Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sex Ed Does Not Work

Several times -- when I have observed that I know from my own experience that if one simply does not have sex until getting married, one will in the normal course of things successfully avoid STDs and unplanned pregnancies -- I have had quoted to me the "well known fact" that abstinence only sex education does not work. A quick browse around for studies showed several solid ones, including one commissioned by congress and the Department of Health and Human Services. These all showed that rates of sexual activity, pregnancy and STD infection were not decreased by "abstinence only" sex ed programs.

This didn't really seem like a surprise to me. That a school makes kids sit through several years worth of classes which emphasize that they should wait until marriage to have sex does not by any means mean that the students themselves will resolve to follow that course of action. Heck, schools try hard to teach history, reading, math and science, and students often don't absorb those lessons either -- despite the fact that there is nothing but upside to knowing about those subjects. One must assume that students will be even more unlikely to absorb lessons about abstinence -- since that involves "not getting any" and being something of a social oddity.

I and a number of my peers avoided sex until marriage, but that's because within our particular sub-culture of orthodox Catholics there was a strong reason not to -- something called "mortal sin" that we all believed in. If I had not believed that it was a mortal sin to have sex before marriage, and belong to a peer group that strongly supported that belief, it seems highly unlikely that I would have followed that course. MrsDarwin and I had been dating for nearly four years by the time we were finally able to get married. If we hadn't had a very, very strong motivation to wait -- then why do it?

So I'd essentially figured that the reason why abstinence education "didn't work" was because most of the kids were just sitting there in class thinking "this is stupid" and didn't make any particular effort to be abstinent.

I continue to think I'm right on that, but I ran across a post by Megan McArdle who pointed out something that I hadn't noticed: The most comprehensive recent controlled study to date, the one commissioned by the DHHS, found that groups of student put through several years of one of four commonly used abstinence-only programs did not abstain from sex (or get pregnant or get STDs) at different rates from those in the "control" groups. In two of the studied school districts, the control group was receiving only a "health and science" class which provided little to no information on contraception and STDs. In the other two districts, the control group received a fairly comprehensive sex ed program centering on contraception.

In all four districts, there was no significant difference between the students getting abstinence-only education and those in the control group.

What that means is not just that "abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work", it means that neither form of sex education significantly changes the way teenagers behave. There might as well be no sex education at all -- which to my mind would be just fine. This is one of those areas in which any particular approach to teaching on the topic is going to go against the sensibilities of at least some parents. And results like these only serve to underline that there are some areas which public schools (or indeed schools in general) simply don't have much ability to change behavior. This is one of for the parents and culture, not the schools.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Brooks says:

Douthat has done a number of posts on this. It is surprising (or maybe not) that many of the media outlets who run columns critical of abstinence-only education fail to note that no form of sex ed has been shown to be very effective. I think that this is an area where the level of rhetoric is high, and it's difficult for proponents from either side to examine the evidence. It is counter-intuitive that neither abstinence-only nor 'comprehensive ed' programs are very effective. Interestingly, one study Douthat flagged suggests that programs which 'include substantial after school and community-based components' and 'increase 'connectedness to carring adults' can be effective, although these programs are only indirectly related to sex.

http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/sex_ed_that_works.php

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

"It's not what you know, it's what you believe."

Myron said...

I don't know about abstinence-only sex education, but I think there's an excellent point to be made about contraception: It doesn't always work.

I think young people are genuinely surprised by this fact. They think "The pill is 99.9% effective, so I'm basically 100% safe", instead of realizing that even with that kind of effectiveness if you have sex frequently over several years the chance of pregnancy becomes very significant. And when it happens, because they think it couldn't have happened, they feel like they can say they were "responsible" because they used contraception, so it's unfair to expect them to keep the baby.

I don't know whether "contraception fails" would work for everyone, but I'm not religious at all, and when I did the math in my head while not paying attention to anything else that was going on in the sex ed class (except of course the girls, in the co-ed classes), I realized it was a risk not worth taking unless I was quite certain I was with someone with whom I would be comfortable raising a child. I've heard the same from a few other young adults (not teens), although the "contraceptives make recreational sex OK, and in fact every normal person does it" mentality is pervasive. And yes, I know "safety" is the wrong word to use in connection with pregnancy-prevention methods, it implies a devaluing of life. But "protection" is how contraception is viewed in society.

By the way - as an outsider to the Catholic Church, it was only very recently that I learned that the Church's position is more in line with mine than I thought. As I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong) the basic position is that we have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that any sex act could lead to the creation of life, and a responsibility to be prepared for this possibility, and basically take sex seriously. The "contraceptive mentality" which says that contraception makes recreational sex OK, is what the Church is really against, instead of being for the idea that every sexual act must be aimed at creating life, rather than just being done with the knowledge that life could result.

