Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What's the best way to teach teens about sex?

Here's a quick comparative sex quiz about teenagers. Take these five developed countries -- The United States, Sweden, France, Canada, and Great Britain -- and pick which one has the teens between 15 and 19 with the:

  1. largest percentage of pregnancies.
  2. largest percentage of abortions.
  3. largest percentage of live births.
  4. largest percentage of single mothers.
  5. highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

I'll give you a hint: All five have the same answer. And it's the same country that invests a significant amount of its sex education resources into teaching abstinence.

Yes, that's right: The United States of America. We're not just leading the entire world in oil consumption, we're also leading the developed world in teen pregnancy.

These numbers are from an excellent set of articles in The Washington Post Health Section for May 16 called "Is Teen Sex Bad?" (Free registration required, but it's worth your time for this report.)

The countries don't differ much on the level of teen sexual activity. The U.S. and Sweden have similar percentages of sexually active teens from 15 on. The other countries have much lower rates in the early years, but by the age of 20 around 80 percent of the kids in all the countries have had sex. In several of the countries a much larger percentage of teen pregnancies are terminated by abortion, but since these countries have a much smaller pregnancy rate to begin with, their overall rate of abortion is still much lower than that of the U.S.

And the figures for other wealthy European countries are similar to those of the three listed above. (The Canadians are more similar to the Europeans than they are to us.)

As I read the articles, there are two big distinctions between the U.S. and the other countries:

  1. The other countries have comprehensive sex education programs in their schools that cover contraception, STDs, and making rational choices about sex.
  2. Europeans tend to consider sex a normal part of adolescence.

Here's the conclusion that I drew from reading the whole report: Regardless of what kind of sex education teenagers receive, most of them are going to have sex. But the ones that get comprehensive sex education -- as opposed to talks about abstinence and preaching about the evils of sex -- are much less likely to get pregnant, get diseases, and need abortions.

If we were really interested in reducing the teen pregnancy, STD, and abortion rates, we'd follow the European example and provide comprehensive sex education while cutting back on the morality lectures. Alas, I fear that those behind abstinence "education," those who oppose contraception, and at least some of those in the anti-abortion movement are more interested in making sure that sexually active teenagers are punished by pregnancy and disease.

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