Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Realism Versus Idealism In Teen Sex Education

Wisconsin is, by and large, a great state to live in if you're a liberal like myself. It's a state that aggressively supports education, environmentalism and sensible economic growth, and it largely succeeds on all three. Wisconsin tends to be politically "purple"; a near even split of liberals and conservatives, with smaller parties, such as the Green and Constitution parties, getting decent levels of support.

However, one unfortunate consequence of living in a state where conditions are good and jobs are, for the most part, readily available is that it gives the state legislature time to focus on certain issues that may not normally get too much consideration at the state level. Given that both houses of the legislature are controlled by the Republican party currently, this has resulted in a seemingly endless parade of draconian social engineering bills, many of which have been detailed here in other posts. Senate Bill 286 is one such bit of legislation, though it presents a somewhat special case.

SB 286 is a bill mandating that sexual abstinence until marriage be taught in the public schools as the preferred sexual behavior for teens, though it really draws no moral distinction upon age.

From JS Online:

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), said Wisconsin teens don't get the abstinence message in classrooms enough, because of a focus on using condoms and birth control instead. "Abstinence isn't taught out there, or isn't emphasized," Lazich told the Assembly Education Committee.

"Abstinence should be taught to students unapologetically," when a school district decides to teach students about growth and development, Lazich said.

I can't comment as to whether Lazich is telling the truth that abstinence is not being taught in Wisconsin schools; my son is in Early Childhood and there's really no time for SexEd between Reading Circle and Playground Time. According to the article, abstinence is taught nationally in about 1/3 of all public schools, so I will assume that holds true for Wisconsin as well.

I disagree with changing the emphasis away from safe sex and towards abstinence, mainly because it's just not a realistic goal. Teenagers are going to be sexually active regardless of what they're taught in school. Any educational standards that attempt to educate teens in such a way as to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STD's has to work within a realistic framework. Certainly abstinence is the best way to prevent those two things from occurring. But pushing for such at the expense of an emphasis on sex education which deals with the reality "on the ground" is irresponsible and does a disservice to our children.

Hence, a counter-initiative from Democratic Representative Tamara Grigsby of Milwaukee; Assembly Bill 690, which would put greater emphasis on teaching about safe sex and STD's, as well as abstinence.

Legislators would "stick our heads in the sand" by requiring schools to teach abstinence first, Grigsby said, because 60% of teens are sexually active by age 18.

"The reality is, (abstinence) is not the choice that's being made right now," Grigsby said, noting that the teen pregnancy and dropout rates in Milwaukee are among the highest in the nation.

The abstinence bill is typical of the various other social conservative "morality" bills introduced in Wisconsin lately in the sense that they are attempts at social control based on religious doctrine. However, the abstinence bill differs somewhat in that there actually is a social benefit to teaching abstinence to teens and abstinence does actually accomplish certain positive goals. It's not just ideology for the sake of such, as many other of these bills are.

I question first, however, the qualifier that somehow marriage equals sexual maturity. Sex and marriage are two very different things and packaging the two together can cause serious problems for both. Sexual compatibility is a crucial part of a successful marriage and, thus, it is not necessarily a good idea to wait until after actually tying the knot to "explore" the issue. Further, a marriage contract certainly does not immediately confer the maturity and responsibility necessary to create a sound relationship. It's a distinction drawn purely from an ideological perspective that can often have very disastrous consequences.

I also question this statement, made by Julaine Appling of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, a conservative Christian social advocacy group (emphasis is mine):

"Your job as legislators is to keep raising the bar" of expected behavior by teens, added Julaine K. Appling, of the Family Research Institute. "We need to keep before our young people a very strong - a very clear - abstinence message."

As is often the case, I disagree completely with Ms. Appling in her assertion. It is the job of the state legislature to debate and pass laws which operate the state of Wisconsin, not to act as behavioral role models or morality police. It's this kind of thinking by Republicans that led to the colossal waste of time and money spent hounding President Clinton about his personal life. Certainly it would be great if our politicians could be model citizens and paragons of virtue but that's not what they're paid to do. They're paid to provide good governance. Providing moral guidance is what parents should be doing, with support from clergy and other organizations.

In spite of my disagreement with this bill, I do agree that teaching abstinence is a positive. I plan on teaching the value of abstinence to my children, as it is the only way to be 100% certain of preventing unwanted pregnancies and STD's. Plus, sexual activity at an immature age can result in all sorts of emotional problems that can be avoided as well. But this steadfast adherence to abstinence as the only morally acceptable methodology for teaching safe sex is dangerous and unrealistic. Plus, treating marriage as some sort of sacred endowment that grants sexual maturity and moral rightness is demonstrably dangerous (as rorschach at No Capital shows).

Abstinence is a good idea. But abstaining from good safe-sex education certainly is not.

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