Teens deserve better than abstinence-only sex ed

Teens deserve better than abstinence-only sex ed
© Getty Images

Here’s a couple of sobering statistics: People ages 15 to 24 make up half of all new STD cases and 21 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S. And according to the most recent survey of U.S. teens, condom use among teens declined from 61.5 percent in 2007 to 53.8 percent in 2017.

Although nationwide, fewer teens report having sex than ten years ago and more are using effective methods of birth control, too many students still aren’t getting the information they need to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancy. In my own community of Niagara Falls, for example, the rate of unintended pregnancy among teens is three times higher than the New York state average.

ADVERTISEMENT
I believe that all young people have the right to the information and skills they need to protect their health. I believe they need to understand and practice those skills before they become sexually active.

 

My work as a sexual educator is incredibly personal for me. It’s heartbreaking to watch young women defer their dreams of school because of unplanned pregnancies. It’s distressing to hear about students using baby oil as a lubricant, which actually increases the risk of a condom breaking, or have them ask if diabetes is a sexually transmitted infection. Some students don’t know the names of basic reproductive anatomy like the testicles and uterus, or they proudly store condoms in their wallets, despite this being a sure-fire way to render them ineffective.

As an educator, I see firsthand just how vital non-judgmental, accurate sex education is for young people. When we don’t teach our young people about their bodies or how to practice safe, responsible sex, we do them a huge disservice.

We know that sex education that includes healthy relationships, birth control methods, STDs, consent, sexual orientation and identity, and the full gamut of reproductive health care is highly effective. Programs like those funded by the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, a bipartisan, evidence-based grant program established with federal funding in 2010, have made huge strides in outcomes for young people. TPPP has served more than a million young people, trained more than 7,000 professionals, and supported partnerships among more than 3,000 community-based organizations across the country. Today, we are at a historic low for unintended pregnancy among teens in this country. 

That progress is at risk under the Trump-Pence administration.

Trump’s HHS is trying to radically remake the successful TPPP to instead fund abstinence-only programs. This action ignores the needs of young people to push an ideological agenda not based in reality. If it succeeds, as many as 1.2 million young people could be blocked from accessing high-quality, evidence-based programs that help them stay healthy and make decisions about their futures. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee could vote on a funding bill as early as this week that would prioritize abstinence-only programs.  

Abstinence-only programs put young people at risk by withholding critical health information — and research shows they don’t work. As well, these harmful programs often shame survivors for their own sexual assaults, peddle fear, and ignore the needs of LGBTQ teens.

I remember my sexual health classes in high school: The teacher stuck a piece of tape onto their sweater, ripped it off, and compared the lint left on the adhesive to the contamination of a woman with multiple sexual partners. “This woman will never be clean again,” they explained, shaming several people in the room who had already become sexually active, including myself.  Creating an environment full of stigma and shame is tantamount to silencing young people, deterring them from asking questions or exploring their totally natural curiosity about relationships and their own sexualities.

The truly confounding thing about this attempt to radically remake the TPPP is that Americans overwhelmingly support sex education. A recent Planned Parenthood poll confirms just how unpopular abstinence-only education is, with only 16.5 percent of likely voters favoring the term. This rift between the public policy of the Trump-Pence administration and the public consensus on the need for sexual education programs reveals the administration’s shocking disregard for the people it’s meant to serve.

As a sex educator, I am deeply concerned about the ramifications on young people in this country of undermining the TPPP program. Every time I step into a classroom, I’m met with students eager to learn. They deserve spaces where they feel safe asking questions — even the uncomfortable ones — so they can get medically accurate information about sex and relationships, without being shamed or judged. Americans agree: We need to fund sex education, not abstinence-only programs. The future and well-being of our young people are at stake.

Lynne Neveu is an outreach and education specialist for Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York.