Misguided Idealism
October 27th, 2010

I have an idea.  We should stop giving the measles vaccine.  Obviously the measles is a serious medical condition, and yes, there is a proven and effective vaccine for it.  But I think we should stop giving it to kids.  They need to learn to take control of their health and I think we should stop the spread of measles by encouraging personal responsibility among children.  We should teach kids not to interact with other children who might have the measles.  We should tell them not to trade lunchbox items with kids who could be infected.  And we should teach them that they’ll have to deal with the consequences if they end up catching the measles.  Okay?

Not okay.

I hope you know I’m kidding.  That entire paragraph was dripping in satire and sarcasm.  I want to be clear about this: I do not believe we should get rid of the measles vaccine. Obviously, in this case the measles vaccine is an analogy.  But for what?  So glad you asked: Sex education.  (In case the big picture of a condom tip you off…) 

Last week I read this article about teen birth rates which was written in response to a new report from the CDC.  I learned that in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont – where comprehensive sex education programs are in place – teen birth rates were less than 25 per 1,000.  In Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Texas – states which emphasize abstinence – teen births numbered more than 65 per 1,000. 

I both was and was not surprised by these numbers.  That teen birth rates would be higher in the South?  Not so shocking.  That teen birth rates are up to three times higher in the South?  I didn’t see that one coming.  But really, what surprised me the most about the article were not the statistics themselves, but my own response to them.

For the first time I thought about teen pregnancy as a health issue.  Why I’d never cast it in this light before baffles me.  I had thought about it as a social problem or a cultural problem, but not a health problem.  And yet, its ranking as a health problem is much more significant than anything else.  Teens are far less likely to have planned their pregnancies.  As such, they are also far less likely to be educated about prenatal care, to understand how to maintain a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy, or to have regular OB visits.  And those are just the physical issues.  Teen moms also face a whole host of psychological issues such as embarrassment, shame, and fear just to name a few.  And then, of course, are the risks to the baby.  According to the CDC report babies born to teen mothers “are at higher risk of being born prematurely, having low birth weight and dying during infancy.”  This is clearly more than just an issue of who’s loose between the sheets. 

So, if teen pregnancy is a health issue, and if significant statistical evidence tells us that teen birth rates are up to three times higher in states that do not offer evidence-based sex education than in states that do, then why is it not being treated like one?  Most of the media coverage of teen pregnancy speaks in terms of moral values and social stigmas.  But this isn’t a function of conservative versus liberal or religious versus agnostic.  It’s a function of healthy versus not healthy

Do I believe that teenagers should be having sex?  No.  Do I believe that they would be better off choosing abstinence?  Yes.  But the evidence tells me that abstinence-only education does not work and I cannot ignore that.  I believe that those people who advocate for abstinence-only education have their hearts in the right place.  But their idealism is totally misguided in its application.  If we really care about preventing teen pregnancy (and STDs!) then we need to educate our teens about safe sex.  Kids are clearly going to have sex either way*, so we need to do what we can to ensure that they’re protected.  Anything else feels a lot like getting rid of the measles vaccine to me.


*To clarify that point: This isn’t to say that I think we should just give up on teaching abstinence as well as contraception.  We should teach kids that having sex is a big decision; that it carries physical and emotional repurcussions for which most teens are not prepared; and that there are risks of pregnancy and disease that can change their lives forver.  Abstinence is certainly the only sure-fire way to avoid this minefield of issues.  Nevertheless, we can’t afford to stop there in our educational efforts.   

13 Responses to “Misguided Idealism”

  1. Cathy @ All I Want To Say Says:

    I am in the world of teenagers and it is quite frightening. I can see why some preach abstinence – from sex and drugs. I just had a thought though. Would it be just as reasonable to educate my teen on how to drink even though he shouldn’t be drinking? (I don’t think so, but I think the example could be applied). However, I don’t kid myself on this. I think the majority of teens are experimenting with drugs (in my kids case – smoking pot), alcohol and sex (neither of which I think my kid has done). But who am I kidding? It’s going to happen at some point – sooner than I’d like I’m sure. It is a fine line to walk.

  2. Laura H. Says:

    Gale – Love this post! Maybe you have begun a change in the whole framework of the conversation about sex education!

    Cathy – Having sex is not illegal (assuming partners are of appropriate relative ages and it is consensual) but underaged drinking is…which in my household would make me not provide alcohol to my teenager. Of course I also don’t plan to provide a place for a teenager to have sex. But in the same way I plan to teach my children about safe sex, I plan to educate my children about drinking. The drinking education will mostly be through modeling. I have a glass of wine at dinner, but don’t get raging drunk; I don’t drink and drive.; etc.

