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Double Take: Abstinence-based sex ed is 'out of step with reality'
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
ON THE AIR
Join Dr. Wes, Kendra and Kendra’s mom on Up to Date with Steve Kraske to discuss how to make sex a topic of healthy conversation at 11 a.m. Feb. 17 on KCUR 89.3 FM or KCUR.org.
Dear Dr. Wes & Kendra: I heard you speak last fall about abstinence-based education. You said your thinking had changed from seeing it as a viable alternative to seeing it as kind of dangerous. Can you do a column on that and explain what you mean?
Wes: I wasn’t implying that sexual abstinence is a bad thing, only that an abstinence-based sex education is so out of step with reality that it puts teens at risk. Though they’ve generally mastered birth control, as evidenced by lower birth and abortion rates, we all know teens aren’t ready for the emotional and psychological impact of sex. Yet, that profound bit of truth rarely gives pause to teenagers. Most will be sexually active by age 20.
Try this analogy to understand why. Drug programs like D.A.R.E emphasized saying “no” to drugs, while pushing the idea that marijuana was pretty much the same as any other drug. This worked great, until kids reached about eighth grade and started questioning those equivalencies. The backlash has produced an opposite effect such that marijuana is now idolized like some kind of sacred element of modern existence. Young people found our propaganda to be false, so they invented some of their own.
The same thing has been happening with sexuality. Teaching kids to push back sexual feelings and expressions with force of will simply drives sexuality underground where it is far less sane and safe. Instead, I suggest a consent-based sex education, in which we teach kids how to say “yes” to sex, as well as how to say “no.” Only then can we share the important lesson that sex is one of those things in life that's only fun if you treat it responsibly.
Kendra: According to Planned Parenthood, 50 percent of teens feel uncomfortable talking to their parents about sex but only 19 percent of parents feel uncomfortable giving “the talk.” Just 29 percent of parents have talked to their teen about birth control, though 46 percent of high school students have had sex by the time they graduate.
Avoiding the subject will not stop teens from having intercourse. For every young girl who is told she’ll be looked down upon if she doesn’t wait until marriage, there’s a parent too uncomfortable to explain the real emotional aftermath of sex. For every guy that’s pressured by his friends to “lose it already,” there’s a parent afraid to teach him how to put on a condom.
My friends have often joked, “You don’t have real parents.” No, my parents don’t let me party every weekend or fail to give me any responsibilities; my mom and dad simply respect me. So when I reached an age when I had questions about sex, I knew they’d respect me enough to have answers.
Back when I was still watching the Disney Channel, around the time I got my first kiss, my mom let me know she could be a source for “the talk.” She didn’t force me to listen to the whole spiel at that time, but she told me I could let her know when I was ready. Growing up in that safe, communicative environment, I knew I’d only be ready once I felt comfortable enough talking to both my parents and my partner about sex.
While my friends had to sneak around to get birth control, I had a team of researchers who allowed me to pick the right form for me. While my friends had pregnancy scares, my mom explained the emotional implications of this choice.
I respect people who choose to abstain from sex until marriage. But adults must realize that few teens have that plan. Even if parents think their teens wouldn’t have sex, it’s safer to assume they’re considering it, because if you assume teens are abstinent, they could end up being just another statistic.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.