Friday, March 20, 2009

Religion-based abstinence-only sex-ed fails in Texas – my take

From my March 12 newspaper column:

If politics and religion are the two verboten conversation topics, then, on an editorial page, perhaps “sex education” is the third rail. But, I’m going to go ahead and grab it with both hands and, I hope, provoke some thought.

What brought this to mind is a two-year study, sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network and done by two health education professors from Texas State University, released late last month.

In a nutshell, the study documents the many failures of abstinence-only sex education in Texas public schools.

When male students are worried about getting cervical cancer and the state hasn’t dented one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, it’s obvious what’s being taught now isn’t working.

Among the findings?

First, about 98 percent of public school students get abstinence-only sex education. For most of these students, talk about sexual abstinence itself may be the only sex education they get inside schools. Second, more than 80 percent of school districts receive no formal recommendations on sex education from state-mandated local advisory councils.

Third, information presented beyond “just say no” is often just wrong. Here in the Metroplex, Hurst-Euless-Bedford’s eighth-grade curriculum claims condoms have only about an 80 percent reliability rate. Actual fact? They’re about 97-98 percent reliable. HEB officials claim they don’t know where they got their info, but it’s hard for me not to agree with the Texas Freedom Network some scare tactics started this.

Another alleged “fact” that is wrong? Many schools’ sex education programs still claim that HIV can be transmitted through sweat or tears. Nope. Various curricula also get information about the prevention of transmitting other sexually-related diseases incorrect.
Fourth is the attempted inculcation of particular values, some of which seem to be grounded in Christianity, or even particular versions of Christianity.

For example, the report says one abstinence-only program used in 53 school districts says women need “financial support,” while men need “domestic support.” Sounds kind of sexist to me, and based on what many people might call a “Religious Right” interpretation of male-female relationships.

That said, let me go beyond TFN’s study to take a broader look at teen sexuality.
First, premarital teenage sexual activity wasn’t something invented in the late 20th century.
In Victorian Scotland, where people normally got married in their late teens, one-third of brides were pregnant on their wedding day.

The deal here is not so much that modern American teens have become that much more sexual, nor that the “liberal media” is the prime mover of any such increase in teen sexuality. (And the degree it is to blame, the not-so-liberal Fox TV network is the most salacious of the four broadcast TV networks.)

The deal is that the average age of marriage in the United States today is 25 or so, not the 18 or less it was in 1870s Scotland. In that country and era, nobody went to college, almost nobody graduated high school and most youth didn’t even go to high school. You hit 14 or so and went to a farm, sheep ranch, fishing boat or factory.

Our world today is different, and we need to prevent the social wreckage of unplanned pregnancies, while dealing with the same male and female physiology as 1870s Scots did.
While it might not be impossible for youth, adolescents, etc. going well into adulthood, to put their hormonal jets on hold an additional seven years, it ain’t realistic from where I sit to expect that, and from where many other Americans sit.

That said, it’s often explicitly religious beliefs, explicitly Christian beliefs, that are the cornerstone of public-school abstinence-only sex education in our state.

The study found many Texas classrooms inject religious instruction and Bible study into sex education programs.

“Hardly a page can be found that does not include multiple references to Bible verses, invocation of Christian principles, even attempts to proselytize students with the Christian plan of salvation,” the report says of a curriculum called Wonderful Days, used by three school districts in the Fort Worth area.

Along with the Texas Freedom Network, I also have a problem with the Bible as part of sexual education curriculum.

There’s obvious First Amendment issues here – after all, what would conservative Christians say if sex education lessons were taught from the Quran in our high schools, and male students were told that, if they stayed on the straight and narrow this life, instead of seeing Jesus in the next one, that they would see – and “enjoy” – 70 virgins, instead?

As for conservative Christians who would argue “the majority rules,” many of our Founding Fathers explicitly worried about “the tyranny of the majority.”

Besides, in the Old Testament half of the Christian Bible, we have:

1. A lover talking about his beloved’s breasts, and euphemistically about other body parts, in the Song of Songs. (Think “belly.”)

2. Ruth having pre-marital gleaning fields blanket bingo with Boaz. (Exposing someone’s “feet” is an idiom used more than once in the Old Testament).

3. A Levite (think “deacon” today) openly traveling with his mistress in Judges.

Even if you don’t want the Quran and 70 virgins in your child’s public school sex education, if you’re a Protestant, would you want your child told not only that abstinence is right but modern forms of birth control are wrong?

If parents want to teach a biblically-based abstinence-only sex education at home, fire away. Neither I nor the Texas Freedom Network is going to come knocking on your door. And, if school districts want to teach religion-free scientific thoughts on abstinence as part of sexual education, while also teaching high schoolers basic facts they need to know if they’re going to be sexually active, I’m fine with that.

Abstinence as an option, even the first choice? Sure. Abstinence only? No.

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