Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The futility of only teaching abstinence to our teens

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 05 January 2011)

In a December 15 report in Kaieteur News, Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, said that in the New Year his Ministry would be accelerating its prevention efforts against HIV as it affects adolescents. The Minister said that his approach will “likely see a combination strategy being embraced.”

The report said, “If you test a 15-year-old positive for HIV you can be certain that that young man or young woman has been having sex for some time before, and we need to recognise that. In recognition of the fact that abstinence is an approach that has not been adopted by some young people, efforts must be made to address this situation, said the Minister.”

My interpretation of this statement is that the abstinence only policy does not work. This is what I have been saying for years. In March of 2007 I wrote about how young women in the US were being pressured by parents to “remain pure” until they were married when they attended a Purity Ball, where they would take a vow of chastity.

Remain pure? As if the natural act of sex makes one dirty.

That philosophy, that sex is dirty, is exactly why sex is still such a taboo subject in so many homes. Parents do not talk about sex with their children, therefore, the children learn about sex on the streets and feel guilty about what they have learned, because their parents are so adamantly silent on the issue they feel there must be something wrong. It must be bad.

Whispers, secrets and sneaking around behind parents backs is how a majority of children learn about sex because parents cannot seem to muster the courage to have a frank conversation with their children about one of the most important decisions a young person will face. Is it any wonder the HIV rate and teenage pregnancy is so high? Worse yet, is that those adolescent sex lessons given by friends are taken into adulthood and adult relationships.

As I said in that 2007 column, I have no problem with teaching abstinence to our children as a way to avert them from the pressures and dangers of a sexually active life until they are ready to assume the responsibilities that accompany such a weighty decision. However, we all know that young men and women will explore those feelings and urges developing at an alarming rate during puberty. It is a natural and biologically-driven desire that pushes teens to want to see what their rapidly developing bodies can do.

Ramsammy said there has been “great advocacy” in the international community for Guyana to endorse the abstinence strategy. This is true in the education system in the US as well. I have always given my teenagers a more realistic lesson after they received the schools’ abstinence lesson. I told my daughters that abstinence is great, but if they decide to have sex I want to know so I can make sure they are on birth control. I also talked with them about practicing safe sex.

Ramsammy also said, “With the young people, we must recognise that while we continue to encourage them to abstain, we have been doing so – not for the last year, not for the last ten or 20 years, but for decades, and in spite of our encouragement and our advice, and in some cases instruction for them not to be engaged in sex, a significant number of them are sexually active.”

This is reality and when we pretend to be oblivious of this reality, when we allow our young people to get their sex education from the streets and friends no older or experienced than they are, we set them up for teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and a distorted view about sex.

How can we expect our young people to grow up to have healthy sex lives when we do not give them the tools to do so? Making young people feel guilty about a natural biological function is counterproductive.

The sooner we recognize that our teens are having sex, the sooner we can start acting like conscientious parents.

As such, would it not be more practical to teach young people about responsible sexual conduct instead of placing unreasonable expectations on them that create feelings of failure and guilt about sex? Would it not be socially proper to create an atmosphere at home that is open for teens to talk to their parents about their sexuality rather than leaving their teens to explore such an important part of their life as a trial and error experience?

We can be such prudes sometimes with our own sexuality that we shy away from the important task of educating our teens about sex. Their friends will not teach them about safe sex, STDs, pregnancy prevention, the mutual respect that should accompany the act or how to fend off unwanted sexual advances.

I am glad to see the Ministry of Health move to take a more logical approach concerning sex education, but I believe this responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents. It is because so many parents have absconded from this responsibility that the government has been forced to step in and do it for them. This is true worldwide and it is a damn shame.

Where abstinence alone teaching has failed, I posit that learning about sexuality from parents is the answer. Perhaps the Health Ministry needs to educate the parents on how to educate the teens.

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