  3. Gale Says:

    Cathy – I really appreciate your perspective here. As the mother of an almost-2-year-old these issues are easy for me to discuss in rhetorical terms because it’s not my kid. Yet. But in that world of proverbial parenting truths, it will be my own kid before I know it. And when that day comes I know it will be much harder to say, “Yes. I really want to sit down and tell my kids how to use a condom, rather than tell them just to keep their pants zipped up.” Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well they will understand that sex is a BIG DAMN DEAL and will choose to keep their pants zipped up anyway. But if they don’t, I want them to at least understand the risks at stake and how to mitigate them with proper protection.

    Laura – I think you make some good points about legal vs. illegal and setting an example. But when it comes to alcohol it’s much easier to set an example. When it comes to something as private as sex (not dinner table conversation in most homes…) it’s a much trickier situation. I don’t pretend to know how to navigate those waters at this point. But hopefully by the time IEP hits puberty I’ll have a better handle on it.

  4. Cathy @ All I Want To Say Says:

    Laura – yes, I agree sex is not illegal and drugs and alcohol are, and that’s actually the position my husband and I have taken with regard to those activities, especially when getting a driver’s license is right on the horizon. I think it is so important to set expectations of the child’s behavior before they get there – talk early, talk often – and agree, modeling said behavior (although as Gale pointed out sex is a little tricky on that one!) is another key item.

  5. Laura H. Says:

    Cathy – talk early, talk often is well put. I totally agree. And to be clear…there is and will be no modeling at my house of sex! When I wrote that we would teach by modeling I meant that as to alcohol consumption!
    Actually on the alcohol topic, we’re finding what school is teaching our 1st grader to be a little too black and white for us. Since it is red ribbon week…she is very on point about alcohol being a drug and being unhealthy for us. The other day she saw some guy smoking a cigarette in his car and she said, “That’s a drug and it’s unhealthy. He’s going to have a heart attack.” While I don’t mind the black and whiteness so much as to cigarette smoking, I find it hard to tell her that my glass of red wine at dinner is actually healthy for me. Maybe when she’s older we can get into those nuances…but in the meantime, I’ll be glad when red ribbon week is over for my 1st grader!

  6. Jane Says:

    Amen, Sista! What makes me cringe is all of the media hype/teen television shows almost glorifying teen pregnancy. If adoption (the only choice in my opinion for an unwanted pregnancy) isn’t shoved down the teen’s throat I start ranting and raving to anyone within earshot.

  7. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    Yes, yes, yes. This is definitely a health issue, moreso than the moral issue it is often framed as. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about how I would take care of myself physically and emotionally if and when we decide to have children. Anything for the baby, right? But unfortunately, teen moms simply don’t have the time, resources, perspective to focus on health.

  8. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    Interesting how I tend to think of it as a moral issue too. Perhaps, sis, that has something to do with where we were raised? Not how…just where, as in geography.

  9. Anna Says:

    Speaking as an Oklahoman, I am shocked and horrified at the response that comes from the community if someone even mentions talking about sex to kids. One pastor in the community said that kids aren’t learning about the realities of sex at school, they’re not learning it at church, and they’re not learning it at home, so it’s no wonder they make decisions that have negative consequences.

    One of the community foundations was discussing implementing a program that focuses on teaching kids to focus on and achieve their goals, a very small portion of which has to do with sex education. The point made was that teaching kids to respect themselves, respect others and encouraging them to look and work towards the future has had a huge impact on teen birth rates in other states. I thought that idea made a lot of sense.

  10. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I had no idea the regional statistics were quite so striking. That’s frightening. I am, and always have been, a proponent of the “no sticking your head in the sand” policy when it comes to teens and sex.

    As a parent of teens, we began discussion on this topic long before they had any desire to explore the area. And the discussion includes emotional protection for yourself and the one you’re with, as well as protecting your health and your future.

    I believe condoms should be available to teenagers. Period. Do I think a 15 year old should be sexually active? No. Is it commonplace? Yes. Better the 15-year old should use protection? Of course.

  11. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Strange, the attitude adults take to teenagers having sex in the home. Would you prefer your teens (let’s assume, over 16) do it in a car? Anywhere but in their own home?

    I don’t get it. Granted, I have sons. Nonetheless, we did “talk early, talk often” including about the fact that sex is best (as I positioned it) when you care deeply for each other, but – it’s also a normal and healthy activity that involves physical and emotional components.

    I also told my kids that our home was also “their” home and their privacy would be respected. And yes, there are condoms in the household – available as needed.

    Has this “open but responsible door” policy been used? I couldn’t say. But again, pretending teenagers are not sexually active makes no sense to me.

  12. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    I’ve wondered how to deal with the condoms et al even as I tell my kids I think they should wait. I certainly introduced my daughter to that part of the store long before I knew she would have an interest but I never considered having “supplies” in my home.

  13. Shawna Says:

    It will be treated as a health issue in our home exactly as you suggested in this well written post. BRAVO!