Politics & Policy

Virginia Is for Teen Lovers?

Abstaining from good sense.

Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine (D.) announced this November that he was rejecting a $275,000 grant from the federal government for abstinence education as he eliminated the state’s abstinence education program altogether. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to make his announcement.

His decision came as the Centers for Disease Control released a report indicating that sexually transmitted diseases are up, and the Institute for Research and Evaluation released a report showing that an abstinence program in Kaine’s own state is achieving remarkable results in fostering teen chastity.

The CDC reported that the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia infected more people in one year (2006) than any disease in the history of disease reporting. As if the one million new reported cases of chlamydia weren’t bad enough (and the CDC notes that the disease is vastly underreported, estimating that there were probably around 2.8 million new cases), the CDC also reports that syphilis and gonorrhea infections are on the rise. All in all, there were approximately 19 million new cases of STDs in 2006.

Of course, diseases are far from the only reasons to be concerned about teen sex. Teen pregnancy — though greatly reduced in recent years — is still a major concern both for the pregnant woman who will be forced to choose between abortion and teen motherhood, and for the unborn child who will either be killed or brought into the world at great disadvantage. (The sad reality is that few women avail themselves of the adoption option.)

But beyond these tangibles lies the hidden emotional and psychological turmoil from which sexually active teens are more likely to suffer. UCLA psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, M.D., chronicles these effects in her book Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student. And the effects are long term: According to University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues, sexually active teens are less likely “to be sexually exclusive over the remainder of their life, with the result that divorce is a more likely outcome for them.”

Some seem to believe that talk about emotional and psychological effects of teen sex is a waste, that all the kids need are more latex and pills.

Counterevidence comes from Princeton University, which, according to a forthcoming article in the Princeton Tory, has been the target of an investigation by the State of New Jersey for failing to comply with state STD regulations. In what can be called either an honest oversight or a deliberate attempt to sweep the university’s STD problem under the rug, Princeton has failed to report any STD infections to the government for the past 18 months. Meanwhile, the Daily Princetonian reports that one in four Princeton students suffers from genital herpes and that chlamydia is “a problem” on campus.

Princetonians are anything but a bunch of religious prudes who skipped put-a-condom-on-a-banana-day in junior high school. If ever there were a student body informed on proper condom usage, it would be these kids. (Affording condoms is no problem for them, either.)

Perhaps contraceptive technical know-how and financial resources are not enough. We know from the National Survey of Family Growth that 11.8 percent of sexually active women who use contraception nevertheless become pregnant within a year. And more than half of sexually active Americans will contract an STD by age 25.

If “safe” sex techniques aren’t doing the job, maybe we’re rushing too quickly to reject abstinence education. Given the negative consequences that come with teenage sex, it seems that Governor Kaine should be more willing to do whatever is possible to delay the onset of sexual activity. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox argues we can’t adequately address the crisis in teen sexual health and pregnancy unless we address abstinence. “The bottom line is this: the erosion of the norm of premarital sexual abstinence, both in belief and behavior, has had serious emotional and physical consequences for our nation’s teens — especially young women. It has also been a driving force behind soaring illegitimacy rates in the U.S.” (Full disclosure: Wilcox is a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, where I’m also affiliated.)

Kaine’s allies claim that abstinence education simply doesn’t work. Planned Parenthood lobbied for the new policy and praised it, saying: “There is no evidence that abstinence-only programs equip teens with the education they need to delay sexual activity or prevent unintended pregnancies or the spread of sexually transmitted disease.” Kaine’s spokesperson, Delacey Skinner, echoed this view: “The governor wants to see us funding programs that are evidenced-based.”

There is, however, good evidence that abstinence education works. In a forthcoming January 2008 article in the American Journal of Health Behavior, a team of scholars — including a policy adviser for the Virginia Department of Health, Office of Minority Health and Public Policy — reports that the Virginia abstinence program they investigated, Reasons of the Heart, delayed its participants’ sexual activity. Students who went through the program were only 46 percent as likely as their peers to begin having sex after a year. And research by Columbia University public health professor John Santelli shows that an increase in teenage sexual abstinence can account for 23 to 53 percent of the recent decline in teenage pregnancy.

These reports are encouraging, but truth be told, the data is still sparse and good studies are few and far between. Sex-education programs (especially abstinence programs) are simply too recent a phenomenon for social scientists to draw any hard and fast conclusions. It’s true that the first abstinence programs weren’t very effective. But the programmers have refined their message and methods. The verdict is still out, but the newest programs seem to be working.

Wilcox explains it this way: “Abstinence education is relatively new. As with many social policies, there is a steep learning curve and many early abstinence programs failed to change teenage sexual behavior. Now, a number of programs — including Reasons of the Heart — have figured out innovative ways to change the sexual behavior of American teens.”

None of these programs is perfect. But abstinence education can be successful even if it doesn’t produce wedding-night virgins. Pointing to the True Love Waits campaign, which promotes abstinence pledges among teens, Wilcox claimed: “While it is true that most adolescents who take a pledge to remain virgins ultimately end up having sex before marriage, such pledges do have real value. Pledgers have fewer sexual partners, they are more likely to abstain from sex before marriage, and they have markedly lower levels of non-marital pregnancy, compared to adolescents who do not take the pledge.”

Research by the Heritage Foundation shows that pledgers delay sex by an average of 18 months and are less likely to face a teenage pregnancy. This is the case even though they frequently do not use contraception during their first sexual encounters. (After becoming sexual active, however, they use contraception at the same rates as everyone else.) But their pledge accounts for their delayed start, fewer partners, and infrequent pregnancies.

Given the sexual confusion of modern America — with all the pressures students face to hook-up and sleep around — teaching kids the mechanics of sex and methods to avoid disease and pregnancy often serves simply to reinforce the signal that “everyone is doing it.” That new programs encouraging students to view sex as more than just another contact sport seem to be working is reason to offer further support, not to reject federal grants. Not every teen who has sex ends up having problems, but in the aggregate the well-documented effects are alarming. If abstinence programs can reduce these problems, we ought to give them a try — and the evidence suggests that some of them are effective in doing just that.

– Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things. A Phillips Foundation Fellow, he is the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.

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