Youth risk behavior surveillance system

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Do you know how active teens are? According to the data and statistics from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a sub unit of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, as of 2007, 35.0 percent of high school students throughout the United States are currently sexually active, and 47.8 percent of high school students have already had sexual intercourse. These numbers may seem large, but in the past couple of years, they have once again begun increasing after many years of slowly dropping. Surprisingly, the time frame when sexual activity rates had begun increasing is around the time when abstinence-only programs began being pushed. The Obama administration has recently cut budgets on the abstinence-only programs due to these undesirable effects. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics published data in March of 2009 stating teen birth rates in the United States have risen for the second year, as of 2007. Due to this, many critics have begun to criticize the choice of the Bush administration, which strongly supported the abstinence-only programs. As a result, it leads us to the question of whether abstinence programs are really doing their job. All this data points to abstinence-only programs being ineffective and only supplemented abstinence programs seem to have a desirable effect in the public schools in the United States.

Abstinence programs date back to the 1980's, the era of the Reagan administration. They were the solutions to many problems within high schools (Sexuality Research and Social Policy). An article in a 1987 newspaper states that Reagan encouraged the abstinence programs because it was the best way to “avoid contracting AIDS” (Boyd). This was also a part of Reagan's program in battling AIDS. Reagan said, “All the vaccines and medication in the world won't change one basic truth, that prevention is better that cure, and that's particularly true for AIDS, for right now, there is no cure” (Hess). Moreover, Reagan believed that it was not the government's responsibility to play a role in educating, but the role of both the school and family. In 1984, the first funding for abstinence education was given by the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Program.

According to Sexuality Research and Social Policy within National Sexuality Resource Center, as of September 2008, at least 1.5 billion dollars have been funded on abstinence-only programs. Abstinence-only programs mainly focus on the abstaining from having sex. It does not mention most topics within reproduction, especially contraception and safe sex. There have been many arguments about whether masturbation is acceptable as a topic and action under the abstinence-only programs. However, considering the old slang for masturbation is “having sex with yourself,” it should not be considered a part of the abstinence-only programs. In 2005, abstinence-only programs were scheduled for use in schools in communities with the majority of Hispanics and Blacks. The reason suggested was because these groups are significantly more sexually active when compared to other groups (Helman). More recently, in 2008, 17 or more states had already adopted the abstinence-only route (O'Brien).

The other option for sexual education is abstinence-supplemented programs, also known as comprehensive sexual education. For this type of program, not only is abstinence encouraged as a better choice, but the program also touches on the subjects of contraception techniques and sexually transmitted diseases. In 1990, the opposing argument against comprehensive sex education programs stated by the abstinence programs leaders is that less than half of the schools give any instructions on how to use contraception or where to obtain them (Wilgoren). However, this problem has been solved; now they are doing the exact opposite of what they were being accused of. Moreover, the comprehensive sexual education program has become the sexual education program with the most support. In a magazine published in 2007, 94 percent of parents believed that the comprehensive approach was the better of the choices (Stover).

Perhaps the most lucid way to view the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs is to compare the programs' results to those of abstinence-supplemented programs. Texas and California are both southern states, but they use different sexual education methods; the state of Texas adopted the abstinence-only programs, while the state of California decided to use the abstinence-supplemented programs (The Dallas Morning News). The results are dramatically different.

In Texas, the state laws have made it mandatory to teach abstinence-only as the preferable option. Moreover, they must spend most of their time on abstinence, and emphasize that abstinence-only is the only way to have a hundred percent prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The mention of sexually transmitted diseases is very limited; only those chosen by the board of trustees of a school district can be mentioned as consequences (Wonderful Days). As a result, Texas has become the state with the most teen pregnancies in the nation (The Dallas Morning News).

On the other hand, the state of California has requirements in schools to teach abstinence-supplemented programs, which teach the aspects of both abstinence and contraception. In addition, to a broader variety of topics to discuss, the students are also able to easily obtain birth control items, such as condoms (The Dallas Morning News). According to Dr. Mark Horton who is the director of the California Department of Public Health, the teen birth rate in California had reached its lowest point as of May 11, 2009 (CA Dept of Public Health), posing a great contrast to the results of Texas.

