November 29, 2005

"I'd probably call it an afterthought. It was, 'Oh yeah, by the way, you don't have to do it.' "

Such was the attention to the subject of abstinence in sex education in one Wisconsin high school, as described by a current UW student. Now, a bill requiring a stronger abstinence message is about to pass the legislature here. (What the governor will do is another matter.)
The bill ... would require school districts that offer sex education programs to "present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior" for unmarried students....

The current state law simply lists more than a dozen topics that districts "may include" in their sex education instruction but does not stress one as more important than others. The word "abstinence" does not appear, although "discouragement of adolescent sexual activity" is one of the topics districts can choose to include.
Should the legislature be requiring all the schools in the state to push abstinence as "the preferred choice of behavior"? The culture varies from place to place around the state, so I don't like a statewide requirement that goes this far, even though I think it's important for young people to hear a strong presentation of the case for abstinence. Shouldn't local school districts decide this one rather than posturing state legislators ?


yetanotherjohn said...

One might ask the same question on ID or national standards. If the school district takes state or federal funds, does it really have the right to pick and choose what strings associated to those funs it will allow?

Now imagine a world of school choice. Parents could decide they would or would not send their child to a school because it teaches/fails to teach ID/abstinance/white European male literature. Taxpayer's don't pay anymore than they would and schools become subject to the improving force of competition.

reader_iam said...

You know, I think I've begun to change my view on things like this.

I used to think the more local, the better, when it comes to schools, because parents (and taxpayers) have more influence and access at that level. In that way, very local community standards could be reflected. Local residents--the consumers of the local schools--could elect school board members, attend meetings where policies were debated and implemented, voice their opinions, and have some say.

However, I've come to believe that the truth is, that system doesn't work anymore, and primarily (though not solely, by any means) because even at the local level, people can't accept the results of either consensus or democratic votes. In the end, if someone doesn't like this or that, the issue will end up in court, at great expense and so forth (and no, it's not the bucks that primarily concern me), and often, then, in the state legislature anyway. So a lot of time and resources end up being sucked up, and for what? Not for the benefit of kids, that's for sure.

Obviously, state legislative decisions can also end up in court, but at least there is some clearer, larger direction--and fewer entities to be involved in litigation.

In short, I've reluctantly begun to give up on this issue--not my normal state of being, but there it is. Sometimes the writing on the wall turns out to be indelible.

(And by the way, I agree that the word "the" is probably too strong if you're talking statewide--but then, at least it gives some kind of clear direction, so schools know where they stand. For a change.)

jimbino said...

I can readily imagine a world of school choice. One of the reasons schools are so bad in this country is that people like me who value education vote against any and all school bonds, intending that public schools be degraded to the point where an alternative is compelled. Of course, the overwhelming reason schools are so bad is that no self-respecting, let alone competent, scientist or mathematician will condescend to teach in a public school!

Uncle Jimbo said...

Dear Ann,

Comparing it to the ID controversy, abstinence is the only proven way to avoid pregnancy and STDs. All the other methods involve significant failure rates and lack of usage issues.

I rarely think power should be pushed up, but if the topic is taught at all those facts should be brought out.


Uncle J

The Drill SGT said...
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The Drill SGT said...

I think that the legislature is on firm ground mandating a minimum set of basics:

1. abstinence be taught
2. Condom/birthcontrol options be taught
3. STD's cause/effects/avoidance/mitigation be taught

beyond that, I'd defer locally.

I would not want a local district to avoid any of those big 3

Alice H said...

Considering that the only 100% sure-fire way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence, yes, I think that abstinence should be presented as the preferred course of action. I don't think it's being made clear enough to kids that not having sex is an option - with as many messages sent out through arts and media that sex at an early age and/or promiscuity is the norm, it would be refreshing for an authority figure to step in and say, "This is your healthiest choice, both emotionally and physically. But if you MUST have sex..." rather than acting like sex is something kids are going to do no matter what parents or teachers say.

Laura Reynolds said...

On the topic of sex education in schools:

A) Most students don't respect who teaches it, no matter what the program.

B) Students are not educated to handle a factual analysis, if you do X, there's a Y percent chance that Z will happen. Seems simple enough but since they don't approach it that way, I guess it doesn't matter.

