Social Anxieties: Outdated sex education must be reformed at the federal level

My high school has a program called “Teen Pep,” which features upperclassmen performing wacky skits to promote safe sex and STI prevention.

I disliked the program because one of the five seminars was titled “Postponing Sexual Involvement.” In fact, I disliked it so much that I wrote an article for the school’s satirical newspaper titled: “Teen Pep to Take Over Driver’s Education, Dedicate Curriculum to ‘Postponing Vehicular Activity.’”

I was too judgmental. Teen Pep made a respectable effort to educate students about both preventative and remedial birth control and STI protection.

Additionally, there isn’t anything wrong with partially promoting abstinence; it’s the most effective form of birth control and STI prevention. Excessive or exclusive promotion of abstinence is where sexual education starts to fail.

When considering what topics should be taught in sex ed, it’s important to understand that teenagers are going to have sex. They are going to have sex regardless of whether they are taught safe sex, and they are going to have sex even if they promise otherwise. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of U.S. teenagers have sex by age 18, and according to a study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, over half of teenagers who pledge celibacy have sex before marriage and have a higher rate of STI contraction and premarital pregnancy than those who don’t pledge.

Though it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation, these statistics help explain why a joint study between Indiana University and the University of Georgia found that the more a state’s sexual education curriculum focuses on abstinence, the higher its teen pregnancy rate. The study’s findings were consistent even when controlled for socioeconomic factors such as household income and race.

But these socioeconomic factors are critical to understanding how teenage pregnancy disproportionately harms already disadvantaged populations. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, 48 percent of teen mothers live below the poverty line, and 67 percent of teen mothers who move out of their own families’ home live in poverty. Teen parenthood is the most common cause of girls dropping out of school, with approximately 50 percent of teen mothers never graduating from high school and less than 2 percent obtaining a college degree by age 30.

These socioeconomic impacts carry all kinds of long-term and cyclical consequences. According to the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, children born to teen parents are nearly three times as likely to be incarcerated at a young age than the children of older parents, and the daughters of teen parents are 22 percent more likely to become teen mothers themselves.Effectively, teen pregnancy is a result of poverty, which can lead to crime, more poverty and, ultimately, more teen pregnancy. It’s a vicious cycle, and the consequences predominantly affect the country’s most vulnerable communities.   

Yet, there is reason for hope. Teen pregnancy is dropping at an impressive rate, and that can largely be accredited to the increasing presence of “comprehensive” sexual education as opposed to abstinence-only education, a trend that has received scrutiny from the Trump administration.

In 2010, Congress created the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which aims to fund organizations focusing on comprehensive sexual education. But in 2017, the Department of Health and Human Resources tried to remove funding from TPPP organizations to favor other, more conservative programs that emphasized “abstinence until marriage.”

Fortunately, in April, a federal judge in the state of Washington issued a permanent injunction ordering the administration to continue funding the program, marking the second time a federal court had to make this order.

The effects of teen pregnancy, and the effects of abstinence focused sexual education are too well documented and understood for this to be just another trench battle in the endless culture war. We now know that time spent scaring teenagers away from sex entirely can be better used teaching them how to have safe sex, and the correct course of action isn’t to remove funding from effective programs, but the answer also isn’t to just fund individual comprehensive sex-ed programs.

There is currently no federally mandated sexual education curriculum, which has led to 26 states mandating that abstinence be stressed in public schools, and 11 states not having any mandated sexual education at all.

Studies have shown repeatedly that the less stress put on abstinence, the better the outcomes, regardless of location. So if lawmakers truly want to increase economic mobility, reduce crime and empower women, they must push for a federally mandated comprehensive sexual education curriculum.

Teenage pregnancy is becoming less and less of a problem in every regard. It’s time to capitalize on the momentum that educators have built, not go back to the archaic philosophies that enabled the problem in the first place.

Nathaniel Hyman is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column, “Social Anxieties,” ran every other Tuesday.