From the comparison between the two states, it is apparent that comprehensive sexual education had a better result. It has been brought to light that there may be other issues, such as racial percentage difference that may cause this effectiveness difference. However, the majority of researchers are leaning toward the different programs causing the largest effect. Many believe that teaching teens to be abstinent is idealistic, it is impossible in reality. Instead of working toward an impossible, it would be more realistic to do prevention of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases compared to preventing teens from having sex altogether. Studies have shown that by senior year approximately two thirds of the class has already had sexual intercourse (The Dallas Morning News). It would be literally impossible to correct the wrong of so many, so it would be more effective to discuss both abstinence and birth control. In the long run, those who choose to be abstinent will have the support, but those who choose not to wait will have the correct information to prevent themselves from getting pregnant or obtaining sexually transmitted diseases.

There are arguments on how effectiveness of abstinence programs is actually calculated. Some argue that it is the number of individuals having sexual intercourse; others argue that it is the pregnancy rate. Due to the hardness of measuring the number of individuals submerged in the world of sexual intercourse, I will base this research paper on the number of pregnancy rate. This is because the number of individuals having sexual intercourse and the pregnancy rates should be linearly increasing. Therefore, the higher the pregnancy rate means the more individuals experiencing sexual intercourse.

Real life examples are not the only ways to prove the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs. Although real life examples demonstrate the results of the programs, they do not get to the roots of the ineffectiveness. Problems and loopholes that the program is based on may be the explanation on not only its effectiveness, but also why many professionals choose not to use it. Many well-known and well-respected scientists have focused in on the argument between the two opposing programs. Although there are pros and cons tagged to both programs, the majority of researchers tend to lean toward comprehensive sexual education being the better of the two.

According to the review done by the Committee on Government Reform of the US House of Representatives, 11 out of the 13 curriculums of the abstinence program are based on incorrect information (Stantelli). “The Accuracy of Condom Information in Three Selected Abstinence-Only Education Curricula” research done by Alison Jeanne Lin and John S. Santelli also confirmed this result. The data given in the programs were not necessarily false; however, they were distorted and led to misinformation. Other data are old and have been proven wrong. This data included misleading information on contraception effectiveness and the consequences of abortion. Moreover, the researchers took misconceptions and stereotypes as facts within their scientific research, making their research biased and questionable.

A study done by Douglas Kirby showed that abstinence programs do not delay the overall age of sexual intercourse (Sexuality Research and Social Policy). One of the few pieces of data given by abstinence-programs on contraception indicates that condom fail rates on contracting HIV is between 10 percent to 43 percent, where lab results suggest the rate to be 1 percent or under (Morse). This is a significant difference that could cause major problems when taught in class. If the student does not choose abstinence, then seeing the high chance of condom failure, they may decide to have unprotected sex. This will result in more teen pregnancies and an increase in individuals with sexually transmitted diseases.

As of 1999, abstinence programs claim that teen pregnancy rates had decreased by 17 percent due to their contributions. Many opponents beg to differ because of the lack of evidence. Some have chosen to believe that the real reason for this drop was due to the increase in use of contraception (Morse). Moreover, in “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs and Their Impact on Adolescent Human Rights” written by Rebecca Schleifer and Alice M. Miller, they suggest that abstinence-only programs violate the human rights of teens, especially those of making healthy protective decisions (Sexuality Research and Social Policy).

Another issue is that abstinence programs do not address one of the major problems of teens who choose to have sexual intercourse. According to recent generated research, one of the traits that teens who abstain from sex have is “resistance to peer influence” (Healy). Peer pressure and influence is probably one of the largest reasons why teens choose to have sex. Many teens believe it is “in” and “popular,” and if they do not do it they will be out of the norm. However, abstinence programs not addressing this issue may be another cause of its ineffectiveness.

In addition to the many reasons already stated, the setup of the program also contributes to the effectiveness. The most commonly school-used abstinence program, titled Self Respect, does not have a follow-up program (Elmer-DeWitt). Once the class is over, the students return to the real world, being enticed by the many winding paths the society has created. This increased chance of being led astray shows how essential follow-up programs are. Without them, teens will obviously go down the wrong path.

