Abstinence Only in Sex Education: Is it Really the Best Choice?
By Susan Long
Sex education is something that affects every child in America, yet it is one of the most controversial topics among adults. Everyone from researchers, authors and scholars to parents and teachers have argued over the best way to present this subject matter to children. Colleen Hilton, committee chairwoman for public schools in Westbrook, Maine, described one board meeting where sex education was being discussed. She said, “Several speakers got quite loud, quite difficult. We actually had to recess one meeting several times” (qtd. in Stover 36). Outraged speakers at meetings like this around the country are passionately determined to speak their minds. What makes this issue so difficult is that there is plenty of research and so many statistics that support both sides of the argument on whether or not to teach children only abstinence in sex education. Federal Law describes abstinence only education as teaching that abstaining from sexual intercourse until marriage and monogamous marital relationships are the expected standard, and abstinence is the only ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (Abstinence). The three articles presented will give a clearer, deeper look into the for, against, and neutral views on the debate over teaching children only abstinence in sex education. Many believe that children should only be taught about abstinence until marriage. Those who take this stance also believe that contraceptives such as condoms and birth control, abortion, and homosexuality should not be discussed. Senior research fellow in domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation, Robert E. Rector, takes this stance in his article “Abstinence Education is the Most Effective Way to Protect Teen Health.” Rector obtained a Master’s Degree in political science from Johns Hopkins University and his areas of expertise include marriage, poverty, and welfare (Rector). His credentials alone create ethos for his article because the reader knows he has put in many years of research on this topic and he truly is an expert in this field. Rector wrote this article for an educated audience who have children or plan to have children. Because the article does not contain a lot of background information on this topic, it appears that the readers would have previous interests and knowledge on this issue. Rector is part of an organization that feels traditional American values are the solution to the sex education debate. Along with writing this article to gain support for the Heritage Foundation, he genuinely believes that abstinence education is the answer. Rector’s goal is to convince schools to teach teens that it is beneficial to their health if they abstain from sex until marriage. Rector’s main claim is, “Abstinence education…is effective at reducing early sexual activity among teens. As more funding becomes available for abstinence education, there will be a decrease in teen sexual activity and its attendant ills” (Rector). Rector’s sub claim is that there is a genuine problem with the health of teens due to premarital sex. Rector points out that more than fifteen million people contract an STD every year and two thirds of this population are under the age of twenty-five (Rector). Many agree that teen sex is something that needs to be stopped or put under control. Rector also discusses ten abstinence programs and their effect on teens that participate. He concludes that the Virginity Pledge Movement was the most effective because, “when taking a virginity pledge is combined with strong parental disapproval of sexual activity, the probability of initiation of sexual activity is reduced by 75 percent” (Rector). Those who agree that abstinence until marriage is the best choice are very proud of this fact and feel it is a big step in their progress towards nationwide abstinence only education. In regards to those who believe comprehensive sex education is the answer, Rector points out a situation that would shock most. Rector tells of a sex education program developed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) that taught children ages five to eight about masturbation, taught ages nine through twelve about alternative sexual activities such as oral sex, and children ages sixteen through eighteen about how to enhance their sexual activities (Rector). This appeals to pathos because this topic itself is something that many people are passionate about. Most people are not aware that programs this extreme exist but many scholars such as Robert Rector feel that this needs to be stopped. Although Rector uses shocking statistics to support his claim, he fails to mention where the majority comes from. He does, however, use studies from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health and information from Pediatrics magazine. Although Rector does use some credible information, his appeal to logos is not very strong and this leads the audience to question some of the information. There are hardly any statistics and facts to support his claim and he even admits that abstinence only organizations and research need additional money to become more effective (Rector). Researchers observe that this is Rector’s way of hiding his lack of evidence.
Fig. 1: The goal of abstinence only education is to get teens, like this girl, to say no and wait until they are married to have sex.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who feel that abstinence only should not be taught to children in schools. The article “Abstinence-Only Sex Education Cannot Reduce Teenage Pregnancy” presented by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) claims, “teaching students about birth control and protection provides students with essential information about their health and sexuality [and] abstinence-only sexuality education fails to provide adolescents with the information they need to protect their health and well-being” (Abstinence). NARAL is a political organization that wants to help make abortion less necessary while still presenting the right to choose. This article was written mainly for women because it is an abortion rights group. Some would speculate that this article was also written for people in the middle to upper class because the organization is trying to gain support through this article. The fact that NARAL is a nationally recognized organization creates ethos for them. Ethos is also built because the author included a list of sources they used including studies, book, and academic articles.
This article reveals the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ conclusion that sex education “does not cause adolescents to initiate sex when they would not otherwise have done so” (qtd. in Abstinence). This significant piece of evidence proves that educating children by comprehensive means does not negatively affect them. The article explains that each year one million teenagers get pregnant and three fourths of the pregnancies are unintended. Many agree with NARAL’s statistics and feel that teens need to be prepared for and completely educated about sex. This will decrease unintended pregnancies and reduce the related illnesses. The author also emphasizes that children need to have comprehensive sex education program in schools because such accurate, extensive information is not available anywhere else. According to a survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and ABC Television, only fifty-two percent of parents with children ranging from ages eight to eighteen had even mentioned the importance of using protection during sex. The author points out that many of the parents admitted that they felt uncomfortable discussing these issues with their children (Abstinence). This appeals to pathos because it brings up personal and emotional memories for the audience. Some argue that children are expected to be competent in subjects at school that affect their daily life so sex education should be no different. The author uses studies from organizations such as National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Kaiser Family Foundation and U.S. Department of Health. The majority of the article contains an appeal to logos because all off the facts, statistics, and studies used to support this claim are legitimate and are presented in the way that makes this a strong argument. Some observe that unlike Robert Rector’s pathos based argument for abstinence only education, the NARAL has a very strong and substantial argument and backs up every piece of evidence.
