As Simple as ABC

 

by John Tyler Connoley

February 03, 2004

 

In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush reaffirmed his commitment to abstinence-only sex education programs. This may seem like a good idea to some, and I'm sure it's meant to fall under the umbrella of compassionate conservatism. However, it's a policy that will only foster ignorance, shame, and heartache, while continuing to put our youth at risk. The fact is that abstinence-only programs don't work. Almost every study of sex education systems has found that these programs actually result in higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. And the study results make sense if you stop to think.

 

What does an abstinence-only teacher have to say to the nineteen year old "virgin" who just contracted hepatitis? This girl doesn't understand how it happened, because she never had sex with any of her boyfriends. She dated the most clean-cut, most popular, and most outgoing guys in school, and they were always satisfied, without her having to relinquish her most cherished possession. She was very clear, "I'm saving myself for marriage." But, you know, a blow job isn't really sex, right?

 

Or what about the thirty-five year old virgin who slips up one day and has sex with her navy boyfriend. She's always believed that sex should be saved for marriage, and since she and her boyfriend have now "done it," she stays with him for three and a half years. She does this despite that fact he abuses her and is gone most of the time on shipboard missions, where he often has port romances. Oh yeah, and she never uses a condom when she's with him, because that's not what married people do. Condoms are for bad girls, and she's definitely not a bad girl.

 

Or, what about the sixteen-year-old boy who's discovering that he has feelings for other boys. He's been taught all his life that sex is to be reserved for marriage, but also that marriage is a sacred institution reserved for heterosexuals. Even if he finds someone he can commit himself to, and even if he remains faithful to that man for life, he's still a pervert. So, if he's going to be a sexual outcast anyway, he figures he might as well run off to a big city and really enjoy his pervert status. The only rule -- abstinence until marriage -- doesn't apply to him, so he figures no rules apply.

 

What do abstinence-only programs have to say to these people? Absolutely nothing. Their answer to every question is "abstinence until marriage." There's no nuance, no fallback position, no acknowledgement that some people make mistakes. The abstinence-only message is so brittle that it shatters under the slightest pressure from real life.

 

So, if abstinence-only doesn't work, does that mean we should just teach kids about condoms and tell them to go enjoy themselves? The abstinence-only lobbyists imply this is the sole alternative -- you're either a virgin or a whore, and virgins live happy productive lives, while whores deserve their painful deaths. But, we all know that's true only in teen horror flicks.

 

There is a nationally organized sex education program that has been proven effective in the reduction of sexually transmitted infections. It's not an abstinence-only curriculum, and it's not a free-sex program. It's also not American or European. The only sex education system proven to work is the ABC program of Uganda. The message is simple and practical: A) Remain abstinent until marriage. B) Be faithful to the person you're with. C) Use a condom.

 

The Ugandan program works because it doesn't offer an either/or message. It doesn't demonize some as sluts, but it also doesn't demonize others as prudes. It tells the truth that abstinence is the only safe alternative. It also tells the truth that protected sex is the safest kind of sex. It holds up faithfulness as an ideal we should all strive for, while acknowledging that it's a difficult goal to achieve. In short, the Ugandan program is based in real life. Its message is breathable, so it won't shatter when the wind changes.

 

President Bush recognizes the effectiveness of the Ugandan program. Last year, he visited Uganda and praised its efforts in this area. He even sent a team of researchers over to study the Ugandan system. The researchers marveled at how well the program has curtailed the spread of AIDS -- and on a very small budget. However, when they came back, they only chose to import one-third of the program: A is for abstinence. That's all they took away from months of study. They missed the depth and breadth of a program that stands up when tested against the forces of real life.

 

Like a stool, the Ugandan ABC method needs all three legs if it's going to work. But we stand our children's future on a wobbly, one-legged chair, and the result is that many of them fall down and get hurt. Abstinence-only sex education is a system that leads inevitably to more teen pregnancies, more sexually transmitted infections, more ignorance, and more pain. Instead of continuing the pain, let's follow the Ugandan's lead and embrace a fully functioning program that works.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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