Monday, August 13, 2007

Abstinence Only Sex Education

News-Medical.Net recently posted an article on research related to abstinence-only sex education programs, “Abstinence Only Sex Programs – A Waste Of Government Money?”

The following is a section of the article:

“The latest research confirms and supports earlier work which has stated that programmes which exclusively advocate abstinence from sex in order to stop risky sexual behaviour or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy, are ineffective.
The researchers from Oxford University in the UK found abstinence only sex programmes had no negative or positive impact on the rates of sex infections or unprotected sex and did not appear to affect the risk of HIV infection in high income countries.
The Oxford team reviewed 13 U.S. trials involving over 15,000 people aged 10 to 21 and their conclusions question the continued use of public money to fund abstinence only programmes especially in the United States.
Abstinence only programmes encourage sexual abstinence as the exclusive means of preventing HIV infection, without promoting safer sex behaviours, but their effectiveness in high income settings has been unclear.
Abstinence-only programmes are very popular in the U.S. and also have their supporters in the UK, but such programmes fail say experts because they provide no safety net for young people who do have a sexual relationship, which many do.”

I’ve long felt, both on the basis of intuitions arising from research I’ve done in the past on HIV prevention efforts and because the logical basis for abstinence only programs doesn’t make much sense to me, that abstinence only education doesn’t work very well on pragmatic grounds. Hopefully, the upshot of this and similar recent research demonstrating on empirical grounds the lack of pragmatic efficacy of such strategies will be greater support for other strategies demonstrated to have greater effect – though I’m not holding my breath with the current U.S. administration.

I have other objections to abstinence only sex education beyond the pragmatic. First, it’s bad education. No educational program on any topic can convey to students all the possibly relevant information nor all possibly relevant perspectives on the issue at hand. So, no teacher, no program, no policy can be faulted for not teaching students everything about a topic. It’s quite another thing, though, to forbid teachers from discussing with students information or perspectives that are clearly pertinent to the topic at hand, e.g. discussing the documented facts regarding the rates of efficacy of condoms at preventing pregnancy or various sexually transmitted diseases. Educationally, it’s a bit akin to a classical-physics-only class where Einstein is verboten, or disallowing the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory (and nowadays, as controversial as Darwin can be in the U.S., most creation scientists and intelligent design mavens are “simply” demanding equal time for their pet ideas, not a taboo on teaching scientific evolutionary theory per se). Abstinence-only programs are anti-intellectual and anti-educational in structure and design.

I’ve written frequently of the importance of individual autonomy. In addition to objecting to abstinence only programs for pragmatic and educational reasons, I object for ideological and moral reasons to attempts to inculcate an inhibition on consensual activity, including an inhibition of consensual activity into legal adulthood up to the point of marriage. Let me be clear, lest my words be distorted: I’m not advocating active promotion of youth sexuality. Nor do I object to anyone saying publicly that they think that people should not have sex before marriage – I might disagree with them, but support anyone’s right to say such things. I object to the incorporation into formal public education an educational strategy that emphasizes inhibition of free individual autonomy.

The sex-negativity of abstinence only programs is a further problem – simply put, the implication that sex in itself is bad (especially given the lack of a factual basis – you could discuss – and I think should – with students potential negative consequences of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases – but it’s hard to imagine any empirical basis for implications or explicit statements that sex per se is negative) is a problem for any serious education. I worry about the effects of abstinence only education for all students. I especially worry with regard to lesbian and gay male students. For them, unless they live in Massachusetts or a country outside the U.S. where gay marriage is possible, the message of no sex before marriage is a further unneeded affirmation of the general sense that there’s something wrong with their sexuality.

No comments: