According to data from the Childs Trend DataBank, In 2007, 20 percent of high school freshmen questioned in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicated that they were sexually active; among high school seniors, that number jumped to 53 percent.
So while it may be a shock, I guess it's not much of a surprise that parents are trying to figure out how far to go to protect their children. It's clear that abstinence-only sex education isn't working, but is buying birth control for your teenager a better option?
Over at Shine, a reader asks about buying condoms for her 14-year-old son, who has just told her that he's been having sex with his girlfriend of eight months.
“Yes I have to admit: It's my fault as well for not pushing the issue further with her parents. If our children are going to date, then we as parents need to talk to each other and be more responsible!” she writes. But, since the deed has been done, “Too late to tell him not to have any more sex!” she adds.
I don’t think anyone is disputing that abstinence is the safest and best choice for teenagers. But research suggests that teens who participate in abstinence-only sex education programs or make so-called “purity pledges” promising to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t -- and are less likely to take precautions when they do have sex.
According to the study, which appeared in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics, virginity pledges are also now used to measure the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education programs, which the US government considers successful based on the number of people who pledge, regardless of the participants’ sexual behavior. But just five years after promising to stay chaste, the study found that 82 percent denied having even made the pledge at all, and the age at which they first had sex was the same as those who hadn't taken the pledge. In fact, the biggest difference between the pledgers and nonpledgers was that "pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage." And then what?
In 2006 there were 41.9 births for every 1,000 US teens ages 15 to 19 -- more than three times the rate in Canada, where there were 13.3 births per thousand teenagers (and they think their sex-ed programs aren't working).
Eighteen-year-old Bristol Palin, whose pregnancy was announced during her mother’s Vice Presidential campaign last year, told Fox News in February that “Everyone should be abstinent... but it's just not realistic at all." That interview took place just three months after her son, Tripp, was born; she has since refined her message, taking on a new role as the "Abstinence Ambassador" for Candies Foundation and telling People Magazine "If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. Trust me. Nobody."
She has a good point, but the message that seems to be coming through is decidedly mixed. As Sandy Maple points out at Parentdish: "Her pregnancy wasn't the result of failed contraception. It was the result of failed abstinence."
It was a lot easier to advocate that teenagers postpone sex until marriage when people were getting married at 21 or 22; is it realistic to expect people to wait until they're 26 or older, the current median age for marriage in the US? Obviously, abstinence works -- except when it's not practiced. But I don't think avoiding discussion and stocking the medicine cabinet with condoms is the solution, either.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com.