We have all heard it, parents, teachers, and students, gossiping about the latest young girl to become pregnant in high school. They make comments like, “What was she thinking” or “Her parents must be so disappointed. ” Did anyone question if she had been properly educated on the risks of sexual activity or if she had been provided with medically correct information? No one stops to think about the big picture; instead they choose to be judgmental and critical of other’s decision-making skills, or lack thereof. That’s where sexual education comes in.
Teenage pregnancy, along with sex education continues to be a highly controversial subject, especially with regards to when and where it should be taught. Much of the debate comes from the two types of education, abstinence-only or comprehensive, also known as abstinence-plus. Abstinence-only education promotes sexual abstinence until marriage, leaving out crucial topics like birth control and condoms. A comprehensive curriculum includes education on the use of contraceptives while maintaining a basis of abstinence.
Although there has been a steady decline in the United States teen birth rate, it remains higher than many other developed countries. Statistics show that sexually active teens in the United States are less likely to use varying forms of contraception and are more likely to become pregnant, than those of other equal nations (Rubin). Partially to blame is the United States government, which supports the abstinence-only approach; therefore, most schools are not required to teach subject matter that surpasses that concept (Stanger).
Media, although equally controversial, can play a vital role in opening the door for parents to engage in conversation with their children. According to Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, “An effective, comprehensive sex education program starts with a base of abstinence but includes medically accurate information about contraception and health” (Pettus). The research is proven; comprehensive sex education reduces teenage pregnancy. Not only are most schools lacking in the information that is covered in their curriculums, some are providing medically incorrect information to students.
A recent report revealed that 30% of schools instruct that birth control does not prevent pregnancy (Rubin). In 2009, a lawsuit was filed against a Fresno county school district in California for violating state law by only teaching about abstinence, and for using textbooks that were not in compliance with that law, which requires medically accurate information be taught, along with methods to prevent pregnancy and diseases. With one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in California, parents were compelled to do something to protect their children (Watanabe).
According to a recent survey, more than half of adults questioned feel that federally funded programs should offer more education about contraception and three-quarters of those wish education included information about both abstinence and contraception (Teens). If statistics prove that abstinence education is ineffective at preventing pregnancy and most adults are on board with a more comprehensive approach, maybe lawmakers should take that information into account when developing policies about sex education. A step in that direction would be requiring that curriculums include a more comprehensive style.
Abstinence-only programs tend to leave out valuable information such as contraception, which some believe sends the wrong message to students (Stanger). Although abstinence programs play an important role in comprehensive education, there is little evidence to support that these curriculum alone help reduce teenage pregnancy. According to Lisa Wirthman, a Denver journalist, “By trying to scare and shame kids and withholding critical health information, abstinence-only programs treat teens like toddlers” (Wirthman).
A report released this year by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that nearly 50% of pregnant teenagers denied using contraception. Furthermore, 30% were under the impression that they could not get pregnant, while others simply “misunderstood how one gets pregnant and the risk of becoming pregnant after unprotected intercourse” (Brakman). Therefore, it can be concluded that many young people are under informed about their sexual health and lack proper decision making skills regarding their sexual behaviors.
Studies show that states that support the abstinence-only approach to sex education tend to have higher teenage pregnancy and birth rates as compared to those who support a more comprehensive approach. Nevada, having one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation, does not mandate that contraceptive methods and condom use be included in their curriculum (Stanger). Likely, if it is not required, most schools will not cover such aspects in its studies. The majority of supporters of these programs do not acknowledge that many students will become sexually active during their teenage years.
It is inevitable that teenagers are going to have sex, choosing to ignore that fact by not teaching them the proper methods to protect themselves is negligent. Abstinence-only education fails at teaching students many important aspects of sexual health. Those included are, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy prevention and contraception. Much of the information provided in these programs is misleading and medically inaccurate, leaving students uninformed and at risk (Watanabe).
The typical abstinence curriculum lectures that the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to “abstain” from such behaviors that may result in either of the two. While this is truthful, little to no information is provided to students about how to protect themselves if they choose to participate in these activities, leaving them at high risk for unplanned pregnancy. . According to Congress, it was found that abstinence-only programs provide misconceptions of reproductive health and a lack of proper decision-making tools, therefore, promoting irresponsible behavior (Stanger).
A study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy shows that nearly 8 out of 10 teenagers believe they are properly informed on how to prevent pregnancy, yet confess to knowing hardly anything at all about contraception and condoms (Teens). As statistics like this show, young people are, in general, naive about many aspects of their sexual health and require a more all-encompassing education to be able to make appropriate decisions regarding their sexual wellbeing.
