Wednesday, February 03, 2010


It’s abstinence only that’s the problem

I’ve really been trying not to think of Ross Douthat as an idiot, but it’s been hard. When he replaced Bill Kristol as the token conservative on the New York Times op-ed team, I knew it had to be an improvement, and it has been so. His columns are sometimes good. Unfortunately, I still too often, when I read them, find myself smashing nose-first into a wall of ideas that were conceived with blinders on.

His latest column is a good example. His basic point is a reasonable one to debate: Should we have national standards for how to teach kids about sex, or should we defer to local sensibilities? Your answer to that will depend upon whether or not you think that there’s an objective “best method” that transcends local mores, and that letting the locals decide will cause problems for kids in areas where they would choose to deviate too far from what’s best.

Mr Douthat thinks there is not such an objective “best”, and that’s a fair conclusion. The problem is how he got there.

From his column, “Sex Ed in Washington”:

Liberals hated almost everything about George W. Bush’s presidency, but they harbored a particular animus toward a minor domestic policy priority: abstinence-based sex education. The abstinence effort accounted for about a hundred million dollars in a trillion-dollar budget, but in the eyes of many critics it was Bushism at its worst — contemptuous of experts, careless about public health and captive to religious conservatism.

Indeed, with a spotlight on the “careless about public health” part. It was shown over and over not to work, and it has been once again with new numbers recently reported: teen pregnancy went up in 2006, and “liberals” blame abstinence-only education.

For what Mr Douthat thinks of that, let’s go back to his column:

The new numbers, declared the president of Planned Parenthood, make it “crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work.”

In reality, the numbers show no such thing. Abstinence financing increased under Bush, but the federal government has been funneling money to pro-chastity initiatives since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. If you blame abstinence programs for a year’s worth of bad news, you’d also have to give them credit for more than a decade’s worth of progress.

No. No, no, no, no.

Because, yes, Bill Clinton funded abstinence education as well. Forty years ago, my parents and my school taught abstinence. We have been teaching teens and pre-teens not to have sex until they’re older and emotionally, socially, and financially ready ever since we figured out what causes pregnancy. The problem is not that we teach abstinence.

The problem occurs when we teach only abstinence. The problem shows up when we fail to prepare children with information on how to protect themselves when they, despite the moral values we’ve instilled in them, fall victim to a natural urge that’s more powerful than a locomotive.

When I was young, alongside the lessons that told us to wait were lessons about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, lessons about condoms, IUDs, and contraceptive pills, lessons about what to look for and when to go see a doctor. These lessons did not confuse us, did not give us mixed signals, and did not chip away at the moral framework our families and communities were passing on to us. We understood the priorities — but we had a backup plan, for when things went awry.

And that’s the point — contrary to what Mr Douthat says, teaching abstinence with a backup plan does work, and has been shown to, through the years. What fails is the policy of teaching abstinence only.

Now, we can still have the debate about whether communities should be forced into one lesson plan or another through federal policy. But let’s frame it properly, and not dismiss a major part of the argument out of hand by misrepresenting it.

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