Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Doing what's best for our children -- Part 1

[I've heard from a couple of people that a post I did last night was so long, it wasn't displaying. I've therefore broken it down into two parts. Part 2 to this post is in the immediately following post.] I did something I very rarely do -- I watched 60 Minutes. While I grew up in my parents home as a regular 60 Minutes audience member, I stopped watching it about twelve years ago, because Mr. Bookworm hated it so much. He called it "garbage." Funnily, because he hates the President and everything he stands for, Mr. Bookworm has become more reconciled to the show, but I still think it's garbage. Occasionally, though, it will have something that is, at the very least, thought-provoking, and that's what happened tonight. The segment I watched tonight was a re-run of a segment first shown in May. It involves the Administration's huge push to advance abstinence amongst teenagers, and it was extremely critical of the abstinence only programs. The segment opened by highlighting a program called the Silver Ring Thing:

Amy and Rick will be taking their virginity pledge at a music and light sex-education show called Silver Ring Thing. In the last few years, Silver Ring Thing has received more than $1 million in federal and state subsidies. Its aim is to encourage young people to put on a ring and promise to abstain from sex until marriage.
Footage from the Silver Ring Thing show looked pretty cheesy to me, but I'm an old crone in her 40s, so what do I know about what appeals to today's youngsters. The audience members were rapt. The Silver Ring show urges teenagers to pledge abstinence until marriage and, critically from 60 Minutes' point of view, denigrates condoms:
[Denny] Pattyn [a minister who founded Silver Ring Thing] doesn’t just preach the virtues of sexual abstinence. His show is full of negative messages about condoms – messages warning that condoms won’t protect kids from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. "We spoke with some of the kids after the show in Fort Myers and they said that going into the program they thought that condoms did work, but your show convinced them that they didn’t," says Bradley to Pattyn. "Right. Well, that’s good because we believe that condoms aren’t the answer," says Pattyn.
Pattyn's point is that you have to be binary with children: abstinence good; everything else highly risky. To couple abstinence messages with birth control messages, to his mind, renders the first message meaningless, and exposes teens to unnecessary risk. His belief is completely the opposite of the theory advanced by those who support education that urges condom use, rather than abstinence, as the first line in the battle against STDs and teen pregnancies. Thus, in a later part of the same segment, we hear this:
"So you’re saying if you say, 'Abstain, but if you do have sex, use a condom,' that that’s sending a mixed message to kids?" asks Bradley. "Well, certainly it sends a mixed message, and I believe what you need to look at is that first of all, kids are most protected in an environment where they’re getting clear messages from the adults in their lives," says Claude Allen [President Bush’s domestic policy adviser and point man on abstinence-only education]. [Peter] Bearman [who authored a study discussed below] disagrees: "The message is clear: I care about your health. I care about your safety. Here are the things you need to do to protect yourself. First, don’t have sex. Second, if you do, use a condom."
However, there's a study -- a very big study -- one I heard about when it first came out:
Columbia University’s Peter Bearman co-authored the most comprehensive study ever done on adolescent health and sexuality. He says, "Sex education doesn’t cause all these negative outcomes. What causes these negative outcomes is kids who are having sex and aren’t protecting themselves." It was a $45-million project, funded by 17 separate federal agencies. Bearman’s investigators interviewed more than 20,000 young people about virginity pledge programs -- and there was some good news. "Pledging will help them delay sex for, say, 18 months — a year and a half," says Bearman. "It's a big deal in the lives of teenagers. Eighteen months is a phenomenally long time. It’s almost two school years." So what's the downside? "The downside is that, when they have sex, pledgers are one-third less likely to use condoms at first sex," says Bearman. "So all of the benefit of the delay in terms of pregnancy-risk and in terms of STD acquisition -- poof -- it just disappears because they’re so much less likely to use a condom at first sex."
Apparently pledgers don't use condoms because they fear them, don't know how to use them, don't know how or where to buy them, don't think of them, are embarrassed to use them, etc. The kids who pledge are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and to be afraid to approach a physician for diagnosis and treatment:
Not only are kids who take virginity pledges just as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases as kids who don’t, but they are even more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. This finding - something that really surprised Bearman -- appeared two months ago in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "Adolescents who take virginity pledges – who remain virgins, that is, who don’t have vaginal sex, who technically remain virgins, are much more likely to have oral and anal sex," says Bearman. "They're not thinking they’re having sex?" asks Bradley. "Well, if they are trying to preserve their virginity, their technical virginity by having oral or anal sex, then obviously they’re defining these behaviors as not sex," says Bearman.
60 Minutes then points out that, at least with regard to the Silver Ring program, the underlying purpose behind the abstinence message is religion (implying that taxpayers are funding religious indoctrination):
But for Pattyn, the abstinence pledge isn’t just about preventing disease. How important is faith in what he does now? "It's absolutely critical," says Pattyn, "because teenagers themselves tell us how important religious values are in making decisions of this magnitude." "There’s a group of people who are using abstinence as a vehicle, pretending to be concerned about public health," says Bearman. "But it’s really a vehicle to advance a program, a cultural program that doesn’t help public health."
So there's your 60 Minutes dichotomy: taxpayer money to be used to fund religious programs that teach children to abstain from sex, versus science demonstrating that, not only do these children not abstain, but they're at greater risk. As a Mom of two under-10 year olds, I was halfway out the door to buy them condoms, 'cause you can never be too prepared for those teen years. Then, 60 Minutes threw in one more thing that got me thinking:
At Union Grove High School in McDonough, Ga., kids get the abstinence message from a curriculum called Choosing The Best, whose publisher has been awarded $4 million in federal assistance. Today’s lesson: Condoms often fail. What teachers like Laurie Sponsler can’t do, if they follow the curricula, is tell students that when condoms are used correctly, they are nearly always effective. And if a student asks how to use a condom, Sponsler's not supposed to tell.
And it was that last little bit, which I've highlighted, that got me thinking: how often do teenagers fumbling in the backseat of a car use condoms correctly? [Please continue to Part 2. Also, if you have any comments, please leave them in the comment section for part 2.]