"Red Sex, Blue Sex": Do abstinence-only programs cause more teen pregnancies?

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Do religious teens exposed to abstinence-only education have more sex and unplanned pregnancies than those with less restrictive parameters? Startling new research says yes, absolutely. The latest issue of the New Yorker presents these findings in a provocative article called "Red Sex, Blue Sex," which explores the relationship between religion, socio-economic status, political affiliation and sex education. While I can't say I found the results shocking, they certainly gave me pause.

For example, Bristol Palin's pregnancy helped instead of hurt Sarah Palin's bid for the socially conservative, Christian vote, because apparently, so many folks in the community could relate. "As Marlys Popma, the head of evangelical outreach for the McCain campaign, told National Review, 'There hasn't been one evangelical family that hasn't gone through some sort of situation." In fact, blue states tend to support sex education and teen pregnancy is generally perceived as a social stigma, whereas "'red states' generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn't choose to have an abortion."

The repercussions of these attitudes are reflected in new findings regarding the sexual conduct of these teens. According to the results of the comprehensive government study Add Health, 74 percent of white evangelical teens claim they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. However, it may be a case of talking the talk but not walking the walk, as the same study also found that this group is more sexually active than Mormons, Protestants and Jews. Additionally, more than half of teens that make chastity pledges, such as the ones offered through programs like True Love Waits, end up having sex before marriage, and "not usually with their future spouse." These groups not only start having sex younger, at about age 16, they also statistically have higher rates of STDs, which researchers attribute to a variety of reasons that range from purchasing contraception, such as condoms, will "send the message that they are looking for sex," and of course, can most obviously be chalked up to the lack of facts-based sex education abstinence-only programs entail. (In fact, as a way to deter youth from having sex at all, abstinence movement teachings dictate that condoms won't protect users from STDs and pregnancy.) The problem is, they're still teenagers and clearly, they're choosing to have sex anyway, just less safely.

Sadly, the effects of this well-intended methodology are devastating for young people when it comes to unplanned pregnancy. "Two family-law scholars, Naomi Cahn, of George Washington University, and June Carbone, of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, are writing a book on the subject, and they argue that 'red families' and 'blue families' are 'living different lives, with different moral imperatives.' (They emphasize that the Republican-Democrat divide is less important than the higher concentration of 'moral-values voters' in red states.) In 2004, the states with the highest divorce rates were Nevada, Arkansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and West Virginia (all red states in the 2004 election); those with the lowest were Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The highest teen-pregnancy rates were in Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas (all red); the lowest were in North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Maine (blue except for North Dakota). 'The 'blue states' of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have lower teen birthrates, higher use of abortion, and lower percentages of teen births within marriage,' Cahn and Carbone observe."

So essentially, while these red states also share the distinction of having couples that get married at younger median ages, yet another damning statistic points out that women who marry before their mid-twenties are "significantly more likely to divorce than those who marry later. And younger couples are more likely to be contending with two of the biggest stressors on a marriage: financial struggles and the birth of a baby before, or soon after, the wedding."

So where does that leave us? Interestingly, there is another "middle-class morality" movement taking shape. One prominent survey found that among "economically and socially advantaged families who are not social conservatives," teens that are routinely exposed to comprehensive sex education tend to choose abstinence in order to protect themselves from pregnancy and other STDs not for religion or pledges but because they are so acutely aware of the consequences, which may prevent them from higher education and career goals.

"Because these teen-agers see abstinence as unrealistic, they are not opposed in principle to sex before marriage-just careful about it. Accordingly, they might delay intercourse in favor of oral sex, not because they cherish the idea of remaining 'technical virgins' but because they assess it as a safer option...They might have loved Ellen Page in Juno, but in real life they'd see having a baby at the wrong time as a tragic derailment of their life plans."

Shelby Knox, a Southern Baptist teen from the small town of Lubbock, Texas and True Love Waits pledge member, made an eye-opening 2005 documentary of her own experiences with abstinence-only called, "The Education of Shelby Knox." It follows her transformation from devout practitioner to crusading sex education activist (all the while maintaining her chastity, but no longer for religious reasons). "At her high school, kids receive abstinence-only education, but, Knox says, "maybe twice a week I see a girl walking down the hall pregnant."

Recently, she testified at a congressional hearing on sex education. She claimed that "it's possible to 'believe in abstinence in a religious sense, but still understand that abstinence-only education is dangerous 'for students who simply are not abstaining.' As Knox's approach makes clear, you don't need to break out the sex toys to teach sex ed-you can encourage teen-agers to postpone sex for all kinds of practical, emotional, and moral reasons. A new 'abstinence-plus' curriculum, now growing in popularity, urges abstinence while providing accurate information about contraception and reproduction for those who have sex anyway. 'Abstinence works,' Knox said at the hearing. 'Abstinence-only-until-marriage does not."

Sounds like maybe, just maybe, we all might be able to learn to get along after all, if anything, for our kids' sakes. Where do you stand?


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