Safe Sex Need Not Be Feared – Sunday, December 7, 2003 – Published in The Concord Monitor
When he has not been busy cutting services to poor people and laying off his staff, Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen has launched an initiative promoting abstinence. Stephen has created a New Hampshire Abstinence Education Task Force.
In announcing the creation of this group, Stephen stated that teens who practice abstinence live healthier and more fulfilling lives. As a former teenager and a child of the 1960s, I protest. The elevation of abstinence as more fulfilling does not register with me.
Abstinence was never a condition to which I willingly aspired. Since my teen years, I wanted a satisfying love life, not empty privation and repressed longings. Turning abstinence into some great virtue smacks of sick religiosity and phony piety. However, I do not doubt that there are some snake handlers, Bible thumpers and elected officials who agree with Stephen.
While in general sexual pleasure needs no promoting, there is an apparent need in New Hampshire to put in a good word for it. Unlike the abstinence promoters, I support the right of young people in their later teens to be both sexually active and responsible.
As the father of young men, I believe young people need full information about contraception and safe sex. They do not need lectures from moralistic adults who are promoting abstinence for others. I would worry more if my sons went through their teen years without romantic relationships.
The focus on abstinence reflects misguided public health priorities. New Hampshire is one of 10 states with the lowest birth rates for teenagers 15 and older. Over the last decade, teen birth rates in our state dropped significantly. No persuasive case justifies why an abstinency initiative is necessary now.
To the extent public health dollars are available, it would make far more sense to spend money on either anti-smoking or anti-drug and alcohol efforts. Teen smoking is epidemic, but the geniuses in our Legislature completely raided tobacco settlement dollars in a misdirected effort to boost revenue in the general fund. Similarly, legislators have just authorized a $500,000 cut to drug and alcohol programs at a time when these programs are already drastically underfunded considering the extent of the problem.
Sadly, Stephen’s initiative is not some isolated effort. The Bush administration and social conservatives have lobbied for and increased federal funding for abstinence-only education. If you can believe it, the federal budget contains $137 million in fiscal year 2004 for this purpose.
If New Hampshire wants to access some of this money, it must put up three matching state dollars for every four federal dollars spent. In light of the painful $20 million cut just experienced by Health and human Services, do we really want to spend state money on this?
Abstinence education is the sexual equivalent of the “Just say no” approach to drug use. Abstinence educators teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful physical and psychological side effects.
Recipients of federal money may not provide teens with any information inconsistent with the abstinence message. The result is that recipients of abstinence-only dollars may not advocate contraceptive use or teach contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates.
There is real danger in this remarkably blind approach. Young people will not get the full and accurate information they need about condoms and other methods of birth control. Without correct information, young people will not be able to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
The abstinence promoters totally erase gays and lesbians from their equation. If marriage is the only venue for sex, where does that leave the non-straight world? I suspect the abstinence promoters do not support gay marriage.
Whether social conservatives like it or not, young people are having sex. By age 18, more than two-thirds of all American teenagers have had sexual intercourse. Each year, nearly 4 million adolescents are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. One-half of all new HIV infections occur among people under 25.
It is the abstinence promoters themselves who are dangerous to the health of young people. They are peddling fear and ignorance in the serve of an ideology. They actually discourage young people from using contraception and exaggerate failure rates to scare youth into abstinence.
There is no proven evidence that abstinence-only education works. No peer-reviewed research demonstrates the effectiveness of any abstinence-only program. I expect it will not come as a surprise that George W. Bush has repeatedly championed abstinence education and has worked to increase such funding.
An objective assessment of the last 20 years shows that the abstinence promoters have had considerable success in promoting their programs while restricting more comprehensive sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception.
Abstinence education is a good example of the dumbing down of America. It makes our state look stupid. I safely predict that vast numbers of teenagers will pay no attention.