Abstinence, anyone?

Strange things do happen. Earlier this month Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, relented after years of obstructionism and allowed the United States to pay its back dues to the United Nations. If Helms can come to terms with the obvious good the UN represents, perhaps "progressive" educators and other advocates of what is called "comprehensive sex education" will one day come to see the virtue and effectiveness of stressing abstinence in public-school sex education. That day has not yet arrived, however.

"Virginity Pledges by Teenagers Can Be Highly Effective, Federal Study Finds," read the surprising (for some) headline in the New York Times (January 4). The new study, conducted by Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Christine Bachrach of Yale, concluded that teenagers who took a pledge to abstain from intercourse until marriage "are much less likely" to have intercourse than adolescents who did not pledge. "The delay effect is substantial and almost impossible to erase. Taking a pledge delays intercourse for a long time," the study concludes.

The pledge, an idea originating with the Southern Baptist church, has been taken by nearly 3 million American adolescents. Virginity pledges and other "abstinence-only" programs are particularly controversial when implemented in public schools. Federal funding guidelines, stemming from the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, prohibit such programs from providing students with information about contraception.

The debate over the place of moral norms in sex education has long been contentious. The Left is eager to paint abstinence programs as a scheme by the Religious Right to restore traditional gender roles and sexual morality. Some critics even contend that abstinence-only sex education represents an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state! For religious conservatives, schools that provide information about contraception are seen to be enabling immoral behavior. In addition, comprehensive sex education, with its "nonjudgmental" approach to sexual activity outside of marriage, is rejected as a form of indoctrination in pernicious liberal values.

High school students, let alone younger children, should not be engaging in sexual intercourse. The news that abstinence works-even so-called "abstinence-only" programs-should be welcome. The high rates of sexually transmitted disease, hiv, abortion, and unwed motherhood among teenagers in the U.S. has had devastating consequences, especially for young and poor women and their children. However social policy may balance the abstinence message with the provision of contraceptive information, surely abstinence is what most parents and increasingly many professionals think needs to be stressed. Still, the Bearman-Bachrach study has not been greeted with enthusiasm by all. An earlier version of the paper presented at a Planned Parenthood of New York City workshop brought an extraordinary reaction, with the president of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) leading an "Abstinence programs do not work" chant. In other contexts, such a willful rejection of new knowledge is called obscurantism.

Of course, virginity pledges are not the sole answer to teenage irresponsibly in matters sexual. The study also found that pledgers are less likely to use contraception than are nonpledgers when they eventually do have intercourse. Obviously no single approach is appropriate for all kids. Bearman and Bachrach carefully note that the pledge works in specific social contexts. The pledge is more effective with younger teenagers (fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds) and loses its effectiveness altogether if taken by too many or too few adolescents in the same social setting. Once again, attitudes toward sex are shown to be deeply embedded in group norms.

Rates of teenage pregnancy have actually declined since the early 1990s. Despite the continuing political antagonism surrounding this issue, a willingness on the part of liberals and conservatives alike to criticize teenage sex and defend the institution of marriage has helped to stem the tide of destructive behavior among the young. A consensus now seems to exist that "abstinence-plus" or "mixed" programs, curriculums that emphasize abstinence but also provide information about contraception, make the most sense. But the emphasis must be placed unambiguously on abstinence. As historians and social critics like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead have pointed out, the "technological" approach to sex education that predominated in the recent past betrayed a gross misunderstanding of the motivations and dynamics behind teenage sexual activity. Information alone does not improve teenage decision making. Children must have a compelling reason to make use of information, and strong moral guidelines can provide such reasons when it comes to sex. As adults know, sex is as much about the will as it is about the body. Despite the allure of sexual libertinism in the media and larger culture, adolescents still want to understand the meaning of love and marriage. That is where any common-sense approach to sex education should start.

Mocking the efforts of religious conservatives to uphold traditional notions of sexual morality and marriage is too easy. Yes, some of the abstinence-only teaching methods are silly and falsely idealize the complex nature of sexual relations. Marriages, obviously, do not always work out. Premarital sex is not a straight road to perdition. But the so-called enlightened or "recreational" model of modern sexuality is no less idealized and even more misleading. Sex can be a fierce force in our lives, and rarely is it more fierce than in adolescence. Religious tradition and social custom have long recognized the disorienting power of sexual desire in the lives of the young by upholding the ideal of faithful, lifelong marriage, and providing boundaries for courtship. That approach is not just sound morality, but as a growing body of social scientific evidence shows, it is also good social policy.

Published in the 2001-01-16 issue: 
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