January 07, 2009-- Bernadine Healy M.D.
Speaking as a physician, I have no doubt that teens need to be thoroughly educated about sex: why and how to avoid it when it's of no benefit to their physical or emotional well-being (virtually always) and how to maximally protect themselves if they do get sexually involved (all too often).
At a public-health level, there is no such thing as virginity-only teaching—if only because it doesn't serve close to half of all teens, who are already sexually active. Actually, it's a wonder it's not more. We live in an anything-goes society in which Sex and the City has become a cultural icon, half of 18-year-olds using social network sites like MySpace clutter them with the joy of risky behaviors that include sex and drug abuse, and grown-ups seem to be more worried about what the kids are divulging than what they are doing.
I happen to share the views of Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn when he opines that everything that's popular on television, in the movies, or on the Internet encourages "children to grow up as quickly as possible while adults remain locked in perpetual adolescence." I'm convinced, however, that most parents, whatever their own background or personal maturity, still want their own high -schoolers to be abstinent.
Encouraging abstinence—maintained or regained—should be the goal of all teens. In fact, by the measure of recent sexual behavior, rather than virginity, close to 70 percent of high school students are abstinent. And many teens who are not currently abstinent are succumbing to peer pressure, real or virtual. (A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that a third of sexually active teens were not so sure about it, and roughly a quarter said they were doing "something sexual they didn't really want to do.")
High school abstinence is associated with better physical and mental health across socioeconomic groups, no matter how much you torture the statistics. Teens themselves will tell you that they have stayed away from sexual intercourse because of their own fear of pregnancy (which new data suggest is on the rise, with teen births up in 26 states) and sexually transmitted diseases, not because they're weird or antisex. And there is plenty of evidence that being able to make an abstinence decision is linked to less depression and suicidal thinking.
Kids who can make abstinence decisions do better in school, too, even when the comparison group was matched for social background and the desire to pursue education. Abstinent teens are far more likely to attend and graduate from college than those who are sexually active, based on an analysis of the NIH-supported National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health by Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, researchers at the Heritage Foundation. Seems obvious: less distraction and more time to study.
But maybe it's more. The researchers identified eight personality and behavioral traits that were associated with both abstinence and academic achievement—traits that to some extent may be inborn but can also be taught and reinforced regularly at home and at school:
1.Future orientation, with a focus on long-term goals
2.Willingness to postpone current pleasures for larger future rewards
3.Perseverance, as in the ability to stick to a task or commitment
4.A belief that current behavior can positively affect the future
5.Impulse control, including ability to control emotions and desires
6.Resistance to peer influence
8.Sense of self-worth and personal dignity
The right kind of sex education of our young is really about more than sex. It's about raising the kind of people we all want to be.