Fig. 2: The abstinence only programs did not teach these people how to protect themselves if they did in fact choose not to abstain from sex.
As with any argument, there is a third, neutral party in the discussion about teaching only abstinence to children. Del Stover, a senior editor of American School Board Journal wrote the article “Politics and Policy” in order to take an outside look at the debate on abstinence only education and discuss different, over looked aspects of the dispute. Stover wrote this article for an educated audience that wanted to know more about sex education. The article was most likely written for teachers and parents since it was published in the American School Board Journal. One way the author builds ethos is by putting his email address at the end of the article. Any reader would be able to get in touch with him if they had a question and this also shows that Stover upholds everything that he wrote. His job title itself also appeals to ethos because he has to be well educated and experienced in this field to become a senior editor for such a highly respected magazine.
Stover wants bring awareness to his readers about the depth of this issue. Stover’s main claim is “the devil is in the details” (Stover 37). Stover feels that this issue is not one that is only on the surface but one that has so many tiny parts to it (Stover 37). Many agree that the true argument is over not only abstinence but funding for the programs, how to get around the rules, and what aspects should be included in sex education. Stover also emphasizes that “money is policy” (Stover 37). He points out that in 1996, there were $50 million a year in federal grants available for schools who chose to teach a very strict abstinence only program but President George W. Bush wanted to “elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal” (qtd. in Stover 37). It is noted that Bush raised the federal grants to $206 million annually. Stover refers to a study done by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization dealing with reproductive health, indicating that thirty-five percent of school districts teach students nothing but abstinence until marriage in sex education (Stover 37). Scholars have suggested that most of these schools teach this policy solely because of the extra money. Stover creates a pathos appeal when talking about money because this is something that affects everyone in this country and people are very passionate about how their tax dollars are spent. Critics believe that this money should be spent for a better cause somewhere else. Stover also discusses the importance of the manner in which each side is presented. He mentions Joneen Krauth-Makenzie, director of Why Am I Tempted (WAIT) because she always presents a thoughtful, professional argument when discussing her abstinence only views (Stover). Researchers believe that policy makers on both sides of the issue do not think of all the potential parts and consequences of the argument but rather look at the presentation itself. Because of this, many believe that everyone involved in making decisions should be more aware of the whole situation. Stover quotes SIECUS in saying “…public policy in America is a lot like a pendulum and eventually, a pendulum swings back toward the center” (qtd. in Stover 38). Those that agree with the neutral position agree that this is always going to be a struggle back and forth between the two sides of abstinence only education. Some scholars even believe that everyone can not be pleased and this fight for the perfect sex education program will go on forever. Right now, Stover points out, ninety-four percent of parents say sex education needs to cover contraception (Stover). Although this is a high percentage, researchers believe this will sway back to the other side before many school districts make final decisions. This is part of Stover’s appeal to logos because everything used to support his claim is presented in a logical sequence. He does not exaggerate details and all of his information is credible.
Fig. 3: The neutral position looks at every aspect of the issue by asking questions.
There are two very different sides to the issue of whether or not to teach only abstinence in sex education to children. The for position believes that abstinence until marriage should be the only thing covered in sex education and that contraceptives should not be mentioned at all. The against position feels that abstinence should be discussed but children should be educated on all aspects of human sexuality including contraceptives, birth control, homosexuality, abortion, and human growth. The neutral position that was discussed linked the two sides together by showing some of the overlooked pieces of this argument such as money and the exact details of the education programs. Before researching I completely agreed with the against position and thought abstinence only sex education was absurd. After reading so many articles, I still agree with the against position but I understand why some people want abstinence only based sex education programs. I also liked the way the neutral article was presented because it gave a lot of information that neither of the other articles included. This article also helped me to have a better understanding of each side and where they stand because it was not trying to convince me to change my views. When deciding if abstinence only sex education is the best for children, all sides need to come together and combine all their knowledge and information in order to find the true answers.
"Abstinence-Only Sex Education Cannot Reduce Teenage Pregnancy." 24 Feb 1999: Opposing Viewpoints. Johnson and Wales Univ. Lib., Charlotte. 11 Dec 2006.
Fig 1: http://www.justwait.com/images/noflash/main_left.jpg
Fig 2: http://i12.photobucket.com/albums/a229/dhonig2/Abstinence800.jpg
Fig 3: http://img.timeinc.net/time/magazine/archive/covers/1986/1101861124_400.jpg
Rector, Robert E.. "Abstinence Education is the Most Effective Way to Protect Teen Health." At Issue Series 2005: Opposing Viewpoints. Johnson and Wales Univ. Lib., Charlotte. 11 Dec 2006.
Stover, Del. "Politics and Policy." American School Board Journal Nov 2006: 36-39. Academic Search Premier. EbscoHost. Johnson and Wales Univ. Lib., Charlotte. 11 Dec 2006.