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Just Say Yes

‘I mean, of course, we should emphasize that abstinence is the best choice, and the only one that’s 100 percent safe, but we should include information on birth control and STD prevention too, just in case, because, you know, you can’t control teenagers. [Sigh.] I mean, if they make that choice, you want them to be protected at least.”

How often have you heard an argument “for” comprehensive sex-ed that runs something like this?

The Religious Right fringe, even as the country starts to see their kooky positions for what they are, has still done an expert job of the old trick of being so extreme so persistently that you pull the center in your direction, and suddenly what would have been fairly reasonable, moderate, opposing positions start to seem “extreme” in the other direction.

Abstinence-only “sex education,” which was, by the way, mocked in newspaper editorials as goofy “chastity education” when it was first introduced, is a great example. Though increasing numbers of studies are showing exactly what many of us expected—that abstinence-only education doesn’t work—still we’ve been left with the lingering idea that it is absolutely verboten to not be horrified by the idea that teenagers get frisky with each other.

It’s hard these days to champion anything other than “abstinence mostly,” even though its vaunted “100 percent” success rate tarnishes dramatically in the face of the fact that 88 percent of teens pledging abstinence until marriage actually have intercourse anyway, often unprotected. Some success rate.

How many people do you know who waited until they were 18 to engage in behavior for which a working knowledge of STD and pregnancy prevention would have been useful? Do they all regret it? I’d wager not.

Depending on the measure you use, I became “sexually active” some time between age 15 and 17. I won’t say my judgment as a teenager was stellar in many respects, but probably in large part due to some nice comprehensive, accurate sex ed that had started well before I needed it, I didn’t do anything stupid or excessive on the sex front.

Not only do I not regret anything I did, I don’t even find that a particularly radical thing to say.

Biologically, it makes sense for us to start being interested in sex around puberty. Back when we also started getting married around then, this didn’t cause so much of a problem with the sex-in-marriage philosophy. But for various reasons, marriage is getting later, and puberty is getting earlier. In our culture, it’s troubling for one’s educational and financial prospects to have a kid while a teenager. There’s HIV. There’s a culture that hypersexualizes everything and ties self-worth to sexual attractiveness for absurdly young kids (mostly girls), which conflicts with our (happily) higher standards for consent and gender equality. It’s a rough world out there.

But rather than assuming this means we should, or can, suddenly turn off teenagers’ hormones and abridge their rights to sexual self-determination, this is clearly a call for good, comprehensive sex ed. Sex ed that involves decision-making skills and medically accurate, non–scare-tactic information about safer sex. Sex ed that gives teenagers the best chance to make fully-informed, healthy choices, and acknowledges the wide range of what those choices might include. Sex ed that introduces the idea of “outercourse” (i.e., that you can experience sexual pleasure and even orgasm in ways that don’t put you at risk), preferably without that absurdly dorky name. Sex ed that acknowledges different sexual orientations, and the up and down sides of sex.

There was an interesting article in The New York Times last December in which a researcher argued that teenagers don’t underestimate risks; they overestimate benefits. In that case, discussing how much work goes into getting good at sex might have that elusive deterrent effect—while also improving the sex lives of many young adults. After all, we need to remember that high school sex ed is the main official source of sexual knowledge for 18 to early 20-somethings too, about whom a much smaller spectrum of people are willing to assume they should all be abstaining.

One of the most memorable bits of my own high school sex-ed class was when they brought in a young HIV-positive man to talk about his experience. The visit was cautionary, yes, but his message was not abstinence. I still remember the stunned silence when he addressed the girls in the class, saying “You’ve got to masturbate. How else are you going to know what you like, and what to ask for?” That’s one of the most interesting, and true, things I learned in high school. And there’s virtually no way it would happen today.

The conversation about what good sex ed should look like is interesting and could go on at length. But of course we’re only really going to be able to have it when we finally kick the idea that abstinence-only propaganda is worth more than the paper it’s printed on.

It’s high time here in New York that we pass the Healthy Teens Act, which would provide a source of grant funding for schools to develop and offer age-appropriate, medically accurate comprehensive sex ed.

For the past several years, the Assembly has passed the Healthy Teens Act overwhelmingly and the Senate has ignored it, even though a large majority of voters support it. If you’re among that majority, check out, and weigh in. And then have a conversation with your friends, or your kids, about what sex ed should look like.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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