Last Wednesday, Oklahoma’s Jenks High School hired a Christian sex educator who promoted abstinence-based education in a presentation to the school’s senior class. The presenter, Shelly Donahue, went so far as to shame girls for texting boys first, even suggesting that sex before marriage is a sin. Donahue’s sentiments outline the controversy around abstinence-only sexual education that has been a matter of national debate for quite some time.
Given the persistent prominence of abstinence-only education, it is now even more important to implement accurate and inclusive educational policies, especially for youth of the LGBTQ community. Providing secular, safe and correct information to all children must be a mandatory national public school policy.
Throughout the decades-long dispute over the best way to educate youth about sex, teen pregnancy rates have dropped considerably. Data released by the federal government last year indicates that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped by 57 percent from 1991 to 2013. The sharp drop in teen pregnancy is not due to less sex, a study conducted by the Journal of Adolescent Health found, but rather to more accessible contraception and wider access to sexual health education.
Many young women are opting to use longer-term contraceptives like IUDs or birth control pills. Wider health care coverage plays no small part in this. Sixty-seven percent of insured women have access to free birth control due to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. However, while these methods may be accessible, education about the use of contraceptives may not be.
Abstinence-based sex education may be ideal in theory in conservative locales, but in reality, sex education that excludes teaching about pregnancy and STI prevention is not only impractical, given how rates of sexual activity among generations of teenagers have remained relatively constant, but also dangerous. An extensive study carried out and presented in the Public Library of Science shows that increasing abstinence education is correlated with increasing teenage pregnancy and birth rates. After all, states with abstinence-only sexual education taught in their public schools have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
The PLOS study accounted for “socioeconomic status, teen educational attainment, ethnic composition of the teen population and availability of Medicaid waivers for family planning services in each state,” and the trend was still prominent. The study further indicates that abstinence-based education may be why teen pregnancy in the United States is substantially higher than other developed countries. States that teach contraceptive-based sex education are strongly correlated with lower pregnancy rates.
Additionally, inaccessibility to contraception and sexual health education can result in limited education opportunities for young women with unwanted pregnancies, and public health care and welfare as a result of teenage pregnancy cost taxpayers $9.4 billion annually, according to 2016 research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is not only appalling but also unethical that a high school receiving federal funding could pay for a Christian group to teach about sex education that could guide students’ decisions for years to come, in direct violation of laws mandating separation of church and state. On top of this, using religious groups to teach safe sex education to LGBTQ youth, who may develop shameful feelings about their sexual orientation or be woefully misinformed by heteronormative teachings, is problematic. Education must be non-discriminatory, especially for government-funded public schools.
The issue of accessible sexual health education is not limited to middle and high schools. Colleges across the nation also have an obligation to maintain accessible health centers that provide objective and inclusive information about reproductive health for students of all circumstances. The Engemann Student Health Center provides detailed information about the resources and services it provides, but it must continue to ensure students with questions or special circumstances are receiving the care and education they need to make safe decisions about their bodies.
Education regarding sexual health plays a crucial role in public health and safety, especially among young people and in campus environments. After all, affordable and accessible contraception might play a huge role in preventing unintended pregnancies and STIs, but students must know how to access and use contraception in order for this to matter.