C) Politcal Correctness and avoiding "offending" anyone does not allow for effective sex education.

If you have to choose a level for control, I'd opt for the local.

theMickey's said...

My parents taught me about abstinence...worked for me.

wildaboutharrie said...

A recent study showed that students who sign "virginity pledges" are more likely to wind up with STDs, because of lack of knowledge about birth control and engaging in risky behaviors that preserved their "technical" virgindom only. So as DrillS said, they need the whole deal.

There are state standards for all other subjects - why not sex ed? And it's a fact that abstinence is the safest choice, so that should be reinforced. But it's too bad the science of sex and birth control are not also required pieces.

I think for starters they should adopt a state curriculum (find a comprehensive one that covers all the bases, emphasizes abstinence, and has a good track record) and find test districts. Provide the materials and training for free - principals and school boards love free things. Then put a system in place to measure effectiveness. If it succeeds, get lots of publicity and offer it to everyone.

brian said...

If you truly do agree with federalist principles, it does make sense to allow local communities to decide what they want their children taught.

However, I can't say that this is the best method regarding sexual education. Having fairly recently (~10 years ago) gone through high school in a northern Wisconsin rural county, my community decided that the schools should teach abstinence only. Nothing about STDs was mentioned, nothing about contraception was mentioned, but only the purely physiological "step 1 + step 2 = pregnancy" was allowed to be discussed. This led to rampant misconceptions regarding to sexual activity being circulated around my school and seemingly did nothing to prevent the large numbers of teenage pregnancies that occurred. Certainly, sending hordes of students into the world with no understanding of STDs isn't a smart idea. I agree with "the drill sgt" in presenting abstinence together with information about STDs and birth control options. Then let each person decide what is right for themselves with a fully-informed body of information to base their opinion upon, together with any religious and moral beliefs they may hold. I say, let the facts be told.

Additionally, doesn't this debate offer interesting parallels to the recent "intelligent design" furor?

Unknown said...

Abstinence until marriage? Hmm - what kind of message is that sending gay people?

That they should marry someone of the opposite sex and then cheat on them I guess . . ..

Bruce Hayden said...

Another ditto for what the Drill SGT said. But as Brian pointed out, teaching abstinance alone isn't enough.

As to Downtown Lad's comment, I personally don't expect most kids to actually make it to marriage as virgins. But if they can make it through high school, I would be content.

The problem there is that it was a lot easier pushing abstinance until marriage when marriage came shortly after puberty. But now, for many, they are getting married at twice the age of puberty, after completing at least an undergraduate education.

I just don't expect all these young adults to make it through their peak sexual years without sex. But I see a big difference between a 14 year old and a 20 year old having sex. Both are, of course, capable of it. But the 20 year old is (IMHO) typically much more capable of being smart about it, both physically and emotionally.

Unknown said...

What we need are huge signs in the schools with such inspirational slogans as "Watch what you put in your hoo-hah!" and "Mr. Willy can't rear children while passing geometry!"

wildaboutharrie said...

Hey, downtownlad, the message is abstinence for unmarried students (you can be in high school and be married - if you're straight!) I'd argue abstinence for gay students as well, unless they're married, but I live in Massachusetts.

That, of course, leads to the question of including sexuality in teaching sex ed...

I swear, our "sex ed" consisted of a film advising us to use deoderant.

Undecided said...

Sex was designed by mother nature for young pubescent people by giving them healthy sex drives. Sex can be a lot of fun. Good sex techniques along with disease and pregnancy prevention should be taught near the time of puberty, around 10 years old. Old people tend to have feeble sex with waning passion and low sex drive, and half-erect penises (without viagra), if they're lucky to get aroused at all. I needn't mention the obvious that one's physical attractiveness goes into the toilet as one grows old. What sane woman wants to have sex with an ugly, wrinkled, pot-bellied old man with incontinence? Abstinence should be discouraged at unnatural, wastful of one's randy youth, and psychologically harmful.

Here I sit at my computer with high blood pressure, diabetes, an aching back AND suffering from impotence. I'd much rather be having sex with a lovely lady than typing my thoughts. I think back on all the sex I should've had. Shame on you people for shoving your backward, sex-in-the-backseat morality on young people. They should be having plenty of good sex, and hopefully are,...after they finish their homework and chores, of course.

knox said...

