The Politics of Abstinence

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Abstinence


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Washington, D.C., has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates nationwide: 1 in 8 teenage girls get pregnant in any given year. D.C. also has the highest rate of new AIDS cases per 100,000 population: More than 14,000 cases have been diagnosed, and almost half have died. The Whitman Walker clinic estimates 1 in 20 D.C. adults is infected with HIV.

These statistics are directly related to the Department of Human Services (DHS) failure to provide a sound teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention program. As a result, the District's youth suffer an epidemic of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Let's look at middle-school students to whom I presented my classroom HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy prevention education program, called ULTRA Teen Choice. A slide show demonstrates the increased chance of contracting HIV when sexually active people are not monogamous but have multiple sexual partners.

A seventh-grade girl asks: "Are you supposed to have one sexual partner for life?" and, "If you get divorced, can you marry again?"

Young people do not know the expected standard of behavior, namely abstinence until marriage (according to federal guidelines drafted as part of the welfare reform bill of 1996). They will not respond to a standard that is not presented in a clear, directive way. Further, most are unaware of condoms' limited effectiveness and are not getting a clear message about either issue from the DHS' HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy prevention program.

For example, the DHS recently coproduced a CD titled "Cause 'N Effect." The lead song raps: "I tell you Safe Sex or No Sex! The best sex is no sex and if you having sex [sic] please use the latex." First, youth do not respond affirmatively to mixed messages. The Family Planning Perspectives journal reported black teenagers in an urban area who (1) had good communication with their mothers, (2) received a clear, strong pro-abstinence message, (3) whose mothers did not promote birth control, were 12 1/2 times less likely to have had sexual intercourse than teens for whom none of that was true.

The second problem with the "safe sex" message is that "safe sex" is not safe. An eighth-grade boy during a classroom presentation frames this problem succinctly: "Why do people promote using a condom when it does not protect you from most sexually transmitted diseases?" Good question. Studies show condoms are as much as 85 percent effective in preventing HIV infection and about 80 percent effective in preventing pregnancy among teen couples. Calling condom use "safe sex" is false and misleading.

The news gets worse for the other more than 25 sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms are at most 50 percent effective in reducing transmission of syphilis and gonorrhea. …

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