Back when I was in college, I was pretty heavily involved in HIV/AIDS prevention education. As a “Peer Sexuality Educator” I went to countless dorms and student groups leading workshops and discussions on everything from HIV prevention to accquaintance rape.
Every time I talked about STD prevention I always talked about abstinence – saying that the only sure way not to get an STD is not to engage in sexual activity – but I never talked abstinence exclusively. I always included information about other methods of protection from STD, like condom use. Why? Because I knew even then that just because people say they will abstain doesn’t necessarily mean then always will when the spirit is willing and the flesh is willing too.
I knew that being a responsible educator meant giving people all of the information I had at my disposal, in order to allow them to make the most informed decision they could. And if there was a question I couldn’t answer, I would always say “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll do my best to find out and get back to you.” And I always did. Half the information won’t do when the stakes are as high as they are in that arena.
I’ve watched, somewhat dismayed, while the Bush administration touts “abstinence only” education – that is, a practice in which abstinence is taught as the only method of protection, and other methods of protection (like condom use, dental dams, etc.) are not mentioned. It’s a favorite of the far right, and a new study suggests that it doesn’t work.
Teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage have the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who don’t pledge abstinence, according to a study that examined the sex lives of 12,000 adolescents.
Those who make a public pledge to abstain until marriage delay sex, have fewer sex partners and get married earlier, according to the data, gathered from adolescents ages 12 to 18 who were questioned again six years later. But the two groups’ STD rates were statistically similar.
The problem, the study found, is that those virginity “pledgers” are much less likely to use condoms.
Unless there’s some “immaculate infection” going on, then some of those teens who pledged virginity until marriage obviously “slipped.” The difference is they either didn’t have or weren’t empowered to use information to protect themselves in the event that they did choose to have sex at a later date. In other words, they needed more than “just say no,” and they didn’t get it.
“It’s difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you’re not going to have sex,” said Peter Bearman, the chair of Columbia University’s Department of Sociology, who co-authored the study with Hannah Bruckner of Yale.
“The message is really simple: ’Just say no’ may work in the short term but doesn’t work in the long term.”
My bet is that Bush and conservatives at large won’t get the message on this. My guess is that the administration’s will resort to its standard response to information or intelligence that it doesn’t like or that doesn’t fit in with its ideology: just ignore it. But this will be hard to ignore because of the funding sources.
Data from the study, to be presented Tuesday at the National STD Prevention Conference, was taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. That study was funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I’m betting that this administration might even go a step further, and that any similar studies proposed under this president’s administration will probably find it more difficult to get funding. Conservatives will continue to stick their heads in the sand, and young people will continue to get only half the information they need. And some of them may pay the price with their health or their lives.