Capitol Daily Memo: When it comes to sex ed, why promote an inferior standard?

Rep. Bill Wright, sponsor of HB 363

Here are a few thoughts in light of the House Education Committee’s favorable 8-7 vote on HB 363 today, a bill that would require abstinence education in public schools:

The current debate in Utah regarding how much and what type of sex education should be taught in public schools is yet another example of a key difference between conservatives and liberals. Liberals’ solution to this issue, like so many others, is to have government take care of it: teach students about puberty, sex, STDs, contraception, consequences of teen pregnancy and so on.

Here is where conservatives and liberals agree: Kids need to know about sex and its consequences. The key difference is who should teach it. Conservatives believe moms and dads are the most effective teachers for their children. Some parents do a better job at this than others, and when government perceives a “need” (real or imagined) – in this case, the need to educate students about sex – and perceives that this need is not being filled by families, churches or other private organizations, then it is more than happy to fill that need. 

So if government feels the need to teach sex ed, it should promote the gold standard, not an inferior standard.

In public education, schools wouldn’t teach children to use inferior methods of research in science class or, in wood shop, to build a piece of furniture that would collapse. A driver’s ed teacher, or parent, wouldn’t discourage children from drinking and driving but then, just in case the children choose to, show them how to drive properly and safely while drunk.

In sex education, abstinence is the gold standard. So when children are curious about sex, we don’t teach them to abstain but then show them how to do it “safely” using faulty prevention methods – instead, we teach them that sex is good and healthy in the proper context, but that engaging in it prematurely can damage their lives physically, socially and emotionally. We don’t lead them to believe that parents, society or government expect anything less than self-discipline.

According to Department of Health data, less than one half of one percent (0.45 percent) of Utah teens had an STD in 2010. And only one percent of unmarried teenage girls were pregnant in 2010. It’s clear we don’t have a reproductive crisis among Utah’s youth; still, we should not disregard the relative few who do struggle with these health problems.

The solution, however, is not to teach a lower standard to all children in order to address a problem that affects one percent of them. These health problems are personal medical issues that require personal attention. Medical practitioners, not the local health teacher, are best equipped to provide parents and their children with the most personalized, medically accurate, age-appropriate information available to meet their needs.

Since 2006, the gonorrhea infection rate for Utahns age 10-19 has fallen 71 percent, due at least in part to targeted efforts by health departments to track, treat and prevent the disease. This success suggests that if government gets involved at all, then targeting other health issues through the efforts of medical professionals and qualified community groups in non-school settings can provide more appropriate and effective solutions than involving schools, which prefer to focus on academics.

*Dave Buer contributed to this report.

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  • Carrie Sillito

    Teaching abstinence only is not scientifically proven to delay first intercourse. Furthermore, teaching abstinence plus ( or another more comprehensive program) doesn’t lead to teens having sex earlier. I don’t have confidence that parents actually talk to their kids about sex enough, and if kids aren’t learning the options at home, where do they go? the internet? friends? TV? Seriously!  Here is a great report about abstinence only and other programs. http://ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/abstinence.pdf

  • Carrie Sillito

    Furthermore, research has shown that abstinence only programs that teach condoms are “faulty” – as you talk about methods – lead kids that have sex to NOT use a condom because it has a 1-2% failure rate – rather than focusing on the 98-99% success rate. Since virtually all Americans have sex at some point (even those who believe in abstinence before marriage), “abstinence only” does nothing to teach even about use of contraception within a marital relationship. Why are we denying kids information? I am totally a proponent of abstinence before marriage, but I’m not naive enough to think it’s the plan everyone will choose. 

    • Matthew Piccolo

      Thanks, Carrie. You make some interesting points.  I don’t think the question is whether or not to deny children information, the question is whether public schools are the most effective and appropriate setting for sharing such information. Is a class with 20+ mostly immature peers the best place to do it, or a one-on-one meeting with a health practitioner who can answer questions and provide medical help if needed?  And is it appropriate to share information designed to help sexually active children with all children when most children, at least in Utah currently, won’t be sexually active until after high school or before marriage?  I’d say no.  I agree that understanding contraception would be helpful for most people when they are married if they wait for marriage, but, again, are schools an appropriate setting for sharing such information?  I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure most adult couples can figure it out on their own when they do become active.

      • A_frightened_American

         If not in schools, then where?  Seminary?

        I taught elementary school for three years in a tiny, very rural Utah town where boys frequently went off on missions and left a pregnant girl behind.  The very conservative residents there didn’t worry about it, because “they’re cowboys.  Besides, they’ll marry her when they come home.”

        Yet residents in this town were featured on TV a few years ago as a place where 100% of voters voted for Bush/Cheney — twice.

        And as a former elementary teacher (grades 4 – 6), I can tell you Utah’s children need good sex education and that many, many are not going to get it at home.

  • Christy M Kobe

    This article states that abstinence only is the “gold standard” of sex education but fails to list any criteria or studies backing up this claim. If I understand Carrie correctly, she is saying that research indicates teaching abstinence only does not delay the time of first intercourse. Why not use “Abstinence Plus” if research indicates does not lead teens to have sex any earlier? Carrie has made some great points here.

    @Matthew, I would guess sex education in the schools gets reliable information to a greater number of teens than the percentage who actually end up consulting with a medical professional before having sex. My guess is that teens who do end up consulting with a medical professioal on this issue most often do it AFTER they’ve already become sexually active and potentially experienced a permanently life altering consequence like an STD (many of which result in sterility) or pregnancy—in addition to the emotional consequences that come with having sex outside of a mature, long-term, committed relationship. Too high a proportion of teens are not being educated about these realities before they decide to engage in sexual activity.

