For all its fumbling, the Bush administration has one achievement of note: it has persuaded the American public that premarital sex is a risky behavior for teens, akin to smoking or gang activity.
Given the intensity of the administration’s abstinence-until-marriage campaign, few were surprised when in February 2007, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, a professional research journal, published a study reporting that adolescents who had sex were 58 percent more likely than were virgins to commit a delinquent act (up to one year after sex).
But Paige Harden, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia, didn’t buy it. She and her colleagues narrowed the original study’s data to compare only identical twins who were raised together but started having sex at different ages. That step automatically controlled for variables such as family and school environment.
Their findings, which will appear in the same Journal of Youth and Adolescence this spring, were startling: Twins who had sex earlier than their twin siblings were less likely to become delinquent.
Harden’s wasn’t the only recent study to loosen the administration’s chastity belt. In the January American Journal of Public Health, a team from Columbia University linked delays in sexual activity until after the teen years to problems in sexual functioning later in life. The researchers noted that the finding “lends credence to research showing that abstinence-only education may actually increase health risks.”
The government’s own statistics on the trends in teen sexual health support that conclusion.
On March 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released figures showing that one in four young women ages 14 to 19 has a sexually transmitted disease (STD). A CDC spokesperson pronounced the situation an “epidemic.”
In December 2007, the CDC announced a 3 percent rise in the teen pregnancy rate – the first increase in 14 years. And in November, it reported data showing that adolescent rates of two of the three STDs tracked nationally – syphilis and Chlamydia – increased from 2000 to 2006 (the latest reporting year). The third STD, gonorrhea, has climbed 6 percent since 2004.
“We’ve taken a very negative approach to teen sexuality, and it’s not working,” says Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
A backlash against abstinence-only programs may be brewing among young people themselves. Last October, 25 young people from the Washington, D.C.-based group Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom visited Capitol Hill to lobby for equal funding for comprehensive sex education.
In New York City, several eighth-grade girls started the Sex Education Advocacy Project to educate parents and leaders. In December, the girls testified before the city council to ask that sex education be made mandatory in New York middle and high schools.
And at Sex Etc. (a teen-written website and magazine published by Answer, a comprehensive sex education organization at Rutgers University), teens wrote a how-to guide for students on changing their schools’ approach to sex education.
State governments are following suit. In late February, Iowa became the 17th state to refuse federal abstinence-only money because of accompanying ideological requirements. (Grant recipients, for example, must teach that sex outside of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects,” a claim that is scientifically unproven.)
Says Kempner: “We really swung all the way to the right, and we’re coming back in the other direction.”