I read the NYT’s short drive-by today, Behavior: They Report Abstinence, but S.T.D. Says Otherwise by Nicholas Bakalar. (Nice title, very thoughtful.) Before this starts spreading throughout the media I feel it’s really important to point out why this article is a massive piece of misinformation in disguise, one that could be really damaging to how we consider kids and sex ed.
Why? Because unlike everyone else, I don’t think the kids are lying.
Now, normally you’d expect me to come down on the side of the abstinence argument here by raising my anti-abstinence education flag and saying nyah, I told you so about abstinence being wrong-headed for kids and resulting in the opposite of abstinence’s goals*.
What the NYT is saying is that Pediatrics did a giant study (14,000+ young adults) and it found that 10 percent of the young people who tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease *also* claimed that they had been abstinent for the past year, and “half of those said they had never had sex at all.”
I’m an in-the-field sex educator, as are many of my peers – we have a very different experience than professors, academics, Dr. Bermans and certainly writers for the New York Times.
The leading conclusion in the article is that because there is a discrepancy between kids’ self-reported sexual activity – in this case, abstinence as perceived as penis-vagina sex – and STD/STI results, that the kids are lying and being dishonest. (We’re left to guess that this is because they are ashamed, or that kids are liars.)
I’m the first person to call shenanigans when contrived studies of teens depend on accurate self-reporting to support an agenda. But Pediatrics, the people who ran the study, didn’t state one. They did not say that the discrepancy was based on dishonesty.
The thing is, if you know anything about abstinence education, this kind of discrepancy makes 100% absolute perfect sense if the kids are telling the truth. In fact, I think it makes more sense than if they are lying. This is exactly what happens when you raise a generation on abstinence education. They are taught to be abstinent. But they have never, ever been told exactly what that entails. They are abandoned to figure out on their own how to navigate abstinence, having oral and anal and genital contact, likely fully believing that that are practicing abstinence.
I know because I’ve not only counseled these kids anonymously on the hotlines, but because I also have adult friends who were raised on abstinence education in other states who have shared their experiences with me.
It’s just irresponsible that the NYT did not look at this from any other angle – as in, an accurate angle. Now there are a lot of people who don’t understand the mechanics of sex education failure, which is essential to telling any story about “abstinence” in America – as well as showing how all sex educators can learn from these serious mistakes.
I’m getting really tired of ignorant and uninformed sex reporting, and I know you all are, too. Accuracy is always far, far more interesting and entertaining anyway.
* I’m for comprehensive sex education in schools, but I don’t oppose people practicing abstinence if that’s what is culturally right for them and it’s consensual.