Much ink has been spilled in the past few weeks about the “surprising” results of a new study that suggests that abstinence-only sex education programs do a better job delaying sexual activity among young people than so-called comprehensive plans that also include “safe-sex” ed.
What we find surprising, though, is the backlash of anger against the results, published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association.
The backlash is particularly noteworthy considering that the subjects of the study, nearly 700 black middle-schoolers in inner-city Philadelphia schools, are considered “at-risk” and therefore especially impervious to abstinence-only education.
Some longtime advocates of comprehensive sex education have heralded the findings. But others dismissed it outright. In a letter to the editor in The New York Times, Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, continued to insist that abstinence-only programs are ineffective (and teach “misleading and inaccurate” information).
Of course, ignoring science that doesn’t fit with one’s ideology is precisely the charge that Richards and others make against the Catholic Church and its teachings on human sexuality.
Case in point: A new report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation of America singles out the Catholic Church and Islam as “impos[ing] tremendous barriers that prevent young people, particularly, from obtaining information and services related to sex and reproduction. Currently, many religious teachings deny the pleasurable and positive aspects of sex.” The report recommends that governments require “comprehensive sexuality education” for children from the age of 10.
Putting aside for a moment the ridiculous allegation that Catholic moral teaching takes a negative view of sex, the sex ed policy articulated by groups like Planned Parenthood seems clear to increase only a demand for condoms and the “reproductive health services” that they offer — in other words, they have a significant financial stake in this policy debate.
As one commentator pointed out, nobody makes any money by advocating abstinence.
While this study will make the case for abstinence education easier, it also reveals what we’ve been reduced to taking for “success” in sex education programs. Consider this: The research was directed at sixth- and seventh-graders. Yes, 12-year-olds. Success was that a mere 30 percent of the students reported engaging in sexual activity by the time they were about 14. For those who received “comprehensive” sex ed, the sexual activity rate was 42 percent. For those with only general health education, that rate was 50 percent.
Clearly, there’s a much bigger problem afoot, starting with parents’ abdicating their own responsibility toward their children. But there’s also our increasingly sexualized culture, whose message of sex as self-expression and consequence-free pleasure is aimed at younger and younger ages — and has much more influence than any eight-hour school program could.
Pope Benedict XVI, announcing plans for a marriage preparation guide earlier this month, said that from the time of childhood, “the meaning of sexuality must progressively emerge as a capacity to relate, a positive energy to be integrated into authentic love.”
Against this backdrop, our families, parishes and schools must become places where children, adolescents and young people learn to understand life as a vocation of love. That’s the truly positive context for human sexuality.