Empower women: Teach abstinence

Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A group that thinks a Super Bowl ad celebrating Tim Tebow's life is bad news for women might be a little out of touch with what women really want.

That helps explain why the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups have vehemently opposed abstinence education while failing to notice that a culture of casual sex hasn't been so liberating for women.

Just ask the 29-year-old Briton living in America whose anonymous account appeared in her country's left-wing Guardian newspaper.

"(M)y sexual liberation was perversely trapping me in destructive relationships, while intimacy had become something elusive, insubstantial, disappointing, surreal," she writes.

Weary of a "burlesque comedy where we all pretended we were emotionless and cool," she decided to stop having sex because "I wanted sex to be, quite simply, special again."

Similar world-weary statements have been recorded by researchers such as Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of "Unprotected," and Laura Sessions Stepp, author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both."

Only a third of young women say they truly wanted to have sex the first time they did, Stepp reports. Young women, she writes, "are trying to make sense of what is arguably the most confusing sexual landscape any generation has ever faced."

Most sex education pushes young women into this jungle and tells them contraception will provide adequate protection. This puts incredible pressure on those who have the most at risk in the casual-sex scene. And it jeopardizes their dreams of long-term security and love.

The vast majority of young women say marriage and motherhood are important to future happiness. Why wouldn't we equip young women to achieve those dreams while avoiding such consequences as sexual assault and serious disease - to say nothing of bewildering heartache? Why not teach young women the real facts about the risks of early sexual activity?

Teen girls who engage in sex are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease and depression. Girls who are sexually active in high school are half as likely to go on to college as abstaining peers from the same social setting. Later, they often have more difficulty in forging the kind of lasting relationships that lead to marriage.

Why not help young women make social choices that advance their long-term educational, vocational and marriage prospects? What about teaching tactics for resisting unwanted sexual advances? How about helping girls build relational and communication skills that will allow them to get what they really want - lasting love?

This common-sense approach is exactly what abstinence education seeks to do. Contrary to its detractors' caricature, abstinence education aims to empower young people - especially young women - with the information, skills and long-term perspective they need to successfully navigate what Stepp calls today's "confusing sexual landscape."

New evidence says this approach is helping girls do exactly that.

A study by University of Pennsylvania researchers released Feb. 2 found abstinence education is effective in delaying the onset of teen sexual activity. After eight hours of instruction on abstinence, middle school students were one-third less likely to engage in sexual activity compared to their peers. This effect persisted two years after they attended the class.

By contrast, the study found both "safe sex" and "comprehensive sex-ed" programs ineffective. The former promote only use of contraceptives; the latter teach abstinence and contraception.

Published in the American Medical Association's Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the Penn study used a randomized controlled experiment. The approach, designed to produce unbiased results, is considered the gold standard in program evaluation.

This is the most sophisticated evaluation showing abstinence education's positive results, but it's not the first. A 2008 research paper from The Heritage Foundation catalogued 15 scientific studies of abstinence education, 11 of which found positive effects.

On the same day the Penn researchers' study came out, President Obama released his 2011 budget proposal. It zeroes out funding for abstinence education while creating a $179 million comprehensive sex-ed program - the very kind the Penn study shows to be ineffective. Add that to more than $600 million a year already spent by the Department of Health and Human Services on pregnancy and STD prevention programs and "family planning" services for teens.

The Obama administration's plans not only fly in the face of the research, they ignore the real needs of young women. Teen girls say they want to hear the abstinence message. More and more young women who have braved the casual-sex culture say they still haven't found what they're looking for.

If we want to empower these women, let's teach abstinence.

• Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century."



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