April 27, 2004 | Commentary on Family and Marriage, Sex Education and Abstinence

Send the Right Message

Parents naturally want what's best for their children. Unfortunately, when it comes to sex education, our schools aren't giving our children enough of what we know is best for them: real abstinence education.

The idea of teaching children to avoid sex during their teen years is supported by nearly all parents. According to a recent Zogby International poll, 85 percent of parents said that the emphasis placed on abstinence for teens should be equal to or greater than the emphasis placed on contraception. Only 8 percent said teaching teens how to use condoms is more important than teaching them to abstain from sexual activity.

Sadly, we're not delivering the message parents want. Governments - federal, state and local - spend $4.50 to promote teen contraceptive use for every $1 spent to promote abstinence among teens.

This preoccupation with promoting contraception to teens is myopic. Repeated evaluations show that abstinence education programs substantially reduce teen sexual activity. And the longer they wait to have sex, the better off our children are. For example, studies show teen-agers who are sexually active are more likely to be depressed and are more likely to attempt suicide.

And they're in real physical danger, too: Teens who start having sex at young ages are more likely to become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. And girls who begin sexual activity at an earlier age are far more likely to have abortions. Early sexual activity is also linked to higher levels of out-of-wedlock childbearing and child poverty.

In addition, research from the Heritage Foundation has found that "when compared to women who began sexual activity in their early 20s, girls who initiated sexual activity at age 13 or 14 were less than half as likely to be in stable marriages in their 30s. Beginning sexual activity at an older age, however, is linked to higher levels of personal happiness in adult years."

All of this explains why our children need to be taught that, while it may seem challenging in the short term, abstaining from early sexual activity will benefit them in years to come.

As parents, educators and legislators, we need to promote abstinence. One way is to reauthorize the Title V Abstinence Education Program, the major federal program that focuses on encouraging teen abstinence.

Title V spending is money well spent, but the sad fact is we're not investing enough for the abstinence message to compete with the overwhelming promotion of so-called safe sex. All told, total spending for teen abstinence in 2002 was only $144.1 million. That same year, government spending on family planning, safe sex and contraceptive promotion for teens was $653 million. We're putting our money into programs that do the opposite of what parents have told us they want.

Still, this year, some senators may attempt to pare abstinence funding even further. And backed by "safe-sex" advocates who oppose abstinence education, some in Congress will press for even more spending to promote teen condom use.

Often, efforts to boost spending on contraception for teens are disguised with the label of "abstinence-plus" education. In reality, "abstinence-plus" programs support abstinence in name only. For example, while nearly 95 percent of parents want schools to teach young people to abstain from sex until they have at least finished high school, you won't find a word about that goal in government-funded abstinence-plus courses. In fact, you won't find much about abstinence at all.

Whether wearing the old-style "safe-sex" label or the newer "abstinence-plus" tag, contraceptive education programs are all about teaching young people how to obtain and use condoms. These government-funded programs strongly convey the idea that it's OK for teens to engage in sex as long as they use contraception. Not surprisingly, this message is rejected by over 90 percent of parents.

Parents are right. It's clear to anyone who watches television that today's children are surrounded with sexually explicit messages. There are plenty of voices telling the young that casual sex at an early age is "cool" and without consequences. Tragically, the government, all too often, joins in this chorus.

Changing our culture is a long process, but we can change the message government sends right now. We can teach our teen-agers that they'll be better off if they wait to engage in sexual activity. Increasing our financial support for real abstinence education is the best way to send that critical message.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation. Sam Brownback is a Republican senator from Kansas.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in the Baltimore Sun