Sex Ed culture is almost pathological in its refusal to teach abstinence. IMHO.

Robert said...

Well over 59 minutes of every hour of sex education in this country is devoted to non-abstinence issues. Then when the bell rings and you're running out the door to your next class, your teacher mumbles something about "the only 100% safe and effective means of something or other."

I do appreciate the challenge, though, of trying to teach the ABSENCE of something. Condom use, birth control, all that other stuff is active information. Not having sex is just ... not having sex. How do you emphasize that as the most important, most effective, healthiest route to sexual health?

Meade said...

Who says abstinence IS "the most important, most effective, healthiest route to sexual health?" Abstaining from what kind of sex? - coital? masturbatory? oral? french kissing? Even the president of the United States, in 1998, revealed that he didn't know what the word "sex" meant. Too bad he fired Jocelyn Elders. She should have been promoted.

knox said...


wait, that IS meant sarcastically, right...?

knox said...

BTW, I keep meaning to mention that "yetanotherjohn" is one of my favorite handles, yetanotherjohn.

Meade said...

If you were addressing me, knoxvillegirl, no, I was not being sarcastic. I don't think abstaining from sex is at all healthy.

At puberty, what children want to learn is how to be good lovers without getting hurt or hurting others.

It's my opinion that funds allocated for sex education in public schools should be spent teaching parents how to teach their children about love and sex. Attendance should be mandatory.

Anonymous said...

If the State can mandate anything to a local school board, they can mandate "abstinence only."

Eli Blake said...

Sex Ed classes already teach abstinence as one option. But the fact is, that sex ed as a whole has largely been responsible for the fact that the number of abortions (particularly to teenagers) has fallen by a third since it reached its peak about 1993. Condoms and birth control work, and we should be teaching our kids about it.

What I don't get, is why so many people in our society want to 1) prevent people they don't even know from having sex (maybe its some deep seated resentment of other people having more fun than they do) and 2) want to punish people who do have sex.

Now I personally choose to only have sex with my wife, and I believe that it is the best thing-- for me. And I hope that my younger daughters make better choices than my eldest did (she chose to not use birth control-- after being preached 'abstinence' for years-- and got pregnant at fifteen). But I'm going to make sure that I teach them about birth control in addition to the school curriculum.

It's too bad that Americans are so hung up about sex. I have (both male and female) friends from European countries and we can sit down and have a completely open and academic discussion about sex without anyone getting uptight about it. It seems to me that as long as people are too uptight to talk about sex, you will continue to have more kids who, on whatever day, be it at sixteen or at 22 that they quit being abstinent (and that is about 80% plus of the population before they get married), engage in unsafe or risky sex because they don't know the difference.

wildaboutharrie said...

I think if any pro-sex folks here worked in a district where middle school girls are regularly servicing the boys after school, reinforcement of abstinence from all flavors of sexual activity past second base might sound like a good idea. One girl actually got pregnant during a group activity in which she was pleasured by a girl who had just pleasured a boy...I wish I were making this up.

I agree, Elders was run out unfairly. What's wrong with telling kids to hide in their rooms alone for a while?

knox said...

I don't want to prevent people from having sex, just kids.

knox said...

"It's too bad that Americans are so hung up about sex. I have (both male and female) friends from European countries and we can sit down and have a completely open and academic discussion about sex without anyone getting uptight about it..."

Seriously, If I had a penny for every time I heard this "I'm so sophisticated" line about how uptight Americans--"but not me!!!!"--are about sex.... Give us a break.

knox said...

btw, I am in no way advocating NOT teaching about safe sex...

Balfegor said...

"only the purely physiological "step 1 + step 2 = pregnancy" was allowed to be discussed."

That's an incomplete abstinence education program, then. What teenagers need to be told is that sex is a risky activity, and the risky sexual activities are such and such. To ignore STD's is to cut out a major, major part of the risk-education, and to decrease, correspondingly, the incentive to abstinence. Pregnancy taken alone is not really all that horrible, particularly as, owing to national television and such, I'd imagine pretty much every teenager knows that she can get an abortion. HIV, syphilis, gonnohrea, the clap -- these are horrible.

