Abstinence-Only Education: Doing More Harm Than Good?


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Sex Ed. class: for most middle or high schoolers, it’s not exactly their favorite class of the day. Most of us who are in college or beyond will remember the somewhat awkward days of middle school or early high school, when we had to spend about an hour a day sitting in a classroom with our peers and talking about sex. More specifically, talking about what sex is, what happens when you have sex, and why you shouldn’t have sex. Some of us experienced sex ed. classes in which the instructor(s) taught both abstinence and safe sex (i.e. different types of contraception). Others were only exposed to the abstinence side of things. When I talk to most of my friends and peers, I overwhelmingly find that most would have preferred to have learned about contraception in addition to abstinence when their classes happened to only teach the latter.

Let’s all stop for a moment before going on and remember one thing. Teaching about contraception and sexual activity does not provoke students to have sex. So why do they need to know about contraception? Because knowing about contraception is often important when making decisions about your sexual life (maybe not right now, but perhaps in the future).

In Nashville, Tennessee, it looks like most legislators have favored teaching abstinence over contraception. They have enacted a pro-abstinence sex education law (spurred by a classroom demonstration that involved a sex toy) which is one of the strictest sex education laws in the nation. The law contains such provisions as instructions that family life curriculums should not “display or conduct demonstrations with devices specifically manufactured for sexual stimulation.” If an ‘incident’ such as this does occur, parents have the ability to sue the instructor(s) of the class. Other provisions of the law include instructions that sexual education curriculum has to be abstinence-focused. Senators in support of the bill claim that this does not prevent talk about contraception. However, the overwhelming majority of the law is in strict favor of an abstinence-focused curriculum, and it may become extremely difficult (or even impossible) for some of these sexual education classes even barely include information about contraception. Most senators and parents argue that teaching students about contraception, sexual toys, and other aspects of sex will ultimately provoke students to have sex. This leads them to favor an abstinence-only curriculum for sexual education classes in Tennessee schools.

In Tennessee, the first abstinence-focused sex education curriculum was introduced in the 1990s. The pregnancy rate among Tennessee girls ranging from age fifteen to age seventeen has dropped steadily since that time, going from a pregnancy rate of 48.2 out of 1,000 girls in 1990 to 29.6 out of 1,000 today. However, even with the decrease, Tennessee’s teen pregnancy rate still remains among one of the highest in the nation. The declining pregnancy rates in Tennessee have been coupled by declining pregnancy rates in other areas of the county; at the same time, many parents and legislators are beginning to push again for abstinence-only sex education in schools.

We now have a dilemma on our hands. Though pregnancy rates have decreased around the county in the past twenty years, beginning to favor abstinence-only education seems (to me) to be the wrong way to go. To look at the situation from a pessimistic side: schools have been teaching an abstinence-focused curriculum for twenty years now, and the teen pregnancy rate is still nowhere near to being completely wiped out. Though the pregnancy rate among teens has decreased, some students will still choose to engage in sexual activity. When schools choose to not teach about contraception, many of these teens will have unsafe and unprotected sex, which may ultimately result in them becoming pregnant. Parents claim that teaching children about contraception will provoke them to have sex. The way I see it, teens are already having sex without being ‘provoked’ by a curriculum that teaches about contraception. Teaching about contraception can only help; this knowledge will provide information regarding safe and protected sex students who choose to engage in sexual activity. This will hopefully lead to a teen pregnancy rate that is even further decreased.

Sometimes the limit of what we teach in schools can be crossed. Perhaps it’s really not necessary for sex education instructors to use sex toys in class demonstrations (as happened in Tennessee). However, teaching about contraception in sex education classes is necessary. As students finish middle school and the early years of high school, they are on their way to becoming young adults. As young adults, it is imperative that they at least have knowledge of contraception. It is inevitable that teens somewhere will choose to have sex; if they do, they should be armed with the appropriate knowledge to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. However, teaching about contraception won’t provoke students to have sex. Engaging in sexual activity with a partner is an extremely personal decision, and there are many students who choose to refrain until they are ready (and these students still have knowledge of contraception). Knowledge of contraception is important in order for both teens and adults to make safe decisions regarding sexual activity; it is unfair that states such as Tennessee are aiming to prevent teens from accessing this information. Preventing access to information regarding contraception will ultimately do more harm than good, in my mind.

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