Students seeing how unorganized the abstinence program is one of the main reasons contributing to the failure of the program. Students will be able to see how unreliable the statistics are and how many researchers have disapproved of the programs. This will cause them to question the reliability of the programs. When they see another choice, especially a more appealing one, they will opt out of abstinence programs and gladly embrace the other choice. For many high school students and teens, this other choice is having a sexual partner, one who they can have sex with and rely on. To them, this choice is so much more attractive, and it is also more pleasing to the teens' raging hormones.

On the other hand, comprehensive sexual education satisfies the sexual thirst of teens. It addresses the physical needs of teens as a fact and tells teens that there is nothing wrong with the way they are feeling. Furthermore, it treats the teens like a friend and guides them along. In comparison to the rigid restrictions of the abstinence programs, this is a much better choice to teach teens the sex knowledge that they need.

Unless abstinence programs can become more organized, and thusly, gain the respect and support of researchers, teens will not likely go for this type of program. Only with reorganizing and restructuring the whole program, it might be possible to convince teens to begin to choose abstinence over sex. Even having said this, it will still take a long time before teens choose abstinence only because of the past impressions this program has given.

As stated earlier, President Obama has recently decided to cut the budgets on abstinence-only projects. This was one of the first things that he has chosen to do in his first year of presidency. The government did not randomly choose to cut budgets just because of the economic depression. There are many possible reasons that have been brought to the public view, and the strongest reason being the program's ineffectiveness, and the government has presented three possible statements supporting this matter.

The most basic reason given by The American Public Health Association and U.S. Institute of Medicine to the Congress in 2008, states that “scientific studies have not found that abstinence-only teaching works to cut pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases” (Allen). It is obvious that if schools do not teach teens contraception techniques, they will not know how to prevent pregnancies. As mentioned above, many students will not choose abstinence because of its instability. Therefore, the goal now is to teach them also about safe sex to further prevent a continuous increase in teen pregnancy rates and the number of people with sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore, the government is choosing comprehensive sexual education to be the better choice.

Recently, as the government cuts back on abstinence programs, a new social group is taking up the job: religious groups. Abstinence programs have a portion of their basis in Scripture, and to some extent, the program actually reworded Scripture as its teaching material (Elmer-DeWitt). It is no wonder that religion, more specifically Christianity can increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the abstinence programs, especially when 78.5 percent of the American population are Christians. In addition, most religions support the idea of sex after marriage, which encourages the same ideas as the abstinence programs. Due to this, believers in these religions would more easily accept the purpose of the abstinence program.

Now, the government has given up abstinence-only programs for programs with a brighter future. They now want to sponsor abstinence-supplemented programs that are specially adjusted to teach information that is suited for teens (Allen). They have now given the abstinence-only programs over to the religious groups. These groups have the resources and the correct background to push for the abstinence-only movement. Hopefully, under the correct environment, abstinence-only programs may also thrive and do their job. From Angus McQuilken's point of view, it is not hard, ''the problem here is not the abstinence, it's the only" (Helman).

A pessimistic researcher from Sexuality Research and Social Policy said, “We want people to know that abstinence-only education doesn't work” (Sexuality Research and Social Policy). Overall, we cannot say that abstinence-only programs are completely ineffective. They have their pros that can result in a huge step forward in sexual education with the help and supplement of other programs or religious groups. In a sense, abstinence-only programs are like badly-oiled machines, or like electronics without electricity. They are well established, but the problem is, without the extra oil or electricity, they cannot run smoothly or efficiently. Likewise, without the supplemented data, abstinence-only programs cannot reach their full potential. Once the program is tweaked and reorganized, it may not only reach its potential, but also excel more than either of the components. Many teens have spoken out on this matter. The daughter of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Bristol Palin has spoken out to teens across the country to think before they do it. Moreover, teens have mentioned that some of the information required to aid them to make good sexual decisions are not taught in health class. Fifteen-year-old Mildred says, "We get sex-ed classes in school and that should be where teens get the right information, but that isn't happening" (O'Brien). The answer has been in front of our eyes all along, so next time when another teen becomes pregnant or contracts a sexually transmitted disease, don't blame them, blame the sexual education programs.