Apparently, in the early part of this year, a Bill, the Healthy Teens Act, was working its way through the New York State Legislature. In April, the proposed plan passed in the Assembly by a vote of 126 to 15. In May, The Senate’s Health Committee approved the same measure; the tally was 15 to 2. The initiative was doing well, just as expected. It had bipartisan support. A Republican representative sponsored the Bill in the Senate. Moderate groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Young Womens' Catholic Association [YWCA] of Greater New York endorsed the measure.
This Sex Education Bill was written with compromise in mind. The consensus a cooperative sponsorship would appease many concerns, and discussion of a controversial issue could be concluded. However, this was not the case. The measure never became law. It did not reach the floor for a vote.
The expected final passage never came to fruition. Instead, the initiative never moved after being sent to the Senate Finance Committee, ultimately, the Legislative session concluded and hopes were dashed.
the demise of the bill, though, makes plenty of sense when understood in a national context. This piece of legislation provided just one more front in a much larger political, cultural and scientific battle between proponents of sex education that teaches abstinence only, led by the Bush administration, and those who want classes to deal with contraception also.
As the Healthy Teens Act was faltering, similar bills were being denied floor votes in Illinois and Minnesota, states that, like New York, are far from strongholds of the religious right. While about two-thirds of states require public schools to teach about H.I.V. and sexually transmitted diseases, fewer than half mandate sex education, and most stress abstinence, according to a survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group.
Thus, we have it. The Christian Coalition rules America. Its reign has been long and arduous for those that think more freely. This organization has controlled America’s purse strings and dictated philosophical position since Ronald Reagan took office. Ronny called them the “silent majority”; however, under his tutelage this organization gained fame, fortune, and force. Since the early 1980s, the Christian community has gathered greater strength and more political prowess. Now they are the dominant force. They cannot be reckoned with. There is no reasoning with this dogmatic assemblage. They have God on their side, or so they believe. What they do have are dollars.
“An ideological push and a billion bucks creates a wave,” said William Smith, the vice president of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a sexual-health advocacy organization.
What Mr. Smith referred to is a trend toward federal financing of abstinence-only education that began in the early 1980’s but gathered money and momentum as part of the welfare-reform law passed in 1996. That statute provided $250 million over five years to courses that had the “exclusive purpose” of promoting abstinence. The pace of federal spending on abstinence-only education grew to $80 million annually by the last budget of the Clinton administration, and to $170 million by 2005, according to a report by Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat.
Abstinence and sex education are interesting subjects for me personally, for I was not raised conventionally, while the vast majority of my friends were. Prior to my birth, and possibly, probable before the birth of my elder sisters, my Mom filled the bathrooms with magazine racks. My family was well known for spending hours on the bowl. In each of the lavatories were books, strategically placed. The topics of these were no less significant than their position. The titles related to sex and reproduction.
In my younger years, constipation was my constant companion. Perhaps that is too much information, or more than you wished to know. However, that too may be relevant to this story. At the ages of 1 to 5 years, I had no interest in sex or reproduction; however, I did want something to pass the time with something other than my own thoughts as I sat on the pot.
At this point, I need to share my truth. I toilet trained myself at eight months. I began reading in school seven months later. Therefore, for me, time in the bathroom could be used wisely; it could be devoted to learning. My Mom understood this and took advantage of an opportunity to teach. She did not wait to have “the talk.” Nor did she anxiously await my queries. My Mom never bothered to anticipate those crucial questions. She acknowledged that children are curious. Early on, they investigate; they begin with their bodies.
My mother thought this a healthy exploration and she did not wish to leave me wanting. She made information readily available. Biology books geared to children were easily accessible in the restroom. Adult references were also within reach. Hardbound joke-books addressing issues of the body were nearby. As was the now famous Eros series by Allan Ginsberg. Discussions of sex and reproductions could be found in these impressive periodicals as well.
Periodically, my Mom would ask me of my understanding of the human body and its reproductive organs. By the age of five, she was satisfied; I understood. Later, as friends began asking quizzical questions, or telling “dirty jokes,” I found these silly. They knew nothing, postulated much, and accepted theories of the uniformed, immature mind. I never engaged in these musings.
At the age of eleven, my parents decided that there was reason to fear the life of suburbia. While an academic education may be better in these elite communities, the opportunity for learning may be limited in such a culture. The conclusion was, we would move to the city for two years. I would attend middle school in an area that might expose me to sex, drugs, and violence. While that might be thought scary, risky, or ridiculous to some, my parents thought, during the middle years peers mattered more.
All through my junior high school experience, I was open to those expected elements. I recall attending a slumber party shortly after school began. The boys crashed the gathering. Through the rumor mill, I had heard that one young man established, he and I were “going steady.” I was not flattered. I thought it foolishness. I also discovered he expected that on that night I would “put-out.” I did not even know this person of the male gender. Nor, did I intend to get to know him; at least, not in the way he demanded I must. When physically rejected, he threatened to break-up with me. I thought that was fine, actually better than fine. I never thought we were “going together” in the first place. I had no interest in pursuing a sexual entanglement with a man I was not familiar with.
For me, the lessons I learned in the bathroom and through discussions with my Mom and Dad were more meaningful than having someone physically touch me. I had been touched more deeply by the wisdom of words and images, those furnished by my parents. They helped me to understand that sex would not satisfy a need for love. Naturally, it would stimulate the body; however, that differs from the stimulation a mind, spirit, or soul might need.
