If there is one word that expresses the message of the First International Congress on Adolescents’ Affectivity and Sexuality Education, that word is hope. The recent meeting gave participants a renewed vigor in the face of the daunting problems posed by young people's sexual attitudes and behavior. It became clear that there is a lot responsible people can do to alleviate the situation only if they would be proactive.
During the congress, organized by InterMedia Consulting, various programs initiated by non-government organizations were presented. And they were truly inspiring. The high level of success of these programs in different parts of the world shows us that much can be achieved by consistent and concerted efforts on the part of highly motivated adults.
So what lessons can we learn from the congress?
Take care of marriages
The first is for married couples to realize that if they want their kids to grow up as mature individuals with a sound attitude to sexuality and with a high level of self-mastery, they have to take special care of their marital relationship and of their crucial role as parents.
Statistics given by Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation provide solid proof of this claim. He showed, for instance, that the rate of youth incarceration in the United States is the lowest among intact families at 1%; compared to those raised in mother-only families (2.07%), those who grew up in a mother and stepfather family (2.71%), and those who had stepmothers (3.7%). Concerning the use of cocaine, only 2.8 % of the youth in intact married families abuse it, compared to 5.2% among divorced families and 7.5% among those whose mothers have always been single.
Fagan mentioned that in the United Kingdom, the percentage of children who suffer mental and emotional disorders is less significant among children of married couples (3.5%) compared to children of cohabiting parents (4.4%), always single parents (5.1%), or parents who are widowed, divorced, or separated (7.6%).
More interesting still was the correlation between the rate of virginity and the degree of bonding that exists between the teen and the father. Among young people who felt that dad did not care for them at all, only 37% were able to resist premarital sex with peers, while among adolescents who considered that their dads were very close to them, the figure was 68.2%.
Importance of religion
The second lesson is that parents should never neglect religion in the education of their kids. Along with the family, religion is a powerful influence on the lives of young people, as Fagan convincingly showed. An early 1980s US study found that among young adult males who never went to church, only 12% abstained from sex, whereas among youths who went to church frequently (more than once a week), 54% were able to say no to sexual temptations and keep their virginity. The same research with young women aged 23-25 yielded similar results. Only 19% of the women who never went to church were able to keep their virginity, compared to a high 72% of those who went to church frequently.
Practical experience was not lacking. Participants from Mexico spoke about Protege Tu Corazon (Keep Your Heart Safe), a program which began in Colombia in 1993 and has spread to 60 cities in nine countries. It stresses the significance of the role of the parents in the sexuality education of their children. Thousands of adolescents have been through this program and, despite today's challenging sexual atmosphere, about 72% of all the teen participants decided to wait for marriage before having any sexual relationship. While the foundation of Protege Tu Corazon is character training, it acknowledges the fact that parents have to take the lead in helping their adolescents acquire the virtues they need to be able to have happy marriages later on.
Forming strong characters
Another lesson learned in the congress is that sound sexuality education programs are based on a profound understanding about the human person and on developing robust character. Sexuality affects not just one’s physical make-up, but the whole person, including the spiritual and ethical dimensions. And that is why treating sexuality as simply something physical is a huge error. True sexuality education, as many of the speakers stressed, should not be detached from a deep understanding of authentic human love and commitment. And human love, if it is genuine, ennobles and enriches both the donor and the receiver, for it involves true self-giving. This is certainly one essential lesson many teens have to learn since they can easily confuse love with egoistic desire.
Many of the congress speakers highlighted the need to strengthen the will of the adolescent. They stressed that while feeling has its rightful place in sexuality education, adolescents should learn how to master their feelings and take control of their actions. It was also recognized that not all feelings are positive and to be given free rein. The impulsive sexual appetite many adolescents experience should not be fostered but conquered. And an adolescent’s success in ruling his passions would depend, to a considerable extent, on the virtues he possesses.
In this context the methods for sex education proposed by Genara Castillo Cordoba of the University of Piura, in Peru, deserve a mention. By means of personal dealings with adolescents, she said, they should be taught how to gain self-knowledge through reflection, and how to develop such necessary virtues as fortitude, moderation, prudence, and generosity. All this should be done with a view to helping young people use their freedom wisely and discover the joy of true self-giving.
Parents, teachers and civil action
The great interest of many teachers and professors in the formation of youth was acknowledged in the congress. We were rightfully reminded, however, that an effective sexuality course should recognise parents as the primary educators of their children and teens.
Teachers were cautioned about the textbooks they use in imparting sexuality education. Jokin de Irala from the University of Navarre, Spain, examined 12 widely used Spanish textbooks on sex education published in the year 2002. He noted that they were all sorely deficient in scientific accuracy; integration of the bodily, emotional, and intellectual aspects; promotion of healthy life styles; development of life skills; and reflection on ethical and social implications. His study revealed that 58% of these books avoid direct reference to abortion — now legal in Spain — while the remaining 42% justify it in some cases.
A final lesson was the evident need in many countries, if not all, for laws that would support sound programs of emotional and sexuality education. One of the conclusions of the congress puts it this way: “Large numbers of young people are exposed to inadequate social policies in matters that affect their affective and sexual education. Resolute action by parents and educators — directed through civil or legal channels — is needed to reassume or restore to them their responsibility to prepare a happy future for their children.”
Note: All the statistical data in this article can be downloaded from the website of the congress.
William B. Ongsitco is the Associate Director for Personal Formation of Westbridge School, a private school for boys in Iloilo, Philippines. He has been teaching for more than 14 years.