By: Darby Kendall
First, I’ll share the good news: Teen pregnancy is at a nationally historic low, according to data released by The National Center for Health Statistics in late December. The birth rate for teenagers ages 15-19 declined by nearly 10% from 2013 to 2014. However, there is some bad news: We still have a long way to go.
Compared to the Dutch, who begin sexual education in kindergarten, the United States, and specifically Texas, have failed toadequately educate their children on a vast array of sex-related topics. While starting sex ed in kindergarten may sound drastic to some, numbers back up the program. According to data collected by The World Bank, the United States has a teen pregnancy rate six times greater than the Netherlands. Within Texas, that rate is actually nine times greater – an unacceptable statistic.
One reason behind this great discrepancy is that the Dutch teach comprehensive sex ed within the public school system. This form of sexual education is vastly different, and more effective, than Texas’ preferred abstinence-only education. Comprehensive sex ed teaches about various forms contraception, and how their regular use can prevent both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is both medically accurate and age appropriate, meaning the curriculum adjusts depending on the ages of those taking the class. Five-year-olds learn about love and relationships, while teenagers are taught about condoms. Although comprehensive sex ed does recommend abstinence, the program is realistic. Its proponents, (myself included), understand that students should be given the right tools to prepare them for safe, consensual sex, regardless if it occurs before marriage.
Comprehensive sex ed teaches about various forms contraception, and how their regular use can prevent both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
I was lucky enough to take a comprehensive sexual education class outside of public school. The program is called Our Whole Lives (OWL), and is provided through Unitarian Universalist churches. At age 12, not only did I learn the many ways to effectively prevent pregnancy and STIs, but I was taught how to maintain healthy relationships with sexual and emotional partners. Although I did not use that knowledge until several years later, I was always extremely grateful to know how to handle myself when I did start having relationships. The program outlined multiple types of sexual and gender orientations, something never mentioned during my sex ed at Texas public schools. I took OWL multiple times during middle school and high school, and thanks to the program, I learned that effective sex education is much, much more than just trying to scare teenagers into abstaining from sex before marriage. Sex and relationships are very complicated subjects, and I was lucky enough to enter my teenage years with a relatively thorough understanding on how to handle both topics. Sadly, for many other Texan teens, their scenarios are the exact opposite.
…I learned that effective sex education is much, much more than just trying to scare teenagers into abstaining from sex before marriage.
In comparison to the Dutch public school system, Texas does not mandate sex education or HIV education in its public schools. According to The Guttmacher Institute’s 2015 report ‘State Policies in Brief,’ in cases where a Texas public school does decide to teach some form of sex ed, it does not have to be medically accurate, unbiased, or non-promoting of religion. HIV education does not require that information on condoms is included. However, any sex ed given in Texas schools does have to stress abstinence, and must include information on the negative outcomes of premarital sex. To put it simply, Texas’ sexual education standards arecompletely ineffective at stopping both teen pregnancy and STIs. The state doesn’t give its teenagers enough information for them to know how to prevent such things.
Although the Center for Disease Control recently announced the United States has lowered its rates of teen pregnancy, the same cannot be said about the spread of STIs. In fact, these rates are so bleak that the CDC published a press release criticizing the lack of STI prevention taught at schools. According to the release, “teens today are less likely than they were a decade ago to say they used a condom the last time they had sex [with a 4 percent decrease in condom usage since 2003]. And nearly a quarter (22 percent) drank alcohol or used drugs the last time they had sex – reflecting no progress in more than two decades.” Unsurprisingly, both of these listed factors have been proven to contribute to the spread of STIs. Before Texans get distracted by news that teen pregnancy is down, (which is not even that great of a feat, as we are still ranked 4th nationally in teen pregnancy, after Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas), we need to focus on the issue of poor sexual health.
Fear tactics and abstinence-only education are not effective. Rather than just blindly celebrating this minor victory of lowered teen pregnancy rates, it is the responsibility of our state government and our public schools to see how many ways we can improve our sexual education, for the sake of our teenagers’ health. Texas, along with the rest of this country, needs to begin teaching comprehensive sexual education. The state can no longer tell medically inaccurate information, ignore the existence of condoms, and promote religion in its sex ed courses. These methods set students up for failure. There is still much work to be done, and we must begin now.