The Politics of Abstinence

Recently, Newsweek magazine did an extensive story on teenage sex, entitled "The New Virginity - Why More Teens Are Choosing Not To Have Sex." The article was fascinating. It did suggest that there is a ...

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Recently, Newsweek magazine did an extensive story on teenage sex, entitled "The New Virginity - Why More Teens Are Choosing Not To Have Sex." The article was fascinating. It did suggest that there is a growing movement among high school age students to practice abstinence and wait until marriage to express sexual intimacy. However, the research data was incomplete on measuring how many young people are really choosing abstinence and why.

Clearly, some teenagers interviewed were choosing to wait because of their family and religious upbringing. They genuinely believed that the sex act should be celebrated in the context of love and marriage. Others admitted that they were waiting because of fear of STDs and feeling they were ill prepared for this personal and important decision.

The politics of abstinence is raging across America. Conservative politicians are pushing for increased government funding for programs that advocate abstinence. More moderate politicians are concerned that many abstinence programs neglect to talk about safe sex and appropriate birth control practices.

Whatever one's ideology is regarding this very sensitive issue, teenage pregnancy is epidemic and STDs are increasing exponentially. Whatever our position is on teenage sexual practices, our sex education has and is failing miserably.

Every term in my sociology classes, I take an informal poll on when students learned about the "birds and the bees" or had the famous sex talk with one or both of their parents.

Consistently, their responses are the same. Most young women have had a comprehensive sex talk with their Moms right before or around the beginning of their menses. Many young women expressed that most of the important points relating to sexuality and relationships were covered, although questions were not too often sought out.

On the other hand, the young men had a more disturbing experience. Most young men indicated that they learned what they knew about sex from their buddies. A few said that when they reached puberty, their Dads sat them down, gave them a very abbreviated sex talk and handed them condoms.

Over the last twenty years, it is my observation as a teacher, that we have done a disastrous job around sex education, both at home and in school. Most school districts in our larger community have a very shallow and incomplete curriculum regarding comprehensive sex education.

We can debate endlessly as to whose job it is to educate our children in this very private and personal area of human development. Most would probably concede that it is a parent's primary responsibility to educate their children about human sexuality.

Unfortunately, the reality is that parents are not acting responsibly in this area. To the contrary, they are acting irresponsibly. Too many teenagers are reaching high school ill equipped to handle the many emotional and human decisions around this very delicate and complicated human issue.

My college students consistently admit that their knowledge of birth control is superficial and their knowledge of STDs is clearly incomplete and shallow. We have not even created an environment where students can honestly share their concerns, their fears and their worries.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a must. It should not be piece-mealed into the health curriculum, but rather it should be integrated into the health program from pre-school through senior year in high school.

Our approach to sex education must be holistic. Every aspect of human sexuality and relationships needs to be explored with age appropriate language and information.

Those presenting this information need to be well trained and sensitive to all religious traditions. No teacher should ever push his or her personal views. They should not demean or criticize a particular religious tradition's perspective regarding these very sensitive issues.

Clearly all students should be taught to respect and tolerate diversity and people's differences.

As a Catholic surrogate parent for almost thirty years, I would not have a problem with a son or daughter being presented with all of the issues around human sexuality, birth control, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. If these issues are presented objectively and fairly, I can discuss with my children how Catholics look at many of these issues differently. It provides me the opportunity to really dialogue about the complexities of these issues and not at the expense of putting another perspective down.

As a parent, it challenges me to keep the dialogue going and keep my children engaged around the toughest issues regarding human development.

It is amazing with all of our technology and all of our openness how uneducated many teenagers are.

We who were raised in the fifties and sixties were pretty stupid. Fire and brimstone and fear were the content of our sex education. The current generation has had so much more. For better or worse they have also had access to so much more.

With all that stated, we continue to lead the state in teenage pregnancy and we lead the nation in abortion. It is amazing when a well educated couple in their late twenties or thirties comes forward to say they need to get married ASAP because they have an unexpected pregnancy. They will also say they intended to get married, but not at this moment. However the unplanned pregnancy caused them to move things up.

Each time I have been faced with this circumstance, I ask the same question, "why?" As I listen and ask simple questions, it all returns to the basic premise. We have failed them. At home and at school, we did not provide them with the basic tools to deal with this vital part of their growth and development. Too many young people reach adulthood thinking they are invincible. Unfortunately, they are terribly deficient in critical information and are also lacking in vital insight in regards to relationships.

We have an obligation to provide them with the tools to enable them to make informed, responsible decisions around human sexuality and human relationships. If we don't, the next generation is going to be emotionally and morally crippled.