Last week I discussed a new study that indicates that the best way to prevent teenagers from engaging in early sexual activity is to provide them with abstinence-only sex-ed classes. Sending a mixed message—"It's best to wait, but if you do have sex, use a condom"—was considerably less effective than simply urging the children, "Just say no."
In the wake of the reports of the study, the About.com Guide to Civil Liberties, Tom Head, and I had an interesting exchange on Twitter. Like me, Tom believes that teenagers should be encouraged to abstain from sex and that families are better equipped to teach moral decisionmaking than schools are. (As Tom put it, "Public schools are notoriously bad about teaching decisionmaking"; while parents might not necessarily be better at the job, "they have more reason to be emotionally invested in the outcome.") To me, that seems a pretty solid argument for keeping sex ed in the hands of parents.
Where Tom and I disagreed, however, is in the ability of schools (again, in Tom's words) to "teach (accurate) data re abstinence, contraception, etc." Tom has no religious objection (as I do) to the use of contraception, but I think that he is mistaken to think that contraceptive education could ever be reduced to "data" without a strong "decisionmaking" element.
Yes, there is a scientific component to any contraceptive-based sex-ed program. Teachers discuss how condoms work to block sperm and some (though not all) sexually transmitted diseases. They talk about the mechanism by which the Pill prevents ovulation (though few sex-ed programs mention that it also prevents implantation of a fertilized egg, even though the manufacturers of birth-control pills cite that as a back-up mechanism, in case ovulation does occur).
But none of this talk is given—or, for that matter, can be given—in a strictly dispassionate scientific sense. A physics teacher can explain to his high-school class how a nuclear bomb works, without any fear that he is encouraging his students to build and use one. But the same cannot be said of the sex-ed teacher who states that abstinence is the only completely reliable means of preventing pregnancy and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, and then turns around and explains the "scientific data" regarding condoms, the Pill, and other forms of contraception.
Indeed, as Tom wrote, "I think programs that only teach benefits of abstinence are not effective at promoting contraceptive use, and vice versa." But that's precisely the problem. Programs that only teach the "benefits" of contraceptive use do not effectively promote abstinence, while programs that teach both abstinence and contraceptive use promote sexual activity, even if they do not intend to do so.
And that's not a typo—I meant "sexual activity," not "contraceptive use." The study published in the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that rates of condom use were essentially the same among sexually active children in all of the groups, whether they received condom education or not.
The only significant difference was that the group who received the abstinence-only education reported a lower rate of sexual activity.
Given the right context, all scientific data can be presented dispassionately. I doubt, for instance, that a drug-company researcher who spends his day poring over data from studies of the latest version of the Pill is, as a result, more likely to engage in sexual activity.
But telling a class of teenagers that they should not play with fire, but that if they do, they should make sure to have a fire extinguisher at hand, is a pretty good way to increase the traffic at the local emergency room.