Abstinence-Only Sex Education Does Not Work

Perhaps the Bristol Palin situation will put a spotlight on this.

One of the things that bugs me the most about the Religious Conservatives in this country is its policy regarding sex education. Basically, they don’t want it taught in schools.

Social conservatives — including, ironically, Sarah Palin — promote an “abstinence-only” sex education program. My understanding of such programs is that they attempt to teach young people to abstain from sex until they are married. There’s no deep discussion of what sex is and how it works. There’s certainly no discussion of “safe sex” or birth control. Young people are simply told not to have sex. Period. End of statement.

I’m pretty sure the idea behind all this has something to do with sin. Evidently, it’s a sin to have sex before you’re married. And since most high school kids aren’t married, they shouldn’t be having sex. Doing so would commit a sin. I’m not quite sure what happens when you commit a sin like that — eternal damnation seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? — but it’s evidently a bad thing.

Now I could go off on a tangent and bring up the theories of Richard Dawkins, who claims that parents forcing their religious beliefs on their kids is akin to child abuse, but I won’t. Although I do agree with a lot of what Dawkins has to say, I believe that parents have a right to bring a religious (or non-religious, for that matter) belief system into their kids’ lives. (I don’t, however, believe they should force their kids to marry before the age of consent, as at least one religious cult is apparently doing.)

The trouble with this is that kids can be kids. Teenagers have raging hormones. Things happen. One thing leads to another. Not all girls (or guys, for that matter) are thinking about abstinence or sin or mom and dad on a date when opportunity (and something else) arises. It’s hard to stop once you get started. Anyone who has had (and enjoyed) sex can tell you that. (Which makes me wonder if these abstinence-only supporters ever enjoyed sex, but that’s something to debate another day.)

So when the moment of truth arrives and neither party remembers abstinence and holds up a STOP sign, where are the condoms? Obviously, they’re not around. These poor kids were never taught about safe sex and birth control. They were probably even told that birth control is a sin. Neither one of them would be caught dead with a condom in their possession. At that moment of truth, all they know is what their bodies are telling them they need to do. So they do it.

The very lucky ones don’t start a baby and they don’t share a disease. But maybe that just confirms that what they’ve done is okay. So they do it again another time. Or with another partner. And sooner or later, there will be a pregnancy or a disease or both.

Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, brought up in a religious conservative household by a mother who believes in abstinence-only sex education, is the victim of her mother’s policies. I don’t know the girl and I don’t know what she was taught. But I know she made a mistake and I can’t help but wonder whether the mistake was one of ignorance rather than stupidity.

I’m angry about this. I’m angry because the Republican party is simply blowing it off, using this unfortunate situation as proof that Sarah Palin is “just like anyone else,” with the same kind of family challenges that anyone has. This teenage pregnancy is okay to them. After all. Bristol is still going to have the baby. And she’s going to get married. So everything is okay, right?

Did anyone ever stop to consider what Bristol may have wanted to do with her life? Maybe she didn’t want to start bearing children when she was 17 years old. Maybe she wanted to finish high school and go to college. To become a doctor or a lawyer or — dare I say it? — a community organizer. In other words, maybe she wanted to start a career or have a bit of life on her own before getting married and starting a family. Or maybe she didn’t want to have a family at all.

Even if she did want to start a family when she was young, do you think she really wanted to be changing diapers for her own baby when she was only 17 years old?

Now although I’ll admit that I’m pro-Choice — as every woman who isn’t held firmly under a man’s thumb should be — I’m not for a moment suggesting that she abort the baby. While I think that could have been an option very early on, it should not be an option at 5 months into the pregnancy. (And yes, folks, there is a difference.)

What I’m suggesting here is that if Bristol — and the thousands of young women like her all over the country — received proper sex education, including safe sex and birth control information, she would not be in the situation she’s in. And neither would her boyfriend, who will soon find himself in attendance as the groom at a good, old-fashioned, shotgun wedding. (After all, why potentially ruin one life when you can potentially ruin two?)

Bristol’s lucky, in a way. Her parents are well-to-do. They have good jobs — hell, there’s a chance her mother might even be vice president. They have money. Even if Mom’s away on official business, there will be nannies around to help. Bristol might come out of this okay — if the media attention doesn’t permanently traumatize her.

But what I’m hoping for is that Bristol’s predicament opens a few eyes among the members of the Religious Right. Abstinence-only sex education does not work.

And now we have a poster child for it.

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