There isn't much evidence that abstinence-only sex education works, and plenty that it doesn't. So why aren't more moms and dads buying condoms for their kids?
The number of pregnant teenagers is on the rise in the U.S. for the first time in a decade, according to a report released yesterday. And researchers are blunt in laying blame: the BushBush-era emphasis on abstinence-only education is behind the uptick.
According to the report by The Guttmacher Institute: "The significant drop in teen pregnancy rates in the 1990s was overwhelmingly the result of more and better use of contraceptives among sexually active teens. However, this decline started to stall out in the early 2000s, at the same time that sex education programs aimed exclusively at promoting abstinence -- and prohibited by law from discussing the benefits of contraception -- became increasingly widespread and teens' use of contraceptives declined."
The not-so-secret sex lives of America's teenagers has been the subject of hit movies like "Juno" and reality TV series such as MTV's "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant." It's also the subject of a Lifetime cable TV movie airing tomorrow night, "The Pregnancy Pact," which was based on the real-life rash of pregnancies at a Gloucester, Massachusetts, high school a few years ago (the movie even used the seaside town as a setting, enraging residents).
Teens and sex are in the spotlight on the news, too; on ABC's "Good Morning America," Canadian film producer Sharlene Azam pointed out that for many kids, casual prostitution -- like getting paid to take off their clothes, or trading sex for favors -- and sexually charged behavior like "sexting" is far more common than previously believed -- and kids are becoming sexually active at a very young age.
"I myself am only 14... and have lost my virginity to my boyfriend, who's also 14, and was also a virgin when we chose to have sex," Nicole, who declined to give her last name, wrote in response to a post by this reporter on parents buying birth control of their teens. "Before that we did just about everything except actual intercourse. Some may say that we're too young, but that doesn't bother me. It was my decision, as well as his.
"In my school," she added, "they don't teach you about birth control until grade 9. This year I'm going into grade 9."
Many sexually active teenagers say they wish they had waited to have sex -- six out of 10 of them, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Some are trying to reclaim their virginity after the fact, which has their parents pleased.
Sarah Palin's Vice Presidential campaign in 2008, told People Magazine: "If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. Trust me. Nobody." She has a good point, but the message that came through was decidedly mixed. After all, as Sandy Maple pointed out at Parentdish: "Her pregnancy wasn't the result of failed contraception. It was the result of failed abstinence.", the now 19-year-old single mom whose pregnancy was announced during her mother Sarah Palin
Still, the teenage mom recently announced that she would not be having sex again until marriage, a goal supported by her politically conservative mother, the former Governor of Alaska. A strong supporter of abstinence-only education, Sarah Palin now concedes that she wishes she had spoken with her daughter about the subject more frequently and openly.
Another popular option -- scaring kids into waiting to have sex -- doesn't seem to work, either.
"When a kid is old enough to think about doing it, they need to know their options of protection, because chances are they're going to do it." said Anthony, a 16-year-old student in Boston. "I buy my own condoms. But I'd like parents to know that buying condoms or birth control isn't encouraging sex, it's encouraging safety and responsibility."
While some teens are responsible and willing to weigh the risks of early sexual activity, plenty of others -- including many of those discussing "The Pregnancy Pact" online -- seem more focused on finding love by having a baby.
Which begs the question: If you knew your child was sexually active, would you buy him or her birth control? Where do you draw the line between protecting your kids vs. facilitating their actions?
"I would rather my kid be responsible and safe so YES I would." tweeted Karen Greco when Provoices posed the question online. "Hiding my head in the sand doesn't do either of us any good."
"My kids are now 39, 34 and 29, but when each one of them turned 16, one of their birthday gifts from me was a package of condoms, and a talk on why I didn't want them to use them, but that I never wanted them to have unprotected sex," wrote Bobbe Anderson, a parent in Massachusetts, in response to a question posed by this reporter online. "I know it sounds like a mixed message, but I really want to stress that I talked with my kids about all the reasons not to be sexually active including HIV/AIDS, which was probably my greatest fear since at the time my children were becoming aware of sex was when that health crisis became a major issue."
As Anderson poins out, pregnancy isn't the only problem -- there are health issues to consider as well. Teenagers these days engage in plenty of other sexual behavior in the belief that certain acts, like oral sex, won't affect their virginity.
"If you talk to teens [about oral sex] they'll tell you it's not a big deal," filmmaker Azam, producer of "Oral Sex is The New Goodnight Kiss," said on "Good Morning America" recently. "In fact, they don't consider it sex. They don't consider a lot of things sex."
Researcher seems to bear this out: A 2005 study by the US Centers for Disease Control's National Health Statistics Center shows that more than half of all US teens age 15 to 19 have engaged in oral sex, and a study published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Pediatrics points out that one in four teenage girls in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted disease.
"The high burden of STDs among teen girls reminds us that we can't ignore this," Dr. Sami L. Gottlieb, who coauthored the Pediatrics study, said in a statement. Data collected from 838 girls ages 14 to 19 found that human papillomavirus (HPV), which often causes cervical cancer, was the most common infection (18.3 percent), followed by chlamydia (3.9 percent). In the year after having their first sexual experience and with only one sex partner, 19.2 percent of the teens developed an STD, Dr. Gottlieb's group reported. Other research suggests that teens who participate in abstinence-only sex education programs or make so-called “purity pledges” promising to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t -- and are less likely to take precautions when they do have sex.
But simply encouraging kids to wait isn't enough of an option. Though the U.S. government used to measure the success of abstinence-only sex education programs based on the number of teens who pledge to maintain their virginity, a 2009 study shows that just five years after promising to stay chaste, 82 percent of teens denied having even made the pledge at all, and the age at which they first had sex was the same as those who hadn't taken the pledge. In fact, the biggest difference between the pledgers and nonpledgers was that "pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage." And then what?
"For too long, we as a nation have been far too squeamish about sexual health issues for teens," said Dr. Gottlieb, coauthor of the study about teens and STDs. "But we owe it to our kids to get over it."