Abstinence-Only Teaching And Its Risks for Teens
In her first national interview, teen mother Bristol Palin called abstinence teaching "not realistic at all." Several studies published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy agree, finding that abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs do not delay the onset of their sexual activity and provide inaccurate information about condoms.
Another study published in the January issue of Pediatrics found that kids who made "virginity pledges" not only had sex at the same rates as non-pledgers, but were also less likely to practice safe sex.
Funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rose from $97.5 million in 2000 to a whopping $215 million in 2008. And yet, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, with one-third of girls getting pregnant before the age of 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers (federal, state, and local) at least $9.1 billion, according to a 2006 report published by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. But the cost to girls of having unprotected sex is far, far greater.
Why You Should Talk to Kids about Safe Sex--Even If You Prefer Abstinence
Why should parents talk specifically to their kids about avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? Isn't it enough to teach them that their bodies should be respected, and that sexual intimacy is gift that should be cherished after marriage?
Sadly, our statistics in the United States regarding STDs tell us that the prevalence of these diseases are staggering. Twenty million Americans have active HPV (Human Papilloma Virus, which causes genital warts and cervical cancer), and although most are unaware, 1 in 5 Americans has genital herpes. STDs occur across all economic, racial, educational, social, and religious boundaries. Your kids get one message from you, and a different one from the media, which suggests that hookups are carefree fun. Unseen are the negative outcomes of sexual intimacy--e.g., diseases like herpes or genital warts that can have painful recurrences for years, or silent disease that may lead to serious consequences such as infertility.
Your kids are smart. Give them credit. But arm them with all the facts they need to make intelligent, safe decisions about their sexual health. Trust that your teen's unique personal upbringing and your value system provide a solid base, and that learning accurate facts about risks regarding both coital and non-coital intimacy will be complementary, not contradictory.
How Virgins Can Catch STDs
Even if your teen takes a chastity pledge, don't kid yourself that he or she is not at risk for catching an STD. Many kids equate noncoital sex with safe sex and believe oral or anal sex don't "count" toward maintaining virginity. Yet these forms of intimacy readily transmit STDs. Genital herpes is frequently transmitted by oral sex. Genital warts, caused by HPV, are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact--no "sex" of any kind necessary! Syphilis, though far less common, can be transmitted by direct contact as well. Public lice, known as "crabs," are the most contagious of all sexually transmitted diseases, and they cross over either by direct contact or by hitching a ride on bed linens, towels, or underwear--so again, no sex required! The take-home message: Educate your kids that virginity does not equal "disease free."
What to Do If Your Teen Is Pregnant
If your child announces she is pregnant, before you start ranting, take a breath and listen to your daughter. Realize this isn't something she shared with you lightly. Here are five first steps to take:
1. DISCUSS her options within your family's belief system, and recognize that there is no need for any immediate decision. Consider counsel from other trusted adults such as your pastor, rabbi, or physician.
2. INVOLVE the father early in the discussions--emotional, religious, and financial decisions will affect him as well.
3. SCHEDULE a doctor's appointment to confirm the pregnancy, assess your daughter's health, and answer questions. Your daughter should start taking an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin immediately.
4. ADDRESS financial realities of childcare by creating a realistic budget--including everything from diapers, clothing, and toys to medical and childcare expenses.
5. ENCOURAGE your daughter to continue her education, regardless of the social, emotional, and physical challenges. Focus on her long-term life goals.
Teach Your Children Well
The decisions your children make--and the consequences they have to live with--are theirs. Your role is to be a well-informed parent--a source of support, love, information, and guidance as your child navigates through the challenging years of adolescent sexuality.
Dr. Jill Grimes (www.jillgrimesmd.com) is a leading specialist in children's and young adults' sexual health. She has a private practice in Austin, TX, is a clinical instructor at UMass Medical School, and is associate editor for the 5-Minute Clinical Consult textbook. Her new book is Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs (Johns Hopkins University Press).