A recent study found that abstinence programs may delay the onset of sexual intercourse. I imagine we’ll see a big hoopla and debate surrounding these results because they contradict other assessments of sex education programs.
Abstinence supporters will see this as proof that AOUM (abstinence-only until marriage) programs work, opponents will point to other studies to prove AOUM programs don’t work. Who is right? It all depends on the definition of “work.”
Debates over sex education push the notion that we can measure sex education efficacy by sexual debut delay. Why do we care if teens have sex before the age of 18? Is it inherently more harmful to have sex at 16 versus 17?
No. I really, honestly think that we should drop delay in sexual debut as a behavioral outcome. Consider Quinn and Taylor, both unisex names because I want to avoid gender assumptions. Quinn has first heterosexual intercourse at 16, Taylor at 18. Quinn uses protection but Taylor does not. Who is at greater risk?
Taylor is at greater risk for unwanted sexual outcomes because of lack of protection. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Puttin’ a jimmy on ain’t nothin’ but a thang. Delaying sex doesn’t mean jack diddly in the grander scheme of risk. Sometimes, risk is higher for those who delay because of information-less abstinence education.
Janet Rosenbaum published a study last year in the Journal of Pediatrics on abstinence-pledgers (those kids wearing rings and going to purity balls) versus non-pledgers. Findings? No differences between sexual behaviors but the pledgers were less likely to use STI protection or birth control.
The risk is not in age of sexual debut. The risk is in not using protection. This seems so simple but everyone tends to skirt around the issue of sexual debut.
Let’s stop including this as a behavioral outcome, for several reasons. First, everything listed above about risk. Second, sexual debut almost always means heterosexual intercourse. This is limiting and alienating for some youth.
Finally, why is the age of 18 so damn magical? We only seem to track sexual debut for those under 18, as if the moment the clock strikes legal, young adults are in the clear. Wrong. STI rates quoted for youth include persons up to 19 years of age, sometimes up to the age of 24. ever heard that statistic about youth contracting half the STIs in the country? Here is the stat from CDC:
Youth. Aged 15 to 24. So youth is one age range when we talk about STIs but another when we talk about sexual behaviors? Why?
When we look at sexual behavior among high school students, less than half have had sexual intercourse (ie. penis in the vagina sex). And those numbers have decreased over the past two decades. In reality, teens are more sexually responsible than my generation or my parents’ generation. The only reason we freak out so much is because the media engages in fear mongering headline exercises.
If a teen is going to have sex, don’t sweat. You should be far more concerned with their access to condoms, contraception and, above all else, support. We all need that when a sexual dalliance or love affair goes awry.
Honestly, teens are not as sexually active as you think. A few months ago several students (ages 15-17) asked me what an orgasm felt like. Methinks they’re not having any crazy orgies while their folks are out of town.