That said, though -- it's common sense. If you don't want to get a) pregnant or b) an STD, then don't have sex! And more particularly, avoid situations in which you'll get carried away into having sex of any kind, since it's often kind of hard to stop the train of events that lead towards sexual intercourse once it's been set in motion. The problem, of course, is that teenagers are typically not too strong on "common sense," and frequently take imprudent risks.

All that said, the idea that a teacher telling students to avoid having sex -- or even just to use a condom -- is going to have much of an effect on youth behaviour seems to be a bit pie-in-the-sky. I just don't get the sense that, among high school students (or even middle school students), teachers are all that respected, as teachers. Individual instructors may be respected by individual students, but it's not much connected with their identity as a teacher, or the school-nature of the educational setting. As a result, why would students listen, really, any more than they listen in math class?

XWL said...

Yet another example of the state, through the public school system, attempting to serve a parent funcion in society.

Parent's should be parents, not the government. Even bad, irresponsible parents should have the right to be bad irresponsible parents without interference from the state.

Health education in public schools has a long and sordid past, rarely has it been effective, and too often it reflects the ideologies of the school administrators and not the community they are presumed to represent.

Balfegor said...

"attempting to serve a parent funcion in society."

Well, in all honesty, that's probably because lots of parents want them to. And in many cases, parents just aren't able to fulfill the parenting role, with respect to sex education, because they don't have the knowledge necessary. They may well be engaging in high-risk sexual activity themselves.

From the perspective of society, generally, (i.e. us) since high-risk sexual activity carries significant externality costs (overtly in increased health spending and reduced labour; more covertly in deterioriating neighbourhoods; most covertly in that it seriously increases the risks of sexual activity for all the rest of us) we also have a nontrivial interest in making sure that young people have the knowledge necessary to avoid engaging in high-risk sexual activity.

KCFleming said...

Most, if not all of the comments so far perpetuate the myth that sex education should be based on nothing more than the sheer mechanics of sexual congress, preganancy and related diseases.

Because, apparently, there are no moral implications to engaging in, or abstaining from, sex with others.

Treating sex like some mere bodily function, an appetite to be sated no different than a desire for a candy bar, is debasing to humans.

It's the elephant in the room in sex ed: some people think it's wrong for unmarried people, especially teens, to have sex. It is high risk in a moral sense.

oldgranny said...

Nature hasn't caught up with the new paradigm yet. Way back when the average life span was thirty-something, human beings become sexually mature in their early teens, so that our species could be propagated.

As civilization progressed past the primitive stages and human beings started living a lot longer, they didn't become emotionally or financially mature until at least their twenties, so this early onset of sexuality became a real problem. Most religions figured this out even before Planned Parenthood was invented, so they taught abstinence and chastity as the only options.

This didn't work perfectly, there was a lot of backsliding, but at least there was a rule and most people tried to follow it. Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were shunned and denounced and they and their children were called very bad names. Abortion and birth control were not only sins and illegal, but it was even against the law of the land for a professional to dispense information about either.

So it was until the middle of the 20th century when several things happened. One, the contraceptive pill was marketed and another, abortion was made legal. By the mid-60's free love was everybody's goal -- sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy be damned. We have penicillin and abortion, so party on. When the party was over, we had a lot more things to worry about, genital herpes and AIDS to name few new ones.

The same ed-biz people who brought us innumeracy by teaching new-math, convinced us that sex education in the schools would make students smarter and safer participants in the sexual revolution. After almost forty years, the ed-biz people still haven't admitted that it had the opposite effect and now kids are having sex at ten or eleven and pregnancies at that age are unfortunately not at all unusual.

Well that's not surprising, they're still pushing bilingual classes decades after the evidence is in that they hamper students' entry into mainstream classes, not enhance it.

So here we are today, not one comment above is demanding that sex education be abolished and human reproduction be taught in classes like health or hygiene or biology, that teach about the human body as a whole, so the emphasis isn't on sex, but on learning about ourselves as a sentient and rational, as well as sexual beings.

I guess I won't hold my breath until that happens.

Undercover Christian said...