If I have it right, the Church might consider expending more effort to communicate this position to the outside world, because the common perception of outsiders is that the Church opposes contraception (not just the mentality it creates, but any effort to manage procreation outside of abstinence, in some people's minds also including a duty to make babies for God once you're married) because it leads to fewer Catholic babies, which leads to a reduced-size future Catholic church (and/or the Catholic church supports oppressive traditional gender roles). Once I learned what the real reasoning was (fairly recently), I thought it would have been very nice to know that earlier, as I thought when I was younger that I was the only one I knew who took the position I did on the sex and contraception issue. There was the "abstinence is the rule, non-abstinence is morally wrong because I said so, period." camp, the "sex is for fun, just use protection" camp, and very little in between.

DMinor said...

Let me second Foxfier. I think Darwin crystallizes what is necessary very nicely:

If I had not believed that it was a mortal sin to have sex before marriage, and belong to a peer group that strongly supported that belief, it seems highly unlikely that I would have followed that course.

Belief, and the support of your community/peers -- there is no substitute.

Myron: That's great reasoning! I wish more thought as you do.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post since it speaks to my own life experience. My public school sex ed experience consisted of a one day session in 5th grade and a three day one hour series in 10th grade. Each was completely worthless. The 5th grade one didn't give us enough information and the 10th grade one was taught by an idiot male social worker who simply assumed we were all already sexual experts, which I was not.

I learned far more about sex from a 7th grade church retreat on sex, including not just reasons to abstain or not but actual anatomical information. Coupled with what I was able to piece together from late-night Cinemax I had a far more comprehensive sex education outside of public school than I did within it. This shouldn't be surprising. I doubt many intelligent, motivated people grow up wanting to teach sex ed to a bunch of 10th graders who aren't inclined to listen anyway.

Like the other commenters, I fail to see the connection between more information and more responsibility. Although I'm sure there is a .01% minority out there, I have never known anyone capable of having sex who did not know what the act might result in, even if a youthful feeling of invincibility kept it at the back of their mind.

Darwin said...

Myron,

As I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong) the basic position is that we have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that any sex act could lead to the creation of life, and a responsibility to be prepared for this possibility, and basically take sex seriously. The "contraceptive mentality" which says that contraception makes recreational sex OK, is what the Church is really against, instead of being for the idea that every sexual act must be aimed at creating life, rather than just being done with the knowledge that life could result.

Yep, you've got it nailed. (And agreed, this needs to be covered more because I think it's a view of sex which can make intuitive sense and help people outside of a strictly religious context.)

And a very intelligent comment overall.

I should clarify, incidentally, lest I have sounded like I figured people who aren't religious are all libertines -- several of my good friends who were or are atheists describe having had a natural reaction against the "hook up" culture which they encountered in high school and college. I think that a little serious thinking, of exactly the sort you describe, answers the "are one night stands a good idea" question pretty clearly.

However, it seems to me that there's a natural connection in our minds between having a close loving relationship and having sex -- and so short of any strong motive to act otherwise, it's easy to talk yourself into feeling like you're "ready" for sex with someone when you have what feels like a deep long term relationship.

Darwin said...

Anon: Yeah, I can't think of many worse jobs than standing in front of a classroom full of teenagers explaining about sex.

Anonymous said...

Darwin -

Teaching sex ed isn't so bad. I did it for one year, as the religion and health teacher at a Catholic high school here in Pittsburgh. It was fun - I had complete freedom to create the curriculum and never had any trouble getting the kids to pay attention. I left teaching for lawyering, which overall suits me better, but my year as a sex ed teacher is one I rememeber fondly.

- Joe Magarac

Myron said...

Like the other commenters, I fail to see the connection between more information and more responsibility. Although I'm sure there is a .01% minority out there, I have never known anyone capable of having sex who did not know what the act might result in, even if a youthful feeling of invincibility kept it at the back of their mind

The point is "abstain!" will be ignored by most people who want to have sex, along with anything else the person who orders abstinence says, the instant someone else says the words "If you use contraception that's responsible". I think it's important to stop focusing on "Abstain!", and start redefining the word "responsible" in a more realistic way. Sure, responsibility leads to abstention in many circumstances, but the focus should be on the responsibility, not on the abstention.

And Darwin, you're right, it's easy to think you're prepared for a child when you're in a long term relationship. There's a case to be made for no sex before marriage. But I've also talked to people who got married very early specifically so they could have sex within the confines of their family/community's expectations (one who took it so far as to plan his loss of virginity in the break between the wedding ceremony and the reception because he was that anxious to do it. He said he knew several of his religious friends who were planning/had done the same). This is the wrong reason to get married, and leads to serious problems, which is why I think the focus needs to be on responsibility, not on rules such as "no sex before marriage".

Darwin said...

Joe,

I can see how things would be better at a religious school, but still: It's not something I'd want to do. I've enjoyed teaching the times that I've had a chance to try my hand at it, but talking about sex with teenagers is just something I'm afraid I don't think I could do.

My hat off to you.

Myron,

Agreed. One can't allow oneself to focus on "no sex till marriage" to the exclusion of what marriage is. Marriage always means accepting the possibility of children, and I think that in most cases one shouldn't get married until one is actually ready to have children fairly soon.

(Which was why the long wait while we were dating in college for the two of us -- we didn't think it would be a good idea to get married, even though we were sure we were headed that way, until we were graduated and I was working full time.)