told-you-so” exchanges between abstinence-only proponents and birth-control advocates. But with Sacramento County experiencing high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens, advocates of comprehensive sex education agree that abstinence must be part of the curriculum.
“A lot of people don’t believe that comprehensive sex education includes abstinence, and that is absolutely incorrect,” said Katharyn McLearan, director of public affairs with Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. “In comprehensive sex education, abstinence is definitely emphasized.”
She is quick to add, however, “if you’re going to have sex, we want to give you the tools and we want you to know where you can access services so you can be safe.”
The overwhelming majority of Californians hold the same view. Only 17 percent of adult Californians believe abstinence-only sex education should be taught in public schools, while 78 percent support teaching both abstinence and the proper use of contraceptives. Surprisingly, 86 percent of California’s evangelical Christian parents surveyed supported comprehensive sex education in schools.
California was the first of 16 states to forgo millions of dollars in federal funding for abstinence-only programs in order to teach comprehensive sex education. State policy makers, it seems, understood that accurate information about sexuality far outweighed the dollars the Bush administration dangled in front of a cash-starved Golden State: Births to teen mothers in California alone cost taxpayers more than $1.5 billion annually.
In 2004, California passed SB 71, the Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act, which set out standards for teaching sex education in public schools. While HIV/AIDS prevention education is only required twice, once in middle school and once again in high school, SB 71 requires that schools choosing to teach sex education adhere to the following standards: They must cover contraceptive use as well as abstinence, teach students how to protect themselves from STDs, emphasize the importance of marriage and committed relationships, and respect the sexual orientation of all students.
Recent studies of sex-education programs across the U.S. revealed that abstinence-only programs are doing little to reduce teen sexual behavior, while comprehensive sex education is effective in “delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use.”
But what is puzzling is that even though California has taken steps to reduce the adverse consequences of teen sex, the state, like the rest of the nation, has seen increasing rates of STD infections in recent years. “The trend for incidents of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia is upward,” explained Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County’s public health officer.
“The great majority of those cases are diagnosed in young people between the ages of 15 and 25,” she said. Sacramento area youth typically rate higher in incidents of STDs infection compared to the rest of the state, signaling that adolescents in this region are more sexually active than the average California teenager. Trochet believes the discrepancy between Sacramento teens and other young Californians may be linked to limited access to health care and a lack of resources for health-care providers and educators.
She is also concerned about a probable decrease in funding to sex-education resources in the next year. “We are trying to work with the community,” she said. “We will try to mobilize the community and partner with community-based organizations and parents to educate kids.”
McLearan and Trochet strongly urge parents to get informed on sexuality issues and to get involved in local school sex education programs. Planned Parenthood created an information packet that can be downloaded from any computer (visit www.plannedparenthood.org), while Sacramento County distributes a kit meant to educate parents and help them feel comfortable talking to their teens about sex.
“Parents still have a very strong influence on their teens,” said Trochet. “Our recommendation for parents is that they do talk to their teens about sex, and that they be very clear about what their moral values are.
“If you don’t believe people should have sex until they’re married, you should tell your teen very clearly what your beliefs and expectations are. In addition though, you should also give them information, because we all know that kids don’t always do what their parents want.”