So here we are today, not one comment above is demanding that sex education be abolished and human reproduction be taught in classes like health or hygiene or biology, that teach about the human body as a whole, so the emphasis isn't on sex, but on learning about ourselves as a sentient and rational, as well as sexual beings.
That's exactly what my school did. There was a basic sex ed seminar in middle school (mainly to explain menstruation), and then Health class was a required credit in junior high school. This included a unit on sexual reproduction with information about STDs, pregnancy, safe sex, and abstinence.

Bruce Hayden said...


The place where I disagree is that up until, say, the 20th Century, the age of marriage was not that much later than the age of puberty. What changed really was the amount of knowledge that was needed to flourish in our society.

Back before industiralization, and in particular, the rapid rise of the knowledge based economy of the 20th (and now 21st) century, you just didn't need that much formal education. Rather, at 15 you could just start farming and raising your family.

Today, of course, formal education, a lot of formal education, is the key for most of us for an economicly secure life. So, instead of dropping out after 6th grade or so, a graduate degree is now extremely useful and highly desired by many. But marriage gets in the way of this for any number of reasons, including that marriage typically involves children. So, the optimal way to get at least an undergraduate degree, and, I think esp. for women, to get a graduate degree, is to stay single. Unfortunately, this means staying single through the decade of your peak sexuality (at least for us guys).

The problem, of course, is that we are ready for sex, and are driven towards it, much too young any more.

Add to this the elephant mentioned above. Sex, esp. with teenagers, gets in the way of financial success throughout the remainder of one's life. All you have to do is look at the positive statistical relationship between when girls, in particular, get sexually active and their level of final schooling. The less sex they have early on, the better they will do as far as getting undergraduate and graduate degrees.

knox said...

Yes, girls have a LOT more to lose, and the feminist movement, to my mind, is remiss in its refusal to even suggest abstinence for teens. Instead, it's all "Girls can have sex too and don't dare call us sluts!"

oldgranny said...

Bruce, you're right about very young girls in their teens being married as recently as the early 20th century. Not to get into whether it was moral or not, but these girls married men older than themselves and many times lived with his family or had older women as domestic help, so she had ample opportunity to grow up and learn how to take care of children and the house and farm before she herself was the older generation and preformed the same tasks for the new wives. Right or wrong, this is far different from having sex behind the junior high with a kid her own age who has no more knowledge of the world than a new born puppy.

Alex, By my school, are you referring to the school you attended in the dim dark past before recorded history like I did, or do you mean your school where you now attend or teach, or the school where your kids attend?

If it's recent, I am amazed and delighted. How did this come to pass? I feel elated that there may be hope.

oldgranny said...
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Balfegor said...

>"Bruce, you're right about very young girls in their teens being married as recently as the early 20th century. Not to get into whether it was moral or not, but these girls married men older than themselves and many times lived with his family or had older women as domestic help, so she had ample opportunity to grow up and learn how to take care of children and the house and farm before she herself was the older generation and preformed the same tasks for the new wives."

True, I think . . . except for the "men older than them." My great grandmother married at the age of 11 or 12 or so, towards the beginning of the last century, but my great-grandfather was only a year or two older than she was -- a boy still, not really a man. On the other hand, they certainly had the older generations there in his family home to help with the housework, and servants besides, I'd guess.

On the other hand, this was back in Korea, not here in the West.

>"Today, of course, formal education, a lot of formal education, is the key for most of us for an economicly secure life."

I don't think this necessarily has the impact on patterns of marriage that one might expect. After all, at the beginning of the 20th century, certain Asian societies were on their tenth century or more of requiring substantial formal education to get anywhere (by passing the standardised exams for the civil service) and they still married off their children young.

Well, for a certain class, that was true, at least.

I think it's two things -- (a) that the extended family typically doesn't live together in a single compound, to distribute the burdens of child-rearing, and (b) that culturally, the expectation is that people marry (and have children) only once they're ready to strike out on their own, ready to have a family, really. In recent years, that's shifted even further, such that people aren't even willing to marry or have children until they've actually settled themselves well into their career. Increasingly, they wait until they're in their mid-thirties before marrying. These two are probably linked, in that people would be more willing to marry and have children earlier if they were put in a family environment in which child-rearing was handled by the extended family, but my imperfect sense is that they're mostly independent developments, or rather, that they're independently motivated by all kinds of other cultural tendencies here in the US. The autonomy ideal, the sexual revolution, etc.

cavtBiOz said...
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