'Silver Ring' event misleading, inadequate

My 16-year-old daughter and I attended the Silver Ring Thing event on May 10 seeking to understand the counter-argument to the comprehensive sex education that most teens in Ashland receive.

We found this abstinence-only program to be ethically problematic as it presented misleading and inaccurate medical information, reflected a prejudiced attitude toward homosexuality and did not provide information to help teens make informed decisions about sex that could prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and could perhaps one day save their lives.

The coverage in the Mail Tribune was uncritical and superficial, and felt more like an advertisement for the program than a news article. It did not include important information about the failure of abstinence-only sex education programs and the ethical obligations these organizations have to provide comprehensive health education to all children.

Abstinence is desirable for teens because it takes emotional maturity and relationship skills to navigate sexual relations. But this is a choice that should be made from a place of personal power, not one coerced from fear and misinformation like that presented at the Silver Ring Thing.

Silver Ring leaders defined abstinence in moral terms, repeating many times that sex between a man and woman within the context of marriage is the only acceptable standard of sexual activity and having sex in any other context would ruin your life. They also made the scientifically inaccurate statement that youths are more likely to contract STDs than are adults because adult bodies have had time to improve their "immunity against STDs."

The only mention of condoms was in overemphasizing their failure rates. They insisted that the only way for teens to escape these horrors and for them to not become one of the 65 million Americans who suffer from STDs is to rely on something "supernatural" and to resist "temptation."

While resisting this "temptation" as a young teen might be possible, remaining abstinent until marriage and having only one partner may be unrealistic in our modern society.

Kids today reach sexual maturity younger than ever, sometimes as early as 11. People also tend to marry later in life, if they marry at all. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the average age of marriage in the United States is between 26 and 27, and 79 percent of people in the same study engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage.

We also have a high frequency of divorce in this country, meaning most people will have more than one sexual partner in their lifetime. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people as of yet don't even have the option of marriage. Because of the socially complex world we live in, teens need comprehensive sexual education to enable them to make intelligent decisions about sex for their entire lifetime, not just during their early teen years.

There is a myth in conservative religious communities that providing comprehensive sex education to young people will cause them to have sex. In contrast, they believe that having them take the abstinence pledge will prevent premarital sex. This is not the case.

Researchers from Yale and Columbia universities found that virginity pledges did little to delay the initiation of sexual activity, that those pledging married at a younger age, were less likely to use condoms and were more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 13 percent of those who took an abstinence pledge experimented with alternative sexual practices, compared with only 2 percent of those who didn't take the pledge.

Additionally, after 14 years of steady decline in the teen birth rate (a 34 percent decrease between 1991 and 2005) the trend has reversed. In 2006, the teen birth rate increased by 3 percent. There is a lively debate as to whether this reversal is attributable to the abstinence-only programs.

We have an ethical obligation to provide comprehensive sex education to our children. We need to continue to talk to them about the potential benefits of delaying having sex until they are emotionally and physically ready, but we must give them the information they need to protect themselves from infections and pregnancy when they do decide to have sex. To withhold it is morally reprehensible.

Libby Edson lives in Ashland.

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