A common misconception about ‘sex-ed’ is that it only includes information about sexual intercourse; however, it incorporates a variety of topics. These include, but are not limited to, anatomy, reproduction, body image, relationships, and safe sex practices. Comprehensive sex education, or abstinence-plus, includes a wide array of age-appropriate, evidence-based, medically accurate information to enable teenagers to make well-informed decisions about their overall health, while still advocating that abstinence is the only true method to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (Wirthman).
Not only does comprehensive education provide insight to multiple sex-health topics, it also stresses the importance of delaying sexual behaviors. To the disbelief of abstinence-only supporters, studies show that students that are taught comprehensive sex education are no more likely to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases, than those taught only about abstinence. Also contrary to pro-abstinence belief, those that are taught a more comprehensive approach have a lower risk of becoming pregnant teenagers (Stanger).
One study revealed that of those who are taught more comprehensively, 40% waited to have sex and more than 60% used protection (Wirthman). It is obvious that the more educated students are about the risks associated with sexual activity, the better decisions they make. A recent survey revealed that 38% of teenagers are more influenced by their parents regarding their decisions about sex (Teens). As stated by Emily Pettus, some legislators argue that sex education, including contraception and condoms, should be taught at home, not by the education system (Pettus). This is also where much of the debate is centered.
However, teenagers typically do not open up to their parents about sexual activity and many parents tend to bury their heads in the sand and act like it is not happening with their children. Often times, parents and teenagers are unsure about how to discuss the somewhat awkward subject of sex, so they do not talk about it at all. Therefore, education is often left up to teenagers’ peers and other typically inaccurate sources. One study revealed that nearly 90% of young people think if they could have open conversations with their parents about sex, it would be easier to postpone sexual activity.
Also, nearly 80% of parents wish their kids would talk to them about sex so that they can provide them with the proper resources to protect themselves (Teens). Kathrin Stanger, professor at the University of Georgia states, “If teens don’t learn about human reproduction, including safe sexual health practices to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs, and how to plan their reproductive adult life in school, then when should they learn it, and from whom? ” (Stanger).
Parents, along with the education system, can provide accurate, age-appropriate information to teenagers to help empower them to make healthy, responsible choices; however, when both of these options fall short, teenagers often turn to the media as a source of education. Many critics often accuse the media of promoting teenage pregnancy, and even glamorizing it. However, little thought is given as to what the benefit of these shows might be. The more teens are watching, the more producers are showing. Nevertheless, there might be some advantages to the influence media has on its young viewers, especially regarding pregnancy (Suellentrop).
Although some parents believe the media creates a false sense of reality by glorifying teenage pregnancy, they often fail to realize that such television shows can actually help bridge the conversation gap between them and their children. Two of the television shows popular amongst high school students are MTV’s Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant. Both are reality shows that follow several young girls and their daily struggles as pregnant teenagers and young parents. A recent study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed interesting results when they asked teenagers their thoughts about such shows.
The results revealed a surprising 40% talked to a parent about the show after watching and most agreed that becoming teenage parents would have an overall negative impact on their lives (Suellentrop). If watching these episodes results in teenagers talking to their parents about sex, then ultimately it can be a positive influence, not only by seeing the struggles that young parents face, but by giving parents and teenagers an opportunity to openly discuss their views and opinions about sex and relationships.
Research shows that episodes such as these can be used in a positive manner to teach young people about the risks of becoming pregnant and how their lives could change drastically. Also, it seems that teenagers are willing to discuss these shows with their parents, allowing the opportunity to engage in educational conversations with their teenagers. Clearly, the media influences its viewers; however, advantage can be taken to properly inform today’s youth of the risks of sexual behavior while presenting information in an alluring way (Suellentrop). Although there has been a steady decline in the U. S. een birth rate, it remains higher than many other countries. Students are more educated and are therefore making more informed decisions about sex (Kann).
How can we expect teenagers to make appropriate, well-informed decisions regarding their sexual health if we do not give them the proper education and factual information to do so? The statistics show that “evidence-based sex education works,” so why go against the grain? (Wirthman). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more teenagers are using birth control, which has help lead the way to a record low birthrate, and the numbers of hose using contraception keep rising. Also leading to the decline, is “more effective” sex education, according to Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood (Tulumello). Hopefully in the future, additional school districts will adopt a more comprehensive approach to their curriculums, as it is shown to be much more effective in reducing teenage pregnancy than abstinence-only education. Telling a teenager not to experiment is like a meteorologist saying there is a 50% chance of rain. You hope it does not rain; however, you bring an umbrella just in case it does.
As much as we would like to believe that teenagers will not have sex, it is likely that they will engage in some type of sexual behavior in high school and providing them with accurate, age-appropriate information is vital. Sexual education can come from many avenues, including parents, schools, and the media. Comprehensive sex education will not stop the occurrence of teenage pregnancy 100%, but by adequately educating teenagers on safe sex practices, and providing them with medically accurate information, today’s youth are able make healthy, well-informed decisions regarding their sexual well being.
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