  • Anonymous

    Something that is totally overlooked in these conversations is the hazard to boys of having their partner accuse them of sexual assault or rape when they have a tiff or the girl’s mother finds out and wants the court to throw the book at the boy.

    We have several neighbors who have girls who are sexually active.  The thirteen-year-old even texted her seventeen-year-old boyfriend and invited him up the canyon on four-wheelers and brought her own blanket.  This kind of thing happened several times.  When her aunt and mother found out, they got him convicted of aggravated sexual assault and put on the sex offender registry and he spent time in juvenile detention.  He is now in counseling in group sessions with real adult perverts who talk about things he never dreamed of.  He comes home distressed from having heard things even adults should never think of.

    Another girl has taken at least four boys to court on separate occasions that we know of and accused them of raping her.  At the least, she is putting herself in compromising situations and has some responsibility for what happens.

    Another girl has been sexually active with at least two boys on our street, one of whom is the son of the aunt above.  She is even bragging that she is pregnant with his child.  The other boy’s family is moving out of town in an attempt to get away so at least she can’t accuse him of rape after this point in time.

    Usually the prosecuting attorney’s don’t bother to put them in detention or jail because they know the boys are not dangerous.  They do the time after the DA has the conviction, another notch in her gun.

    This is happening to hundreds of boys in Utah.

    Boys need to hear that if their girlfriend changes her mind or her mother finds out, he is in for the worst experience he can imagine.  The court does not require proof from the girl, allegations are adequate to put him behind bars.  If he tries to contest the charges, he risks having the book thrown at him, being tried as an adult, spending five-years-to-life in real prison and being on the sex offender registry and having trouble getting jobs for the rest of his life.  The boys never get to even tell their side of the story because if they try, they are perceived and judged as being unremorseful, hardened and dangerous.

    A condom can’t protect any boy from the most dangerous aspect of pre-marital sex.

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  • Rmpond

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I contacted my Legislator and my Senate Representative to ask them to support this bill. It is right on.

  • JBT

    In 1996 the total number of cases of Chalmydia and Gonorrhea in Utah students age 15 – 19 was  675.  In 2009 the total number of cases of Chalmydia and Gonorrhea in Utah students age 15 -19 was 1,866 a nearly three fold increase!

    Those are 1,800 Utah high school students who are sexually active, and are not getting effective information on how to prevent STD’s in the home.  We owe it to those students who are not going to be “abstinent” no matter how many times adults say the word to give them up to date accurate medical information on sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent their spread.

    Just because there was a drop in reported cases of Gonorrhea from 150 in 2007 to 50 in 2009 does not statistically mean that there is not a problem in Utah.  Those numbers can and will go up again unless students are given the information they need to protect themselves in the event they become sexually active.

    Ignorance has never been the “Gold Standard” in any society and we should not make the mistake of putting our heads in the sand on this important  public health issue for the sake of the well being of our school age children.

    • Matthew Piccolo

      What were the rates, i.e. percent of population?

      • JBT

         It is easy to obfuscate the truth by quoting statistics such as “in 2010 only .45% of Utah teens contracted a STD” in order to support your stated position that in Utah we really don’t have enough of a problem to justify teaching sex education to our adolescent  students in school.  Here are the facts from the Utah department of health:

        In 2010 there were 1971 reported cases of chlamydia in the 15 -19 age group.  This represents 899.4 cases per 100,000 students or .90% rounded. 

        Do we dismiss the nearly 2,000 sexually active high school students who contracted a STD by saying that less than 1% our students became infected and therefore it is not a problem.  Or do we address the problem of nearly 2,000 students a year contracting chlamydia by providing information on how to prevent the spread of STD’s in our public schools.  My answer would be a resounding yes to the second choice.

        Before I get the uniformed response that we have had sex education in the high schools and it apparently hasn’t worked, let me remind you that the law as it is written makes teachers very wary about what they can teach about contraceptives and what they can’t.  As a result there is currently very little helpful information given to students. Steve Urquhart had an excellent bill last year to remedy this situation, but unfortunately he got screwed by members of his own party on the committee (without protection I might add).

        The bottom line is Utah has a problem, and will continue to have a problem in this area that accurate and timely information can help solve, sticking our heads in the sand and crossing our fingers hoping that students will not be sexually active will not.

        • Matthew Piccolo

          I am concerned about those who do deal with STDs and teen pregnancy, but because the percent of them is so small I think it’s better to help them in non-school settings rather than involving all students. It is a problem and there are more appropriate and effective ways to address it.

          • JBT

            Ok Matthew.  Exactly what non school settings are you proposing, and conducted by whom?  How would you identify and contact the students to give the information to BEFORE they contract a STD?

            The pie in the sky, moralistic, utopian sound bites that come from the Southerland Institute sound mighty nice on the surface, but they bear no resemblance to the real world.

            Spell out some specific proposals to back up your generalized rhetoric for a change, and show the readers of this forum that there in fact is some substance to your pontificating.

          • Matthew Piccolo

            It’s clear you’ve already made up your mind, so why waste the effort?

          • Peds RN

            I know you’d like to blow off JBT but I think you owe all the readers an educated response with specifics. You talk about giving this “small group” of teens specific help but how do you propose to identify who needs help. I work with children and teens in the medical field and this is not a liberal vs conservative issue. Its a health issues that affects us all.

          • Thomas Fritz

             Typical conservative logic.  When cornered, they say things such as this one and move on to the next big moral problem that need a conservative solution.