The Stroumboulopouli

The Stroumboulopouli

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

"It doesn't work"

Last week well-known Canadian sex educator Sue Johanson paid a visit to The Hour. During her interview, Sue made the following observation regarding the preferred message of sex education in the United States: “They don’t teach sex ed. They teach abstinence-only and you know that it doesn’t work”. Sue Johanson knows of what she speaks.

In the United States, George W. Bush has consistently been an advocate of abstinence-only education. While the Governor of Texas (1995-2000), the Bush administration spent over ten million dollars on “abstinence-only-until-marriage education”. With this in mind I found the following statistics rather interesting:
  • In Texas, 220 teen females aged 15 to 19 become pregnant every single day (1)
  • Texas has the second worst teen birth rate among 15- to 19-year-old females, ranking 49th out of 50 states. Only Mississippi has a higher teen birth rate. (2)
  • Texas ranks last in the decline in teen birth rates among 15-to 17-year-olds. Between 1991 and 1998, the teen birth rate in this age group dropped by more than 21 percent in the United States as a whole; Texas' rate declined by only 10 percent (3)

  • Texas has an extremely high number of reported STD cases — accounting for about 10 percent of all reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the country (4)

"The folks that are saying condom distribution is the best way to reduce teenage pregnancies obviously haven't looked at the statistics."

—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, November 1999

Since Mr. Bush assumed the Presidency, abstinence-only programs have received in excess of one billion dollars in funding. A Maclean’s magazine article notes that while the US teen pregnancy rate had, at one point, declined and then “flattened out”, in recent years it is been on the rise. The Toronto Star recently reported that the US has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. In theory, abstinence appears to be perfect. But as is quite frequently the case, what sounds good in theory, often fails miserably when put into practice. One cannot help but wonder that if sex education in the US were to be more broad-based, whether both the rate of teen pregnancy and number of cases of STD’s would be reduced.

Fortunately, Canada has taken a more proactive position with regard to sex education by establishing the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education. The guidelines recommend that “Sexual health education should include important topics such as developmental changes (i.e. puberty), rewarding interpersonal relationships, communication, setting of personal limits, media, stereotypes, prevention of STI/HIV, effective contraception, sexual assault/coercion, gender-role expectations, and sexual orientation”. Does this not make more sense than abstinence-only education? I certainly think so.

The simple fact is that young people will have sex. And yes, Canadian teens will continue to get pregnant. No education program can eradicate teen pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted disease. But as responsible adults, is it not our job to provide our youth with the knowledge they need to make intelligent choices? We do this with drug education all the time. Oddly enough we don’t think that when we teach kids about the dangers of crack, that their first instinct will be to experiment with it. Conversely, some believe that if we teach a young person how to use a condom, suddenly they will want to have sex. Personally, I give our youth more credit than that.

(1)The Alan Guttmacher Institute. Teenage Pregnancy: Overall Trends and State-by-State Information. New York, New York: 1999
(2), (3) Ventura SJ, Curtin SC, Mathews TJ. Variations in teenage birth rates, 1991-1998: national and state trends. National Vital Statistics Reports 2000; 48(6):1-16.
(4) Division of STD Prevention. 1999 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2000.


Jenuine said...

I'm glad someone else was as outraged as I was. A complete shocker, when I heard Sue speak of the Americans' "position" on sex. It really is like something out of the stone-age, and as I had said to friends earlier, yet another example of the US/Bush burying their head in the sand.
Nice ironic quotation btw, but I would be curious to know, Steph, did they have the stats on Canadian teen pregnancies?
The irony I find, is that our friends south of the border, like us, uses every chance they can to sexualize TV, movies, products, marketing/advertising, etc, etc. So teaching them abstinence hardly seems moral, when everyone is completely bombarded with sex, sex, sex.
I realize that the religious undertones have a lot to do with their education programs, but why not teach the fundamentals and "wrap the package" as Tools For Marriage 101, or shift into science mode with The Human Body?

Steph A. said...

The most recent stats that I found for Canada indicate that since 1994 teen pregnancy rates have steadily decreased. This link provides a summary:

668 aka neighbour of the beast said...

i can't help but remember this joke from george senior's era.

"Sex education will encourage kids to have sex? No way. I had 4 years of algebra and I never do math." - Elayne Boosler

Tracy said...

Sue is a pioneer - a rock star of the sexual education movement - so good to see her on the show.

Touting abstinence as the only viable option is a wholly unrealistic course of action. Is abstinence for young people the ideal? Sure. Many teens - and adults for that matter - engage in sexual relationships out of a sense of curiosity, desire for love and acceptance and lust - must not forget lust.

It's so important to arm kids with
knowledge and bolster their self image. Maybe they'll even wait a while. Maybe they won't.

Sorry to burst your conservative bubble Mr. Bush - teens have sex, always have and always will. Over the eras how many couple's first children arrived after a snap engagement, hasty marriage and little Jr. arriving a mite 'prematurely'?

Knowledge is power. Forget pregnancy - it can save lives.
Something that a conservative, backwards agenda just doesn't get.

carol s said...

My daughter will be 10 years old in March. I am all for giving her as much information as possible.

As a parent, although it is hard, you have to trust your kids to make good choices... that you have raised a good kid. Giving them the tools and knowledge to deal with circumstances that they will face. Sex is just one more hurdle...

I have always thought that we North Americans have an odd relationship (for lack of a better word) with sex and sexuality... like it is something dirty and taboo.

Anonymous said...

In grade 9 health class, we were given a handout with all the types of birth control. Abstinence was the only one with a 100% effectiveness, so that was the one I picked, using my 15-year-old's logic. It worked for me till I was in my late 20s, I never worried about being pregnant or getting STDs.

A girl in my class got pregnant, and because that made it real for me, I was determined that it wouldn't happen to me too. If you don't have strong plans, your life will run off the rails.

I do not advocate abstinence-only sex ed though, people need to have realistic choices among different types of birth control.

IMO we still need Sue on the radio in Canada, I heard some crazy phone calls from people with a shocking ignorance about sex.

CFSH said...

Thanks for the great post Steph!

As for stats on Pregnancy rates in Canada, check out our report Sexual Health in Canada: Baseline 2007. See sections on Pregnancy and Outcomes as well as Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health. Links for the Baseline report require PDF reader.

As part of Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Day 2008 (February 12th), the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (CFSH) is conducting a survey about why Canadians use condoms. We'd really appreciate your help in collecting responses! The survey takes under 3 minutes to complete and can be found here. It is also available in French. Feel free to pass on the survey to your friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. The survey concludes March 11, 2008.

Thanks everyone!

Steph A. said...

CFSH...I am glad you liked the post and thank you for providing additional links for our readers to check out.