The XX Factor

Don’t Listen to Ross Douthat on Abstinence Education

Ross Douthat steps into the abstinence debate today with a fairly radical proposal about how sex education should be handled by school districts. He is absolutely right that liberals were awfully gloating and simplistic last week about the rise in teen pregnancies-blaming them all on Bush’s promotion of abstinence education. There had also been a remarkable drop in teen pregnancies for the last decade, so Bush should then get the credit for that, too.

He is also right that great statistics on what works in sex education are hard to come by, as Kristin Luker proves in her book When Sex Goes to School . But we do have some good information. We know, for example, after comprehensive, long-term studies, that abstinence education in most cases does not delay sex all that much and does result in teens having more unprotected sex, as Mark Regnerus points out in Forbidden Fruit . We know that it works best when a group of teens create a kind of distinct abstinence-clique explicitly apart from their peers. We also have some fine-tuned information about the circumstances under which information about condoms and other protection tends to stick.

So is the answer, as Douthat argues, to let districts decide for themselves? (No condoms in Alabama, no abstinence in Berkeley.) No way. This just seems like condemning some children to bad information and permanent ignorance. Instead we should try to design a fairly neutral education that mentions all the options, and different ones will resonate with different teens depending on their families’ and their own values. Forgive me for calling on my favorite TV character here but … on the last episode of Friday Night Lights , Principal Tami Taylor is accused by some conservative board members of having counseled a girl into getting an abortion and “imposing her values” on her. In fact, she did no such thing. She merely explained flatly to the girl the entirety of her options, and in fact never brought up the abortion option until the girl hinted she might want it. Without a neutral Taylor figure, that girl would have made the same choice, but had an entirely different shameful experience. Why lie to and bully a child just because he or she happens to live in Alabama-or Berkeley?