Column: Facing reality

By Dan Mollison

What do you do when something’s broken? Do you fix it? Or do you reward it with $39 million additional American tax dollars? President George W. Bush has chosen to do the latter regarding abstinence-only sexual education programs.

With messages about sex reaching children of younger and younger ages, teens need sex education that works. Bush has chosen to give $206 million out of the 2006 federal budget to fund programs that promote abstinence. But there is no credible evidence showing that such programs are effective in helping young people delay their initiation of sexual intercourse. Instead, our schools should provide comprehensive sexual education, a type of program with proven effectiveness that teaches teens about contraception and disease prevention as well as abstinence.

The problems with the current sexual education programs in Illinois are clearly shown in a study recently conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. The findings of the study, which revealed what is not taught by sex education teachers across the state, are astounding; 65.7 percent of Illinois teachers do not teach about how to use condoms, while 62.6 percent of teachers do not teach about how to use other forms of birth control. Additionally, 52.7 percent of teachers do not teach about where to get birth control and other sexual health-related services, and 24.7 percent of teachers do not teach their students what action they can take after being sexually assaulted. Given that well over half of teens in the U.S. have chosen to be sexually active by the time they’re 18, failing to offer teens information about how to approach sex safely can have devastating consequences.

Why don’t these teachers include this essential information in their lesson plans? Of the sex education teachers interviewed, 92 percent – an overwhelming majority – said their curriculum has a great deal or some influence on what topics they cover. If we want to help teens be healthy, we need to change our sexual education curricula. This means not giving more money to programs that don’t work.

Unlike abstinence-only programs, comprehensive sexual education offers students vital information about safe sex. These programs focus on providing teens with accurate information about human sexuality and contraception, helping teens develop and understand their values, attitudes and beliefs about sexuality, and helping young people exercise responsibility regarding their sexual relationships. According to numerous studies published by academics and researchers, comprehensive sexual education can be effective not only in encouraging teens to delay the onset of intercourse, but also in helping those teens who do choose to have sex to reduce the frequency of their encounters and the number of their sexual partners. These programs can also result in increased condom or contraceptive use among teens who choose to be sexually active.

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I’ve seen firsthand what can happen when young people don’t receive the information they need. Through my work with sexual assault issues, I’ve met some good men who have looked back on their early sexual experiences and recognized instances when they wrongly believed they were having sex – although what was really happening was sexual assault. While they still should be held completely accountable for their decision to go through with the assaults, I can’t help but think that if they had had open and honest information about what is and isn’t sex – the kind of information offered in comprehensive sexual education programs – they would have been able to make much better decisions about how to act. A lot of trauma could have been averted.

Abstinence-only programs may be more in accordance with the moral standards of some Americans. But when all the available credible evidence shows that such programs are ineffective and the man in charge does nothing to fix the problem, that is nothing short of negligence. A teen’s choice on whether or not to be sexually active is far too important to be made uninformed. Until our President chooses to support programs that are based on evidence rather than religious doctrine, teens are going to continue pay the price.

Dan Mollison is a junior in LAS. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].