Comprehensive Sex Education

April 23, 2009

This morning the Today Show ventured into rarely tread territory for morning shows with guests discussing virginity and comprehensive sex education. The verbal spar between Jessica Valenti and Lakita Garth was a quick and dirty primer on the issue of feminine sexuality and purity and how sex education influences both. Both women are recent authors: Valenti’s new book, The Purity Myth, focuses on the pitfalls of our public obsession with virginity, and Garth’s, The Naked Truth, explains her decision to wait to have sex until marriage. You can watch the video from this morning’s show here.

I want to start by putting some facts out there, facts that I think were brought up and completely ignored or misrepresented as opinions in today’s conversation. Abstinence-only sex education does not work. Period. There is no equivocating on this fact, no way to suggest that exclusively teaching adolescents not to have sex outside of marriage is a better plan than teaching them not to have sex in addition to teaching them how to protect themselves when they do.

We know this not because an extreme advocacy group told us, as Garth insinuated by calling the research akin to something produced by the KKK, but rather because a reputable research organization, Mathematica Policy Inc., analyzed several abstinence-only programs out there for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as ordered by Congress. The results told us what many other studies had already — abstinence-only sex education does not delay the age of the first sexual encounter. In addition, a number of other studies have shown that students in an abstinence-only curriculum were more likely to forgo contraception during sexual activity. That is a frightening reality.

The other fact that was completely understated in today’s conversation is that while so many girls already wait to have sex — a majority of high school students —by age 44, 95 percent of men and women have had premarital sex, and, no surprise here, virtually everyone, married or unmarried, will have sex at some point in their lives.

Comprehensive sex education is about taking advantage of the forum we have in schools to educate everyone about the risks associated with sexual activity and the protections available in an age-appropriate and medically accurate way. Sex education is not just about protecting girls this particular Friday night, when they may indeed be too young or unsure; it’s about protecting girls on a Friday night when they are 25, 35, or 45, and they have to make a difficult decision about sex. One where they have to tell a partner or a husband that they value protecting themselves above everything else, and that they know exactly how to do it. It’s about teaching future mothers and fathers about birth control and family planning that will impact not only their reproductive health, but also their economic stability.

Comprehensive sex education is about empowering women for their futures — the very futures Garth called on us to set goals for and that Valenti so brilliantly pointed out should be lauded and talked about as the alternative to focusing on feminine purity or sexuality. FYI — these futures will, indeed, someday include sex; we should all be well prepared.

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By:   |   April 23, 2009


  1. A.Y. Siu says:

    I don’t really like putting Valenti up against Garth. It presents a false dichotomy of sorts. The image of those two arguing about sex education makes it seem as if one cannot believe in comprehensive sex education and wait to have sex until married, which isn’t true at all.

    In fact, everyone who does wait to have sex until marriage should support comprehensive sex education. After all, you cannot effectively coerce teenagers into waiting to have sex. If you want to wait, that’s fine. But others will not. By telling them “Abstinence is the only way,” do these abstinence-only “educators” really think the teens who were going to have sex would respond “Oh, my God. I didn’t realize abstinence is the only way. Now I guess I’m just going to not have sex”?

    Maybe those folks can talk to Sarah Palin’s daughter. There’s no harm in saying, “If you have sex, use contraception and protect against STDs.” It doesn’t make the sexually inactive teens horny. The kids who were waiting to have sex until marriage don’t suddenly think “Oh, I was going to wait, but now that they’re showing me how to put a condom on a banana, I’m going to hump everything in sight now.”

    This just makes me sad.

  2. pamela nakanelua says:

    Great comment about women age 25, 25 or 45 having sex. We have to realize that post-marital sex is a huge reality. If we are just worried about teenage pregnancy, then post-marital is not as much of an issue, but for the women that get divorced and find themselves in the dating field again the challenge for safe-sex is a reality. It is not just pregnancy that we are worried about anymore, there are a myriad of STD’s that are passed through unsafe sex and coming down with an STD at age 35 can be devastating.

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