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Teens Need Honest Information About Sex

June 15, 2006

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its latest data on U.S. teens and sexual behavior, it was cautionary good news for those of us who base our opinions on the research. Not so for some whose opinions are based on rigid dogma. For ideologues at the Concerned Women for America (CWA), the CDC release was a new occasion to ignore and manipulate the data in order to silence critics and push even harder for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

The CDC’s 2005 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), released June 8, surveys six categories of health-risk behaviors, including sexual activity, among young people. Trends in sexual behavior by high school students have been positive over 14 years (1991 to 2005): students who have ever had sexual intercourse declined from 54% to 47%, and condom use at last intercourse among sexually active teens increased from 46% in to 62.8%.  However, the most recent data is somewhat troubling: this last year is the first time since the CDC began collecting this data in 1991 that condom use has not increased.  The survey also shows that the number of students who have ever had sexual intercourse has remained consistent over the past four years.

In response to the YRBS evidence—that the decrease in young people who report having had sexual intercourse has remained at a statistical plateau since 2003—a June 9 Washington Times report quoted CWA’s Janice Crouse. She said the findings “should affirm the value of abstinence education. The new data also should ‘silence’ those who question the effectiveness of abstinence programs.”

Let me tell you why she is wrong and why such statements released to the press by CWA are intentionally misleading.
 
Time Lines Don’t Match:  There is no corresponding relationship between the decline in sexual activity among teens ages 15-19 and the proliferation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Teen sexual activity declined most dramatically between 1991 and 2001 (54% to 46%) and has remained steady for the past four years. Large scale federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs began in 1998, and then ramped up significantly between 2001-2006, the very same years the survey shows no continued drop in sexual activity.

The Data Showed Troubling Information Regarding Condom Use:  What has changed since 2001 is that condom use did not increase for the first time in 14 years. Specifically condom use leveled off at 63% in 2003 and remained at 62.8% in 2005. This begs the question—by routinely discouraging condom use, are the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs having a negative impact on teen safety?

As Shelby Knox, who was featured last year in a widely acclaimed film on abstinence-only-until marriage programs, has said, “It’s hard for any young person to sort through the contradictory messages we are getting from society.” Now a pre-law student at the University of Texas, Knox continues to speak out about sex education. In an update on the film (part of public television’s P.O.V. series), available on the PBS web site (http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/shelbyknox/update.html), Knox said that people “need to understand that a lack of sex education is a problem in every state and something that must be dealt with at every level.”

The message to take away from the YRBS data is clear: 63% of high school seniors reported having sexual intercourse in 2005 and 37% of sexually active youth did not use a condom at last intercourse. Young people, whether or not they are sexually active, deserve open, honest, and medically accurate information to develop the skills to make informed decisions and protect their sexual health. We need to do better by our young people, not manipulate the facts to advance a narrow, ideologically driven agenda.

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