New Sex Ed Research Is Useless

It would appear that both Liza and I have sex education on the brain, and that’s funny considering that we have not spoken about this at all.  Even so, she just posted about sex ed, and now I’m doing the same.  There is a difference, however.  Her post had, in terms of the empirical research that served for the initial source, a study that suggests that abstinence-only programs do not work so well.  I, however, would like to address the reports concerning the new study that say something very different.

CNN.com is reporting that a new “landmark” study has been released that shows “An abstinence-only education program is more effective than other initiatives at keeping sixth- and seventh-graders from having sex within a two-year period…”  According to the report, the scientists engaged in this research program discovered that those students who received instruction in a program that was abstinence-only were significantly less likely to engage in sexual activity over a two year period.  That is, of those students who received the abstinence-only instruction, only a third engaged in sexual intercourse.  This is contrasted with the more than half of students who engaged in sexual intercourse who received “safer sex” instruction, and more than forty percent who participated in a course that had both abstinence and safer sex instruction as parts of the program.

The researchers were quick to point out that this study should not suggest that safer sex courses should be abandoned, and several organizations have said something similar.  The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released a statement that said, “"It is unreasonable to expect any single intervention, curriculum or program to solve the teen pregnancy problem.  True and lasting progress requires not only good programs in schools and communities, but also supportive norms and values, informed and active parents, good health services, a positive media culture and more."

I hope those reading this have caught the plain weirdness of this study with the above quote being the clue.  What is strange about this is that the study in question does not address the very thing for which sex education programs were created, namely the need to limit the spread of STDs and unwanted teen pregnancy.  Those issues are not in any way a concern for the researchers here.  Their concern was merely whether or a group of students with the average age of 12 had sex by the time they were 14.  Let’s put aside the issue that this is a single data point that appears to conflict with other good data, though this is certainly very relevant, and let’s focus only on this single concern.  Though there may be some peripheral interest in whether or not pre-teens are engaged in sexual intercourse, such a concern is hardly central to the reasons for having sex ed courses.  As the quotes in the CNN article from those groups engaged in sex education demonstrate, unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs, especially AIDS/HIV, are the critical reasons for having these programs, and this is wholly unaddressed by researchers.  As such, it is hard to see that this study is relevant at all to the concerns of those debating how sex ed should be taught.

Now, I can imagine that some might want to argue at this point that those children who are not having intercourse are necessarily less likely to become pregnant or wind up with an STD.  However, those are hardly the only kids with which we are concerned.  We are also worried about the kids that are having intercourse, and we need them to be as likely as possible to act in a way that is most beneficial to public health.  If it turned out that some program produced few children having sex, but that the numbers related to the actual point of sex ed, namely pregnancy and STDs, were higher than the numbers produced by a safer sex program, then the former program would clearly be the failure.  This is because it would have missed the point entirely by focusing on the wrong issue.  As such data, the truly relevant data, is wholly missing from the research in question, the study itself is virtually meaningless for anyone trying to figure out the best way to teach sex ed.  And, to make it worse, this is compounded by the fact that, as Liza pointed out in an earlier post, the bulk of the data heretofore gathered goes against the outcome of this single study.

Here’s the bottom line:  in terms of sex ed, it just does not matter whether or not your kid is having sex.  It is much better that teens be sexually active while being disease and child free than it is that some portion remain virgins while the others have their lives irrevocably damaged by the consequences of unsafe sex practices.  I completely understand that many parents do not want their children engaged in sexual activity, and, were I a parent, I would likely feel the same.  But, again, that is just completely irrelevant to the public concerns that sex ed courses address.  Sex ed programs are there for a reason, and if you’re caught up in keeping intercourse numbers down while disregarding the relevant issues of disease and unwanted teen pregnancy, then you have missed the point entirely, and that is exactly what this study has done.  It has simply missed the point.

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