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The Record  November 23, 2003

On the Merits of Abstinence-Only Education

Sunday, November 23, 2003

By LISA GOODNIGHT

THE IDEA of a 12-year-old using allowance money to buy condoms is jarring, but entirely possible. Similarly, the image of a 16-year-old using prophylactics troubles me, too. Maybe I should glean a measure of comfort from these images: The safer-sex message is getting through. However, idealistically, I wonder: "Can these kids find something better, and potentially less destructive, to do with their time?"

For many, it is easier said than done. Alas, the statistics paint a picture of teenagers focused on sex. A young girl, talking about teen sexuality on NBC's "Today'' show, called oral sex "the new kissing." It's a behavior that some girls start before they are 13.

Sure, a 16-year-old may think she's ready for sex compared to a 12-year-old, but the former still can't vote, drink, or do other adult things.

These are drastic times, so let's take what some would call a drastic measure. I'm not calling for the ban of sexually explicit rap music or an order for girls to abandon their hip-hugging pants. Rather, I wholeheartedly support the effort by Newark school officials to teach students abstinence.

Last month, The Record ran a Page One story on the controversial abstinence-only program. Critics fear teaching abstinence - and nothing about birth control - will just keep kids ignorant of measures that could protect them from sexually transmitted diseases — and/or pregnancy. They also call it unrealistic.

Yes, you'd have to be from another planet if you believe the majority of students will actually wait until they are married to have sex. But let's set the bar high. That way, if teens waited until they were at least 19, they wouldn't spend their adolescence worrying about pregnancy or an STD.

Abstinence programs should go a step further. What's said in class is one thing, but what about all of the unsupervised hours when anything can happen? Maybe there should be an "I'm-about-to-lose-my-virginity and I need help" hot line or some kind of a buddy system.

Just like efforts to lose weight aren't easy, a "no-sex diet" is not easy - but worth it in the end if you're a teen. Maybe Newark should feature guest speakers who might be candid enough to talk about what it was like to start having sex at a young age. I can't think of a single friend who would say, "Gee, I'm glad I lost my virginity in high school.''

Rather, it's something they look back at and laugh about as well as lament.

One male friend from Hackensack told me he tells teen girls to not expect much.

"Have a stop watch. See how long it takes from foreplay, if you know what that means, until he's done or until he runs you out the door because his momma's home.''

In a conversation at a girls' night out at a new Ethiopian restaurant in Montclair , one friend said it took her a while to enjoy sex.

After she lost her virginity and didn't see stars, she said she thought: "What is this?" She said that although she liked her first boyfriend, she did not enjoy sex with him. It wasn't until she was 32 "that my eyes rolled back into my head,'' she said.

Another friend from Bergen County who started having sex at 15 couldn't bring herself to tell her boyfriend how unfulfilling it was. She said she watched television while it was happening. Emotionally, she said, she wasn't equipped to express herself.

"That's so sad,'' said a friend.

Yes, it is sad. During a time, when young people can feed their passions or concentrate on learning another language or do any number of constructive things, they engage in risky behavior that could forever change their lives. What about the people I didn't interview who don't have a funny virgin story or one that involves television? What about the ones who became parents at 16 or contracted a disease?

I decided to get off my soap box for a minute and to listen to teens at River Dell High School . Some of the students there gave the program a thumbs down. One told me sexuality is part of humanity. Another pointed out that scare tactics don't work and that not every sexually active teen will end up pregnant or sick. A third said students shouldn't be in the dark about potentially life-saving measures.

Of course, we want sexually active people protecting themselves from disease. But why do we have to jump straight from a kid saying "I want to have sex" to "OK, here's the condom''? Can't there be some steps in between? Maybe abstinence courses can put the brakes on.

Black Entertainment Television tells its viewers to "Rap-It-Up'' as part of its safer-sex campaign. Why can't teachers tell their students: "Please, don't open it.''

I hope Newark 's abstinence program works. We teach urban children that they can grow up to be whatever they want, maybe even president. Why can't we believe that they can leave high school and grammar school, for that matter, with their virginity and emotional health in tact?

Even if there are only a few of them in an entire school, let's give these last virgins some support and perhaps give their sexually active peers something to think about.


Lisa Goodnight is a Record staff writer. Contact her at goodnight@northjersey.com.

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