Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Failure of Abstinence Only

After Years of Decline, Teenage Pregnancy Rates Rise:

After more than a decade of declining teenage pregnancy, the pregnancy rate among girls ages 15 to 19 increased 3 percent from 2005 to 2006 — a turnaround likely to intensify the debate over federal financing for abstinence-only sex education.

The teenage abortion rate also crept up for the first time in more than a decade, rising 1 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit research group.
Then, for some reason, the article reviews previous presidential administrations and jumps to the conclusion that the Obama administration's decision to cut abstinence-only sex education is now going to be "reexamined":

The Clinton administration began financing abstinence-only programs as part of welfare reform, but such programs got a large boost in the Bush administration.

The Obama administration has moved away from abstinence-only programs, creating a new teenage-pregnancy initiative in which most financing will go to programs that have been shown to prevent pregnancy, with some experimental approaches.

Advocates of abstinence-only education, however, had a different view.

“While this recent uptick is certainly disconcerting, it would be disingenuous to try to ascribe it abstinence education or any other single factor,” said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association. “The overly sex-saturated culture certainly plays a part, with teen sex communicated almost as an expected rite of passage, without consequences, and that’s a dangerous message for young people, who tend to be risk-takers anyway.”

I don't disagree about the "sex-saturated culture" we live in. It's not a causal factor, but it is interesting that this rise in pregnancy occurred right around the time phrases like "baby-mama" and "baby-daddy" migrated from hip-hop and r&b references into the lexicon of popular culture and acceptability (and natch, commodification).

Baby-daddy is the new bling. Online, you can buy "Jesus is my baby-daddy" magnets, tote bags, and beer steins. There is a drink called the "babymama." Scott Hoffman, the bassist for the glam rock band the Scissors Sisters, goes by the stage name "Babydaddy." Some of this cultural paraphernalia retains the old, loaded sense of the term: You can, for example, download a "Salty Baby Mama" ringtone so that when people call, your phone will jangle and thrum while a woman's voice says, "Baby, I know you hear this damn phone ringing. I'm going to beat your ass, as soon as I see you."

LOL. The result: over the past five years or so, out of wedlock births have skyrocketed, now accounting for almost 50% of all live births in the U.S. Talk about a "bump."

But what the NAEA and other abstinence-only advocates seem to be missing is the time frame this latest uptick happened: 2005-2006, when abstinence-only programs were being funded to the hilt.

These programs have never worked and it's disingenuous to pretend a political decision made in 2009 has anything to do with what happened in 2005.

Comprehensive sex education should focus on preventing pregnancy and lowering the rates of STD transmission via contraception. If it lowers the rates of teenagers actually knocking knees, wonderful, but that should be ancillary to the other consequences of sex (including prosecuting adolescents for underage sex, which doesn't work either).

UPDATE: I'm always happy to give opposing sides their due on this blog, which is why this 2/2/10 WaPo headline "Abstinence-Only Programs Might Work," caught my eye. But when you read between the lines, serious questions still remain.

Several critics of an abstinence-only approach said that the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.
Delaying sexual activity two years is notable, but since the population was 12 and 13 year olds, it doesn't say much. Also, the program evaluated is not representative of most abstinence-only programs in terms of its tone and portrayal of sexual activity.

But by all means, let the debate continue.

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