Information is harmless. Lifting the shroud of ignorance is, if anything, simply a transition to a more knowledgeable state. This transition, however, can be difficult and sometimes outright frightening for some.
One poignant example of this fear is the insistence for abstinence-only sexual education in Alabama high schools. The main difference between abstinence-only education and more comprehensive sexual education is the exclusion of important information on contraceptives and male/female condoms.
In the absence of this information, many abstinence-only programs attempt to fill the glaring gap in students’ education by emphasizing the significance of abstinence until marriage.
Unfortunately, these kinds of approaches have been shown to have little, if any, effect on the behavior of hormone-charged teens. Columbia University noted that the more radical abstinence-only programs, which include virginity pledges as part of their curricula, tend to increase the students’ risks of sexually transmitted infection (STI) contraction or pregnancy.
If that isn’t enough, a survey of federally funded abstinence-only health programs by the Special Investigations Division of the House of Representatives found that false information was also being taught. An astounding 80% of information provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the effectiveness of condoms and contraceptives was found to be wrong or misleading.
Between misinformation about practicing safe sex and the counterproductive nature of abstinence-only education, it is no wonder that pregnancy and STI’s are found in the halls of Alabama schools.
So why are lawmakers and parents in Alabama largely hesitant about teaching safe sex in school? How could those entrusted to shepherd our state’s fledgling flock lead them into such a pitfall?
Here, I want to transcend the tired tirade about the conservative, Bible belt blah blah… and focus instead on the underlying premise in supporting most abstinence-only sexual education. Namely, that some kinds of information should not be given to children as it may be harmful to them in their naïve state of life.
This premise supports most arguments for censorship around children and adolescents and is rarely seen as problematic (or maybe it should be?).
On the issue of sexual education, parents and lawmakers weary of providing complete information evoke this very premise. The proponents of abstinence-only health education cite very real concerns about children having sex before parents or guardians feel they are ready.
Consequently, this concern becomes a kind of fear of comprehensive sexual education because it removes many secular arguments against having sex (high risk of STI contraction/pregnancy).
In the absence of these real risks to sex, parents may feel this information would encourage children to have sex before marriage or before they are ready. Unfortunately, this fear has had very real consequences in Alabama schools.
Rather than fear this important sexual health information, lawmakers, teachers, and parents should reevaluate what exactly is problematic about it. The nature of information is neither good, nor bad, nor beneficial, nor harmful.
So to fear it is tantamount to being afraid of numbers on a page. Alabama’s startled shepherds should abandon this misplaced phobia and realize that the real object of their concern is how adolescents apply such information, a topic unrelated to how to best maintain one’s body.
With this paradigm shift, it becomes apparent that opinions about lifestyle choices have jumped from the home to the classroom, with adolescent health paying the price.