The constant, continual, caring, and informative dialogues with my parents came naturally. There was no pretense or posturing; punitive pronouncements were not offered. I believe these conversations created a sense of comfort and confidence that, at the time, I did not know I had. Upon reflection, I think the reason I did not engage in the drug scene that surrounded me; nor did I participate in the violence was because I felt no need to escape, find the love I did not feel, or prove myself powerful. My parents did not cause me to feel less than.
I am and was aware of the fact that many of my friends did not have an open relationship with their parents. They craved love and attention. They wanted to feel safe and secure in their homes; however, mostly they did not. My acquaintances were desirous of dialogue. They wished to have parents that they could talk to about anything. Few did. In most families, the pattern was established; parents were authority figures. The relationship was not friendly. Asking for answers was a futile endeavor, especially if the subject was sex. Thus, my friends sought soothing elsewhere. Often, they found it in sex.
While my parents presented me with literature on contraception and assured me that when I was ready, I could come to them and we would discuss the options. The parents of my fellow classmates did not speak of sex; nor did they offer information. The topic was off limits, or boundaries were set. Some acquaintances found themselves pregnant; others married early just to get away from their families. Situations were sad, and for many the sorrow increased as they aged.
Early decisions to engage were not informed; they were emotional. Those that were taught to abstain indulged more frequently and freely. Those given restrictions, rebelled. The stories are numerous.
I, on the other hand, waited until I thought the time and person was right. I discussed the decision with my parents. I obtained contraception with my parents’ permission. Sex for me, was not an escape. I had no reason to run.
Yet, my reality is feared. The “right” believes sex education is the enemy. [My parents did enroll me in a district that provided sex education. For me, this instruction came late; my earlier edification was solid.] Opponents of the Bill most notably the New York State Catholic Conference stated, in a formal memorandum, this initiative presents a “failed philosophy of sex education.”
The conference raised the specter of classes being “turned into preparatory courses on casual sexual intercourse, with encouragement to use birth control.”
As journalist Freedman offered, this
contention hardly qualified as a new line of debate. What is different now is the broader dispute, inextricably bound up with national partisan politics, about whether abstinence-only programs work. This dispute is the ambient radiation around the Healthy Teens Act and its failure.
As abstinence-only programs have become more common, rates of teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbirth in the United States have indeed dropped — by one-third for girls, ages 15 to 19 in the years from 1991 through 2003. In New York State, rates not only of teen pregnancy and birth but also of most sexually transmitted diseases have been declining.
Two prominent researchers in adolescent sexuality, Peter Bearman of Columbia, and Hannah Brueckner of Yale, found a more complex picture. While teenagers who took virginity pledges as part of abstinence-only programs started sexual activity later and had fewer partners than did other peers, they were just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, the scholars concluded. These young people also tended not to use contraceptives if they became sexually active, and engaged in oral and anal intercourse in the belief such that activity did not violate the virginity pledge.
It seems obvious to me, though my opinion is only my own. Restrictions among my peers may have been more punitive and thus led to greater rebellion. However, limitations offer little learning. Those lacking a full understanding will seek further fulfillment. A confined or controlled mind will benefit no one. The body will become its conduit. It will explore, seeking the knowledge it does not have.
The New York State Senate leaders may have decided to let the Healthy Teens Act lie. However, sadly, those without sex education are likely to choose a “good [and unprotected] lay.”
Sex Education or Abstinence for those that do not wish to engage . . .
• “Muzzling Sex Education on Anything but Abstinence,” By Samuel G. Freedman. New York Times July 19, 2006
• Healthy Teens Act, The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
• League of Women Voters of New York State
• YWCA of Greater New York
• Age-appropriate Sex Education Grant Program Act. Illinois General Assembly
• Minnesota: Sex Education Debate Flares at State Capitol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 13, 2003
• The Abstinence Clearinghouse.
• Sex & Abstinence. Christianity Today International.
• Sex & Abstinence. Teen Advice. About, Incorporated.
• Christian Coalition of America
• Reagan Urges Abstinence for Young to Avoid AIDS,By Gerald M. Boyd, Special to the New York Times. April 2, 1987
• Reagan the Paradigm Shifter, By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. Znet. June 12, 2004
• Bush urges more abstinence funds; effectiveness uncertain, Associated Press. USA Today. November 25, 2004
• Teen girls see pregnancy as escape, says survey, Press Association. The Guardian. Monday July 17, 2006
• What Works: Curriculum-Based Programs that Prevent Teen Pregnancy, The National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Teenpregnancy.org
• Young mother warns against teen pregnancy, By Abby, [Dear Abby]. Universal Press Syndicate. July 19, 2006
• Talking With Kids About Sex and Relationships. Talking With Kids About Tough Issues
• More younger children are having sex - survey, By Juggie Naran. Independent Online. July 10 2005
• Teenage Pregnancy, Quick Reference and Fact Sheet. March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
• Some Abstinence Programs Mislead Teens, Report Says, By Ceci Connolly. Washington Post.Thursday, December 2, 2004
• When Teens Have Sex: Issues and Trends, By Douglas W. Nelson, President. The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Update: An eloquently written and important revelation
• Will Future Doctors Be Forced to Teach Abstinence? By Myra Batchelder, Choice! Magazine and AlterNet. Posted July 20, 2006.