Friday, February 26, 2010

Abstinence Only Ed

The critics of abstinence-only education have been nothing if not adamantine in their insistence that AE doesn't work, that kids are going to have sex no matter what we say, and that we owe it to our young people to give them information on how to protect themselves.

According to a column by Mona Charen that point of view has recently gotten much harder to sustain. Charen says that the claim that kids are going to have sex regardless of what they hear from their elders just isn't supported by recent research reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine:

The Obama administration had disdained and defunded abstinence education in favor of "evidence-based" programs to prevent teen pregnancy (Note the assumption that liberal ideas are founded on evidence whereas conservative ideas spring from prejudice, ignorance or downright orneriness.). No one study settles things, but this one, conducted by an African-American professor from the University of Pennsylvania, will be hard to ignore.

Between 2001 and 2004, John B. Jemmott III and his colleagues studied 662 African-American sixth- and seventh-graders (average age 12). The kids were randomly assigned to one of four programs. The first emphasized abstinence and included role-playing methods to avoid sex. The second combined an abstinence message with information about condoms. The third focused solely on condom use, and the fourth (the control group) was taught general health information.

Over the course of the next two years, about half of the kids who received the condom instruction and half of the control group were having sex. Forty-two percent of those who got the combination class were sexually active, but only 33 percent of the abstinence-only group were having sex. Additionally, and this confounds one of the myths of the condom pushers, the study found no difference in condom use among the four groups of students who did engage in sex. "I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence," Jemmott told the Washington Post. "Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."

Elayne Bennett, founder of the Best Friends program, is delighted that the Jemmott research reinforces her experience with mostly African-American adolescent girls. Offering a mixed program of mentoring, dance, music, and role-playing, Best Friends and its new spinoff, Best Men for boys, has had two decades of success in helping kids abstain from sex, drugs, and alcohol until they graduate from high school. She has found that the kids desperately want someone to tell them it's OK to postpone sex. It's a commentary on our times but there it is - we need special programs to give kids permission to say no.

"The opponents," Bennett notes, "have popularized three words, 'Abstinence doesn't work.'" But her program and others like it have excellent track records. Every previous study showing the effectiveness of abstinence programs has been picked apart for one trivial flaw or another, but the new research seems airtight.

Charen goes on to note that supporters of so-called "comprehensive sex ed," with its heavy emphasis on "safe sex" and condoms, have always argued that "no matter what we say, the kids are going to have sex anyway so they might as well be safe." But they never adopted that logic with, say, cigarettes. They didn't lobby for mandatory filters on the grounds that the kids were going to smoke willy-nilly.

Good point. The problem is that too many people think that, unlike smoking, the only negative consequences of youthful sexual adventures are pregnancy or disease and that if kids protect themselves against these then sex is no more problematic than soccer.

This strikes me as incredibly naive. Sex is psychoemotional nitroglycerin. It's extremely volatile and often changes everything in a relationship. When two people not related in a life-long commitment allow their relationship to go physical the change is often for the worse. I can't prove this, of course, but it seems to me to be a universal human experience. It's why the fear that a boy will no longer respect her after sex is prevalent among many girls. It's why so many relationships falter once the couple has allowed it to become sexual. It's even the impetus behind the lyrics to the 1964 Supremes song "Where Did Our Love Go?" for heaven's sake.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about how the way we see a person changes once we "know" them. He wasn't talking about sex, but he easily could have been:

"Alluring and attractive was [s]he to you yesterday...a sea to swim in. Now you have found h[er]shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you ever see it again."

I know I'm coming across to a lot of people as though I'm a hopeless anachronism, but nevertheless I think it's true that if a girl wants to increase the chances that she'll have a successful marriage one thing she should do would be to make him wait.


One Consequence of the Summit

I don't know what, if anything, will come of the Health Care Summit the President presided over yesterday, but one thing will almost certainly change. The perception, encouraged by the media, that the Republicans are simply the party of "no," that they have no plan, and that they're uninformed on health care, will no longer be tenable. I didn't watch the whole thing, but in what I did watch the Republicans seemed very well prepared, very bright, and full of ideas. Perhaps I didn't watch enough, but the Democrats seemed to base their arguments mostly on emotional appeals.

The fundamental difference between the two groups seems to be this: The Democrats are primarily concerned with extending coverage to millions of people who don't have it at present. The Republicans are primarily concerned with cutting the costs of health care for everyone which would have as one of its indirect benefits making coverage affordable for those who can't afford it now.

I don't see how extending coverage to millions of people can do other than drive the country to fiscal ruin, which is why I think the republican emphasis is the proper one. It'll do no good to have universal coverage if a third of the nation's workers are out of work.

Anyway, here's an example of why I say it'll be very hard for the media to continue to portray the GOP as inept, uninvolved in the health care issue, and simply trying to obstruct the President for none but political reasons. This is a video of Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. It's a little wonky, but he certainly generates confidence that he knows what he's talking about and isn't just throwing out feel-good platitudes for the tv cameras: