Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Truth of Abstinence

America is deep into summer, and that most likely means many American teens are deep into sexual mischief. Skimpy swimsuits and raging hormones can overwhelm our youth. And yet, we need to remember that just as many teens clearly understand where to stop a sexual escapade because they learned about abstinence.

The topic of teen sex and sex education featured by the Austin American-Statesman surely raised Central Texas temperatures. The coverage followed a non-reported gathering in our city of hundreds of medical practitioners, educators and social workers from North America, Europe and Asia who came to hear the Medical Institute for Sexual Health present the latest facts and trends about sex, sexually transmitted infections, sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and the effects of it all, especially on our youth.

Teens are especially at risk of contracting and spreading infections because their bodies are not developed enough to fight them off. As a result, they are the population we focus on in studies about pregnancy, abortions and STDs because of their vulnerability and tendency toward risky sexual practices. Yet our focus on teens fades quickly as we politicize the topic.

Teens want facts and the respect that acknowledges they are in control of their own sexual health destinies. Treating them all as uncontrollable sexual animals or as controllable objects of fear tactics underestimates their thinking skills and undermines any desire for teens to live healthier, happier, fuller lives.

As a trained and experienced volunteer who speaks to high school students about abstinence, sexual health and relationships, I see how thirsty teens are for the truth. If you present them the facts they are most likely going to exercise better judgment about sex and the type of relationships they pursue.

Austin LifeGuard provides the abstinence curriculum I use in classrooms. As a parent who speaks openly about the topic at the family dinner table, I believe the abstinence curriculum is rather comprehensive, even without a demonstration of how to apply a condom onto a banana. Students clearly understand the abstinence bent, but I never tell students what is right or wrong, or that teens must choose abstinence.

Instead, credible public data is what attracts teen interest and engages them in open dialogue about the real physical and emotional risks surrounding sexual practices before marriage. They quickly begin using the facts to connect the dots between their own sexual activity and its influence on the spread of STDs, as well as its impact on their respective values, relationships in high school and future relationships leading to marriage.

We need to be careful not to leap too quickly to a conclusion that abstinence education is failing our teens based on a single data point of increased teen pregnancy over a short period. Abstinence programs have not been around long enough to determine their long-term impact.

The abstinence curriculum is not harmful and is clear-cut in its approach. The use of and definitions for biologically and clinically correct terms like penis, vagina, fallopian tube, ovary, sperm, fetus, bacterial and viral infections, HPV, genital herpes and chlamydia break down the walls of ignorance and open the door to genuine education and freedom to make decisions based on reliable information.

Real data and visual displays of how STDs spread and what they really look like make the facts even more compelling and true for a generation that continually has to deflect the onslaught of media impressions that subtly or aggressively paint a false but pretty picture on premature sexual activity.

Armed with the facts, teens understand the spin of "safe sex" versus what it means to be truly safe and healthy. In the end, sexual abstinence until marriage remains as the responsible, rational and realistic option for teens to practice, if they choose.

With the straightforward facts, our youth are free to decide where to draw the line in the sand this summer about sex.

(Published July 22, 2008, Austin American-Statesman)