Monday, February 20, 2006

Are there fates worse than sex? I’m beginning to wonder, what with increased Federal funding for abstinence-only sex ed in public schools and increasing hysteria over tweenie websites like As for the latter, it’s important to keep in perspective that while online predators are a real problem that parents and kids should face together, the disconcerting fact is that still upwards of ninety per cent of child sex abuse victims actually know their perpetrators, at least a third of whom are underage, too. What may be scarier for parents than online predators is the “secret life” of teens themselves, which they’re pursuing by and large with the tacit consent of adults but without much adult guidance. In a culture that worships youth and is obsessed with sex, teenage sexuality is the elephant in the room.

There seem to be two options: dumb ‘em down or smarten ‘em up. Throw out the cell phones and TVs and dismantle the internet, or (gasp) communicate with teens. Daily. Prepare them for the adult world by treating them like adults. Oh, and there’s a third option, of course: Chastity belts. Which is what abstinence-only advocates like The Family Research Council would be handing out in sex ed classes across the nation if they could get the government to spring for it. So far they’ve had to settle for the use of ignorance and ostracism to spread fear of social and sexual contamination instead. Their agenda has more to do with opposition to the women’s movement and gay rights than in empowering young adults with the practical tools to make informed choices about intimate matters anyway.

The Abstinence Clearing House’s idea of useful advice? “If you want to practice abstinence, try avoiding high-pressure situations like empty dorm rooms and the back seat of automobiles.” And, hey kids, if your dare to leave the house, don’t forget your chastity belts! They come in punky peach and passion pink, and have a way kewl pocket for your ipod on the side! Well, you can’t blame them for trying. And in what’s become a Valentine’s Day tradition, hundreds of youths across the nation took a vow to preserve their sexual “purity”. I’m not knocking it. But according to a comprehensive study conducted by Peter Bearman of Columbia University published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last year: of 2,500,000 youths who took the vow in ‘95, only 12 per cent managed to keep it.

But here’s the real problem with abstinence-only sex ed: although many pledgers refrained from vaginal sex, they were six times more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in oral sex, four times more likely to have anal sex, and significantly less likely to use condoms, except as water balloons at after-school events. Of course, it’s no surprise this administration has so aggressively promoted abstinence-only programs, which rely more on fear than facts to get results. Nor that these results seem to perpetuate the problem. After all, these days that’s just politics as usual.


Blogger mmennonno said...

From this morning's Metro:

"Mennonno doesn’t give alternatives"

• Quincy

"Regarding 'The elephant in the chat room' (Feb. 21): Mike Mennonno downplayed the importance of abstinence in sex education in his column. He made abstinence seem stupid, and those who promote abstinence to be ignoring sexuality and treating people like children. He suggests instead that people ignore the advice of abstinence but provides no alternative. Mennonno says that teaching abstinence is 'dumbing ’em down,' but leaving it out would accomplish the same thing. The fact is, abstinence is the only 100-percent effective form of birth control and STD prevention. Sure we need to communicate with teens and ‘prepare them for the adult world by treating them like adults.’ This is the only advice Mennonno gives, but he doesn’t say how. We treat teens like adults by teaching them all the facts about sex, including abstinence, and by trusting them to use the information well. We teach them how to live with the consequences of their actions. We are there to support them, but treating them like adults is no excuse for denying them an education about abstinence."

My response:

First of all, just a note to those of you who read my column on occasion: it’s 500 words, give or take two or three at most. That’s not a lot. It’s a third of what you read on the pages of, say, the Times or the Globe. And I mention this because it means I really have to economize, and I have to choose my words very, very carefully.

Not once in this op-ed piece did I suggest excluding abstinence as an option in sex education. If that’s what you got from it, it’s what you brought to it. My column—the one I wrote—was not about abstinence as an option, but abstinence-ONLY sex ed and its advocates. The Family Research Council and the Abstinence Clearing House are not only abstinence advocates, they are abstinence-ONLY sex ed advocates. This means, they teach abstinence as the ONLY means of avoiding pregnancy and stds.

While it is absolutely true that abstaining entirely from all forms of sex is the only 100% sure method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, it’s also irrelevant. Abstinence-ONLY is a values-oriented creed, part of a larger agenda on the part of its advocates to inculcate their values rather than give children the critical tools they need to make informed choices on their own in an adult world.

The fact is, ignorance is not an option, but it is one of the chief tools of advocates of this agenda. Unfortunately, as the statistics quoted in my op-ed piece show, it’s the abstinence-ONLY kids who are contracting stds at a higher rate, because they have not been fully and properly educated about sex. They are preserving their “purity” by having oral and anal sex at higher rates than their non-pledging peers, often without protection.

As for my not saying how to treat kids like adults. Honey, I can’t hold your hand. Christ didn’t provide a road map for the Golden Rule, did he? No one can tell you the particulars of how a relationship unfolds. And that's what this is about.

Good parenting plays a pivotal role in this. And good parenting is like art or pornography: can’t define it, but I sure know it when I see it.

All I can say for sure is you have to start with a few minimal assumptions about the importance of truth, disclosure, and transparency in all of our relationships, and the centrality of communication to them. From there it's up to you.

Blogger mmennonno said...

From the March 3-5 Metro:

“Columnist’s stance misunderstood”

• Pawtucket, R.I.

Regarding “Mennonno doesn’t give alternatives” (Feb. 28): I got the idea, after reading Sarah Rushing’s comments on Mike Mennonno’s column from last week on abstinence, that “Metro Mike” had horrible things to say about it. So I went online and re-read the column, and was completely surprised to find this wasn’t the case. The article was about ineffective abstinence-only sex education programs. Big difference, Sarah. I agree with you that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective form of birth control, but I don’t think it is realistic that all teenagers will subscribe to that way of life. I believe the “abstinence-only sex ed programs” are likely to leave behind too many of our teenagers. We need to educate them about use of contraception, just in case they do decide, in an unplanned moment of passion, to break their virginity vows.


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