Explaining to adolescents what sex is all about has always been a delicate task and one often neglected in the far-off days before the 1960s. Since then, everything has changed. Western culture has gone from sexual revolution to sexual saturation. The intimacies of sex are plastered over movie screens and billboards, language once banned in public is now shouted by children in the playground, and fashions for girls from a tender age seem designed to advertise their sexual availability. In the sixties they sang about "love"; today the lyrics are mostly about sex.
Faced with this onslaught, what are parents to do? Seeing how quickly things can move—their friend’s daughter pregnant at 14, teenage mothers appearing in the neighborhood, reports of an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases amongst the young—many have welcomed the advent of sex education in schools. But, with their narrow interest in preventing pregnancy, such programmes have proved a failure.
In Britain, for example, where sex education remains focused on contraception backed up by the morning after pill and surgical abortion, teenage pregnancy rates have stayed at much the same level since 1975 (around 42 per 1000 girls under 18). Yet in the United States, where the contraceptive approach now has robust competition from abstinence education, the teen pregnancy rate fell by about 30 per cent in the 1990s (from 117 per 1000 to 84) and is thought to have continued its decline since 2000.
Wefare reforms have played a part in this trend but the chastity movement that began in the 1980s deserves as much or even more credit. The federal government has signaled this since 1998 by funding programmes that do not include contraceptive instruction but teach young people to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.
Parents on the move
Teaching kids to save sex for marriage is a huge improvement in formal education about sex. But is it enough?
A congress in Mexico City next month (May 19th to 21st) wants to refine the process further. Parents and professionals already using a more holistic approach in the Americas and Europe are gathering to develop a model of education about sexuality that has two important emphases: it is concerned mainly with the emotional development of the young person, and it acknowledges the family as the best setting for this kind of formation.
The First International Congress on Education on Sex and Relationships is certainly not the first to discuss either sex or relationships. What is different about it, says Jose Perez Adan, one of the organizers, is where the initiative comes from. "This time it doesn’t come from the government, either national or international, but from civil society on the move. It represents parents actively involved in the formal education of their children, and we think this is precisely where the necessary improvements in this area will come from."
Perez, a sociologist at the University of Valencia in Spain and author of a number of books and articles in this area, says most of the problems with adolescent sexuality today stem from the emotional immaturity of adolescents and the lack of a proper effort to educate young people in this area. As the congress website puts it: "Tools should be provided to help the new generations get to know and understand themselves as they really are, by a process of education that reaches both their intellect and will, and that respects their feelings. Achieving emotional maturity will allow them to experience love in a truly human way."
In other words, education about sex and relationships belongs in the context of a general character education. Kids need the committed help that parents can give to understand, evaluate and control their feelings, learning how to put them at the service of really healthy relationships. According to Perez, new ideas in the field of character education should make the congress especially interesting to the parents and professionals attending.
Motivating teens to be chaste
Among the contributors to the Mexico congress is an American who has already played a major role in the humanizing of sex education. Coleen Kelly Mast pioneered chastity education in the mid-1980s with Sex Respect and continues to develop the programme.
Kelly Mast’s approach has always recognized the fundamental role of parents, but her new series of books, Life and Love, give it even more importance. "The steps in the programme now begin with the parents and then include the teens," she says. "Parents at home educate their children in the meaning of love by their example as well as in their words of training and discipline. In this context information about sexuality is revealed gradually and at appropriate times."
It’s the family environment, says Mast, that answers the critical question about how to motivate teens to be chaste when so much in the wider environment at school and in society is against it. But young people today need more than example. Parents need to teach them critical thinking skills so they can assess situations and judge which people to avoid. All this finds its place in the ongoing character education of a child who is not used to "getting whatever they want, whenever they want it".
None of this rules out a role for the school and other interested parties. In fact their support is vital in intellectual and character formation and, says Mast, it can provide the setting for positive peer pressure for virtue. This is even more important today when "many adults have never really learned the truth and meaning of human sexuality."
However, formal chastity education is by no means generally accepted, even in the United States where advocates of "safer sex" claim the credit for the decline in teenage pregnancy and insist that abstinence-only education puts young people at risk of pregnancy and disease. While there is little research to support the claims of either approach, a prospective, randomized and controlled study (the most rigorous kind) carried out in Chile and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last year carries some weight.
An effective programme in Chile
In Chile, about 40,000 girls aged 15 to 19 become pregnant each year (excluding abortions, which are illegal)—a rate of 40 per 1000 and similar to that of Britain. The study by Carlos Cabezon of the University of the Andes and colleagues was designed to see how effective an abstinence-centred programme could be in preventing teenage pregnancies.
A total of 1259 girls from a Santiago high school were divided into three cohorts depending on the year they started school. The 1996 cohort of 425 students received no intervention. In the 1997 cohort, 210 students received abstinence-centred education, while 213 (the control group) did not. And in the 1998 cohort, 328 students did the abstinence programme and 83 did not. All cohorts were followed up for four years and all known pregnancies were registered. There was no reliable data on abortion or contraceptive use.
The result was a five-fold decrease in pregnancy rates. During the follow-up period there were 53 pregnancies among the cohort that was not offered the programme. For the 1997 cohort there were 6 pregnancies among those who did the programme compared with 35 amongst those who did not. And for the 1998 cohort there were 13 pregnancies amongst those who did the programme compared with 17 in the (much smaller) group who did not. Pregnancy rates per year ranged from 0.87 per cent to 1.16 per cent among those who did the programme, and from 3.86 per cent to 5.88 per cent among those who did not.
What exactly made the difference? According to the researchers, several things.
Firstly, the content. The programme TeenSTAR addresses all aspects of the young person, including the psychological and emotional development they are experiencing. It tackles in a straightforward way the strong sexual impulses of adolescence and gives them opportunities to develop skills for self-control. Girls are also trained in fertility awareness. Contraceptive methods are mentioned and explained theoretically towards the end of the course, but contraceptive use is not recommended. Sexual abstinence is recommended.
Secondly, the teachers. TeenSTAR has a tutoring component which depends on teachers from any department of the school being trained as monitors. They are available throughout the course for personal, confidential interviews with the students, who are free to take advantage of this or not. "Teacher participation was essential in obtaining the results yielded by our programme," the researchers say.
Thirdly, the time span of the programme. TeenSTAR is designed to run for at least one semester and ideally for a full year—on a once a week basis—in order to generate the desired changes in habits or to reinforce existing good habits. The involvement of regular teachers belonging to the school makes this possible.
Parental awareness and consent was also important. Written consent was required and more than 98 per cent of parents gave it. Evidently both parents and the school were pleased with the outcome. While there was no formal sex education programme in the school before 1997, since 1999 TeenSTAR has been part of the normal curriculum for all students in their first year.
America is the future
Latin America—which generally resists abortion as a birth control measure—has been the object of intense interest by population control groups over the years. Despite a steep decline in fertility since the 1970s international pressure on this Catholic continent to legalise abortion and promote contraception remains.
Against this background the choice of Mexico as the venue for discussing a fully human approach to the sexual education of the young is significant. "America is the continent of the future," says Jose Perez Adan, referring to North America as well. "In a few years it will take over from Europe in guiding progress under peaceful conditions. I think the whole world will look to America more or less as it looks now to Europe."
As we face a future where strength of culture is the dominant factor in global relations, what he says makes a lot of sense.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet