Friday, October 2, 2009

A Teenager's View on Abstinence Only

By Ginny McNulty

Kids returning to school might find their lessons haven’t changed all that much from last year. That includes their school-sponsored sex education classes. Even though last spring President Obama ended federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs -- many of which were proven ineffective in delaying sexual activity – not much has changed yet in Georgia.

During the last school year, I spoke at numerous presentations at my high school to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. I was repeatedly shocked at how little my fellow classmates knew about HIV/AIDS. I was asked on more than one occasion if HIV is transmitted by simple skin to skin contact. Before doing the presentations, I assumed that the students would know the majority of the information I was giving them. I was wrong.

Students repeatedly asked me about the effectiveness of condoms as protection against HIV infection. Unfortunately, I was unable to answer these curious students because school policy prohibited it. My school employed an abstinence-only policy, which extremely hindered me in giving potentially life-saving information to my classmates. On one occasion, one student confronted me during my presentation when I talked about abstinence and not about condoms. It was difficult for me to continue doing presentations after that incident because I whole heartedly agreed with him.

As a senior in high school I joined the Teen Action Group (TAG) -- Planned Parenthood's teen peer health educators -- because I wanted to empower myself and my fellow teens on matters of sexual health. Now, I see first-hand how responsive teens are to complete and accurate information. Young people are thirsty for knowledge and recognize how important this information is to their lives. I have seen how well teens respond to messages from other teens, often even better than they do with adult educators. For many of my peers who have only had ineffective programs in their schools, I am thankful that peer educators like me and the TAG group will continue to be sources of good information in our communities.

The goal of this program is to educate young people about delaying sexual activity, good decision making skill and contraception as a way of reducing the number of teen pregnancies in our state. Georgia has the 10th highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and according to Advocates for Youth, the U.S. "continues to have the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world, although U.S. teens initiate sex at about the same time as their European counterparts." The teen pregnancy rate in Canada is half of that in the U.S. With many teen parents and their children facing significant challenges for the rest of their lives, something more has to be done.

So, I have a few messages from myself and my fellow peer educators. To our parents: we understand why you would prefer that we wait to become sexually active until we're ready to be safe. We understand that the decisions we make now can affect the rest of our lives. We want to know what your feelings are about sex and relationships and we know that sometimes, it can be uncomfortable to talk about it. To schools and policy makers: providing us with 'abstinence-only-until-marriage' programs limits our decision making abilities. Withholding information about safer sex and contraception could put our lives at risk.

President Obama’s actions make it so now funds can only be used for scientifically based programs. This is great news for the next generation of young people. Georgia-schools now just need to implement changes to their programs.

Comprehensive sex education does not send a mixed message to us. We want to discuss the benefits of waiting to become sexually active as well as the ways we can be safe when we do become sexually active. Knowledge is power and by refusing us comprehensive sex education, you are depriving us of the power over our lives and our futures.
McNulty, age 19, is recent Atlanta-area high school grad and a peer health educator through Planned Parenthood’s Teen Action Group program.
Copyright (C) 2009 by Georgia Forum. 9/09