Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sex Education in America

We are now in the era in which that media and tea-loving Wasilia supermom's daughter achieves her moment of fame for her teenage motherhood and graces the cover of a national magazine. But you see, when I look at Bristol Palin, I don't think about the girl who just went and got pregnant. I wonder about what other little treasures such a girl could get from her partner. I wonder about her son Tripp and about her awesomesauce campaign for teenage abstinence. (Which Bristol is such a convincing expert on...) But I'm not here trying to pick on Bristol. I'm more interested in what Bristol, on that magazine cover, represents. Clearly we are far past the days of teenagers having sex being an embarrassing thing, right? What? We're not? Oh! Of course! Abstinence is the right choice! Save your virginity for marriage! It's a gift to be bestowed so carefully!

But, well... bestowing carefully, to my mind might have a lot more to do with bestowing with contraception and HIV protection than waiting for marriage. Clearly Bristol Palin missed the memo on the whole business. But is she alone? Oh no. 

Yesterday, one of Les Comtesses forwarded an article to me that was on AOL's News Service. Writer Katie Drummond has been keeping track of some rather disheartening findings by the CDC this year on how we educate our teens about sex and about what teens are thinking about pregnancy and doing sexually. As Drummond notes from a brief article from back in June, summarizing a CDC report (pdf copy here) that looked at trends in teen sexual behavior and attitudes toward pregnancy, teens aren't getting any smarter. In fact, if anything, they are losing ground in the smarts area and are sliding down the slippery slope of risk-taking irresponsibility in some areas.

Although the percentages of sexually active teens, a little more than 42%, remained the same in the surveyed years (2006-2008) as compared to the previously released report (2002), what was really, really disturbing was that there was a significant increase, 17% in 2008 from 11% in 2002, in the number of teenage females who claimed they were using the rhythm method as their means of birth control. Now, I don't know about you, but coming from a Catholic family in which one of my mother's cousins had a whole passel of children using the rhythm method, I'm really thinking that's less birth control than it is birth roulette. And last I knew, birth roulette didn't prevent STDs worth a damn.

But this fits nicely with the  CDC date brief (pfd version here), released earlier this month, cited in Ms. Drummond's article above. Parents should really take a look at it. Just make sure you're sitting down, okay?

We'll start off easy.... Some of the findings from this month's brief:

● 92% of male and 93% of female teenagers reported being taught about STDs and 89% of male and 88% of female teenagers reported receiving instruction on how to prevent HIV/AIDS while in school.
● A larger percentage of teenagers reported receiving formal sex education on “how to say no to sex” (81% of male and 87% female teenagers) than reported receiving formal sex education on methods of birth control (62% and 70%, respectively). 
● Male teenagers were less likely than female teenagers to have received instructions on methods of birth control (62% of male and 70% female teenagers). 

I look at these results and have a number of questions about what we are telling our youth in this country about sex. 

Okay, after I get over being totally pissed off about the fact that neither schools or parents appear all that worried about boys knowing about birth control, am I to assume when putting together finding #1 and finding #2 that the way to prevent getting HIV is abstinence? I mean, to some extent, sure, it's a great way. (Not sharing needles works really well, too.) But when I look at finding #2 I'm seriously left wondering how you are preventing STDs without using birth control if you're having sex. Because according to the June 2010 CDC results, more than 40% of all teens surveyed were sexually active and out of that group 26% of the female and 29% of the male teens had already had two or more partners. That kind of increases your chances of getting STDs. And catching pregnancy, too. As you will see.

So what appears to happen when we don't tell our kids about birth control methods?

They wing it. 

And let me tell you, parents out there, winging it leads to some pretty scary stuff. Like these findings, again from the June CDC report:

  • In 2006–08, only 52% of never married teen females and 71% of never married teen males who had sex in the four weeks before the interview used the condom every time they had sex.
  • Less than half of never–married teen males (47 percent) reported they would be “very upset” if they got a partner pregnant, while 58 percent of never–married teen females said they would be very upset if they got pregnant.
  • 22% of sexually experienced teen girls and 24% of sexually experienced teen boys said they would be “a little pleased” or “very pleased” if they were to get pregnant (or get a partner pregnant.)
  • Approximately 71% of females and 64% of males said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that “it is okay for an unmarried female to have a child.”  The percentage for males has increased sharply since 2002, when 50 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed with this question.  The percentage for females has remained the same over that period of time. 

And all I can say in looking at these facts is that it makes that People magazine cover look a wave of the future. Only it's kind of like a blast from the past. Without the shame and embarrassment. Not that I'm big on shame and embarrassment, but you know, if you're going to say that abortion isn't birth control then you damn well better do a better job educating about, and encouraging, and making affordable, birth control. Because more kids having babies means more kids getting exposed to diseases like herpes, antibiotic resistant gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, trichomoniasis and especially HIV. Because when you can get pregnant, you can get diseases. And most of all, pregnancy for most teens means more babies who aren't going to have parents who are up to the job.

Yes, I look at all those statistics and think that they mean more young people who are totally unprepared to be parents are deluding themselves thinking that they would be fine at parenting. But you know, when you can't even put it together to use a condom the very last thing you're likely ready for is the lifetime commitment to a child. (Although, I can say without hesitation that I do know several women who were teenage mothers who were and are excellent parents. But they are the exception rather than the rule and they had either family support or other supports in place.)

But then I guess maybe we can wonder about parents who haven't told their kids about birth control in first place. What were they thinking?

Right Sarah?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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