I recently came across several articles which were based upon a large amount of excellent data that the Center for Disease Control collects annually. Thousands of students in grades 9-12 across the nation self-report the frequency of sexual activity, usage of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and weapons, and the amount of physical activity they undertake. This data is detailed, professionally collected, and sufficient in depth to make valid scientific observations and conclusions, which many writers do in scientific journals each year.
Many relationships between various activities are studied, such as the one shown in the graph above comparing academic achievement with participation in risky behaviors. While the CDC states that these statistics do not establish causation (i.e., does poor school performance lead to risky behavior or does risky behavior cause poor school performance), what is clear across the board is that teens who engage in one form of risky behavior typically engage in others. More importantly, the CDC data shows that teens who do not engage in risky behavior are also better students, and much healthier physically, psychologically, and mentally than those who do.
Teen Sex and Public Policy
What most interested me was how we, as a society, treat each of the risky behaviors featured above. We have laws which prohibit teens from using weapons (these do not include hunting rifles used legally) or purchasing tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Additionally, we use governmental policies and public service announcements to strongly discourage such activity among teens. One frequently sees billboards and public service announcements which show the dangers of smoking, drugs, and alcohol for youth. Similarly, we strongly advocate, again through governmental policy and school programs, against sedentary lifestyles for teens.
For all of the above activities, it is clear that the common theme is “Don’t do it.” With sexual activity, however, the government and public school policies are quite different. Even though the data from the CDC shows that teens who engage in sexual activity are less healthy on all fronts and perform worse in school, there does not seem to be any negativity attached to sexual activity for teen in social media, governmental policy, or public school program.
Rather, the opposite seems true. Instead of supporting abstinence as the goal for teens, most public school programs (see, for example, the most commonly used program) hold that students should be taught “safe sex” and should be provided with “protection kits” to enable them to do so. In addition, contraceptives of all kinds are routinely promoted and provided for teens. Any attempts at abstinence-only programs are defeated before they are even begun because popular culture maintains that “normal kids can’t say no to sex.” The bar is already lowered before they begin.
Our Ludicrous Response
Imagine if, instead of encouraging students not to smoke, we promoted “safe smoking.” Kids, we know you are going to try smoking, so here’s how you do it! And choose filtered cigarettes for safer smoking!
Imagine if, rather than encouraging kids not to drink or do drugs, we promoted “safe highs.” Kids, it’s normal to want to try alcohol and drugs, so let’s show you how to get your buzz on in a safe place. We’ll teach you how to buy from a reputable dealer, and if you want to try heroin, to make sure your needle is clean!
These responses would be ludicrous. Yet this is precisely what we do with teen sex education. Even though we know that kids may try a) alcohol, b) tobacco, c) drugs, or d) sex, we strongly discourage a, b, and c, and shrug our shoulders at d. Why? Is it to justify our own misuse of sex? Is it because it is hard to stand up to Hollywood and the sexual culture?
The bottom line is that premarital sexual activity is not healthy for teens. They are not ready for it emotionally, physically, or mentally, and it causes a wide variety of health problems. It is an adult activity. To settle for less than abstinence as our goal is an irresponsible disservice to our teens.
Kids: You shouldn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, or have sex. Period.
Even though we may not be 100% successful, it’s time to make teen sexual abstinence as our goal, and laud its benefits of a matter of public policy.
What are we afraid of?