i read an article in the new yorker a while back about the relationship between religion and teen pregnancy for one of my classes, and the article mentioned a documentary called “the education of shelby knox.” shelby knox was a teenager in lubbock, texas (a town that has the highest incidences of teen pregnancy and stds in the nation), who was part of a youth commission that championed comprehensive sex education in public schools.
the documentary follows shelby for three years during her efforts to expand the abstinence-only sex education policies of the lubbock public schools. what i found interesting is that shelby was a pretty devout christian and pledged virginity until marriage via true love waits; but i guess that fact is less interesting than the flack that shelby gets from church members for supporting a cause that they believe is immoral. what i was wondering throughout the film echoed shelby’s argument: if abstinence-only sex education isn’t realistic for all students, then why shouldn’t they have a comprehensive sex education that shows them how to be safe if they choose to be sexually active?
this seems like common sense to me. public schools shouldn’t be teaching faith-based sex education because not all people that attend public schools are religious. it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and stds, but it’s irresponsible to say “abstinence is the only option” because it’s “moral,” and simply leave it at that. it’s pure idealism to think that abstinence should work for everyone; it is not a one-size-fits-all. whether a school teaches abstinence-only or not, there will always be kids who are going to deviate from that and have sex anyway. even for people who proclaim abstinence as teenagers, having knowledge about safe sex and birth control can only help kids if and when they find themselves in a situation someday where they’re going to have sex.
i’m reminded of an essay i read in my women’s studies anthology about a catholic woman who was the director of a local planned parenthood, a fact that got her excommunicated from her church because she was seen as advocate of abortion. this woman was not, in fact, an advocate for abortion but merely gave women information about abortion and let them use their own conscience to decide what was best for themselves; nevertheless, the church saw it as advocation. sex education programs suffer from this same kind of dualism: in the documentary, shelby says of her school administration that “they have it so set in their heads that telling kids about sex will make them go have sex.” it is dangerous to treat sex as a taboo, to resist acknowledging that it happens outside of marriage and between teenagers: in my mind, that perpetuation of sexual ignorance is what causes teen pregnancies and std’s. if sex educators would realize that there’s a way to teach safe sex without advocating sex, the results would assuredly be fewer teen pregnancies and std’s.
while comprehensive sex education would be a good start, the real issue at the heart of this debate is the negative connotations attached to sex, especially by religious groups. if everyone was of the mindset that sex is not a privilege that only married people are entitled to, and that sex is not solely reserved for procreation but is something that god intended both partners to enjoy within a loving relationship, radical things would happen. young people would no longer rush into marriage so that they could have sex without feeling guilty or immoral (an especially heinous epidemic at my college); women would no longer have to feel like they’re just wombs in the context of sex; unmarried couples would practice safe sex out of responsibility to, and respect for, their partner, not just for fear of an unplanned pregnancy that would expose them as sexually active; men and women would no longer have to experience their sexual desires as something shameful. as long as sex is stigmatized, there will always be ignorance and irresponsibility, which means there will always be unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.