Thumbs-on sex education

A rational argument for prudence within sex education, but the Right won’t like it.

One candidate sees the superbly timed if unplanned pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter as a private matter, the other as a media opportunity. Obama is right, but Bristol Palin’s situation does highlight her mother’s political stance in favour of something called “abstinence-only sex education”.

I’m asking: is there any such thing?

This post by a health educator reports that in in her experience what is offered under the label is simply propaganda, not even covering the basic anatomy, with no attempt made to assess the impact on students, and doesn’t deserve the name of education at all. Studies like this have unsurprisingly shown this line to be ineffective.

Mind you, the mainstream approach is overall a disaster as well. The USA has just about the highest rate of teenage births in the rich-country OECD world, though it’s declining pretty much everywhere. This graph, the most recent I could find, is from 1998:

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The same pattern held in 2002 and there’s little reason to think the ranking has changed since.

The Bush Administration, averting its shocked eyes from the horrid facts, apparently won’t cooperate in international efforts to measure the sexual behaviour of young people. However, there’s no real reason to think that American teenagers are much more active sexually than those in Europe. What they are is less careful and selective. (A possible exception is the matriarchal family culture of poor urban African-Americans, in which early motherhood may become a sign of adult status, and teenage pregnancies deliberate; but that can’t account for much of the difference, as AAs only make up 13-14% of the the US population and only a minority within this minority live in urban ghettoes.) The high abortion rate in the USA confirms the obvious truth that an awful lot of teenage pregnancies – probably most – are unwanted. So good sex education should make a difference.

What is good sex education? To quote the American Psychological Association:

Based on over 15 years of research, the evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs for youth that encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills reduce HIV-risk behavior and also delay the onset of sexual intercourse.

So good means comprehensive, sensitive, and realistic: covering the biological bases and contraceptive techniques, but also [update: sexual orientations], relationships, the values that attach to them, peer pressures, and the conduct of the sexual negotiations in which young people will inevitably be involved. In Denmark (subwall), teenagers practice rolling condoms over each other’s thumbs. Anything less thumbs-on is not serious.

As a thought experiment, try to imagine a pro-abstinence argument for heterosexual teenagers within (NB: not instead of) such a proper sex education. This would be based on Dawkins’ selfish genes. The sermon’s talking points go roughly like this:

  • Your body is not an entertainment centre provided by a benevolent nature for your pleasure; it is a biological machine that your genes use to ensure their own survival and reproduction. The pleasures of sex and parenthood are the bait they offer you and other animals to reproduce. Your own happiness is not the object. Accordingly your body may be at war with your own best interests and life plan. Expect battles with your instincts over sex even more than in other fields.
  • Humans are unreasonably sexy by the standards of most of the animal kingdom. Specific and unusual features – in females, near-continuous receptivity, concealed ovulation, and menopause, in males, large penis size – indicate that its immediate functions are social as well as procreative. It is likely (though not certain) that human sexuality is adapted to the maintenance of pair bonds for the very prolonged dependency of our children, but it retains aspects adapted to other primate social organizations in the potential for casual sex, rape and harems.
  • The bait programme is equally strong in men and women but somewhat different in form. Men’s instincts push them towards promiscuity and exploitative sex. Women’s push them into selecting and trying to retain a provider mate, but also towards cheating with alpha males. The emotion of jealousy is designed to combat these cheating instincts by exacting a price in the prime relationship, but it is powerful and may break the tie. Jealousy is less controllable than its weaker but more pervasive cousin, status envy; Othellos are much more common than Iagos.
  • Our sexual instincts, inherited from a variegated past, are sufficiently flexible to give us substantial free will over the pattern we adopt. There is substantial evidence that long-term monogamous pairing (marriage) pays off in terms both of personal happiness and the life-chances of children.
  • Precocious sexual activity without contraception risks trapping girls into parenthood for which they are not ready or a painful abortion, boys into state-enforced paternal responsibilities, and both into a poor relationship. Plus the risk of STDs, of which AIDS is still incurable if treatable.

I don’t really see this taking off. As a teaching plan, it’s above the heads of many teenagers, given the poor state of science knowledge, and too rational to affect attitudes – but it could be kept in the pocket for the smartasses at the top of the class, such as the offspring of RBC readers. A simple appeal to the teenagers’ sense of autonomy and self-worth surely works better for most.

The abstinence-only crowd won’t like it either: the sermon is far too difficult and rational, and assumes the truth of Darwinism. Also, my argument can’t disguise the fact that the rational case for monogamous marriage is very much stronger than that for premarital abstinence. In fact premarital experimentation, now almost universal, looks a sensible strategy to ensure married sexual happiness. We still have loveless marriages, but fewer sexless ones.

FWIW, if your reference point is the Gospels, Jesus was nearly silent on fornication and notoriously socialised with prostitutes, but was oddly fierce against the serial polygamy enabled (for men) by the casual divorce common to contemporary Jews and Romans. This is a long way from the values of the current Christian Right in America; de facto, they support premarital abstinence and easy divorce, a scheme which is more Muslim than Christian.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web