domingo, 5 de junio de 2011

Why Abstinence Education Fails

Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are some of the most prevalent underlying problems in societies around the world.  They can lead to other problems such as abortions, low education (especially among teenage mothers), higher mortality rates, and even contribute to overpopulation and thus poverty.  If these problems could be tackled efficiently, the fabric of societies around the world would be strengthened.  However, the conservative right around the world, particularly the religious portion, has made it impossible to properly address the issue by implementing the counter-productive strategy of focusing on abstinence education, rather than an integral sexual education in conjunction with accessible contraception.

At first glance, abstinence education seems to make sense.  Basically, the premise is that if a certain behavior is risky to an individual, then it should be avoided.  And so, if teenagers (or adults, even) engage in sexual intercourse carelessly, and if that behavior results in pregnancy or an STD, then they shouldn’t be having intercourse.  Sounds reasonable.

The problem is that, under that logic, almost any activity could be banned on grounds that it poses a certain risk.  For example, some people who drive do so recklessly or under the influence of some substance, and then cause accidents.  Therefore, we shouldn’t teach people how to drive.  Yes, even the responsible ones who aren’t likely to have any accidents or even tickets should abstain from driving, because something could happen to them.  Because there is a certain risk, they shouldn’t be doing it.

Obviously, this isn’t done.  This is because it is fundamentally unfair to punish all of society for the recklessness of some individuals by limiting their freedom.  If some people drive recklessly, then we encourage the use of seatbelts and give tickets to dangerous drivers.  Anyone can recognize such unfairness in an extreme example such as the one above, but not everyone recognizes it when it comes to sex in teens.  Why is this? One simple but huge reason is religion.  When it comes to sexuality, religions around the world have but one view: there is no such thing except for procreating.  If it happens to feel good, that’s only an unwanted side-effect.  The irony is that most people around the world don’t have sex with reproduction in mind.  The only thing they’re looking for, most of the time, is pleasure.  If there were nothing pleasurable to sex, the human species would probably die out in a couple of generations, especially in developed countries where religion has been tamed and reproduction is just an afterthought–if it is a thought at all.

In the real world, however, it turns out that humans are animals and as such they have instincts and urges.  The attempt to suppress sexual behavior in teens has resulted in the worst possible scenario: they have sex anyway (anal sex is actually way up in abstinence focused states and countries) and are in most cases completely oblivious to the risks involved.  This results in STDs and unwanted pregnancies, along with psychological problems in some cases.  In every generation, the potential workforce is diminished by the scores of men and women who won’t grow to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or CEOs.  Instead, they’ll have to find a quick and easy minimum-wage job to make ends meet for themselves and their newborn.  Some young women opt for terminating the pregnancy, resulting in tremendous psychological trauma.  What’s worse is that, without proper education about why what happened to them happened, they re-engage in the same behaviors and fall into the traps again.

But why do teens not pay attention to the religious ban on sex?  Well, they probably do, it’s just that they don’t understand it.  The problem is that they don’t see anything risky with their behavior (because they don’t know enough about it) and so abstinence is to them just another tool that adults use to control them.  If they understood what STDs were, and how people get pregnant and how to prevent it, they would regulate their own behavior.  Kids are not stupid.  None of them actually want to get HIV or gonorrhea, and very few even want to have kids of their own one day (at least when they’re in high school).  However, sex is one of the things grown-ups do, and they want to do it, too.  Ironically, the more sex information kids have, the more likely they are to postpone their sexual activities for later in life.

Just as we don’t ban driving, but instead encourage drivers to use seatbelts, encouraging condom use should be the minimum we could do for teens.  The ideal situation would be that they could have access to all contraceptive methods, regardless of their age or gender.  Young men and women would greatly increase their chances of getting ahead in life before creating a family of their own, or even opt not to have a family at all.  Entire life projects would not depend on chance anymore, but more on the merits of the individual.  Obviously, a life without HIV would probably be easier, too.  Thorough sexual education is probably the single biggest action that can be undertaken to improve quality of life in the world. It would greatly help in attaining the only cure for poverty that has worked every time around the world, and is the one thing that all religions oppose: the empowerment of women.

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