Why I Disagree With The NYT On Abstinence And STD’s

sex a book for teensI 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.

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  • I also wonder if some of the kids who tested positive for STD’s may have been sexually abused in the past and would never even think to call this “sex.” It seems another really important point worth mentioning since this is another way that STD’s are transmitted.

  • criolle johnny

    But, THE PRESIDENT said it wasn’t sex!
    Garbage in, garbage out. If you ask them the questions you want to ask, they’ll give you the answers you want to hear.
    Then you call them liars when you get empirical data you don’t want.
    AIDS politics, religious politics, sex politics … they all have an agenda and they all try to color reality to suit their own position. They’re as hypocritical as economists no matter what party label they put on themselves.
    Politics … meet Reality. Introduction courtesy of Violet.

  • Etcetera

    When I do sex ed, I always get the question “what is sex?” Every time, I tell them that it’s impossible to define because people are endlessly creative – but that if thinking about doing it gets your parts tingling, it’s at least sexual in some dimension. I also teach in a Catholic school which unfortunately prohibits education about contraception and disease prevention.

  • Antonio

    Violet, your post reminds me of an married acquaintance who believed that oral and anal sex did not constitute infidelity to his wife. I so hate to see sex research get tangled up in definitional arguments, especially when a source like the NYT gets caught in that trap. Thanks for fighting the good fight for responsible sex education. It’s one of the reasons we love you and need you.

  • Violet, once again, you hit the nail on the head. Thank you for taking the time to write your post. I encounter adults in my psychotherapy office that still consider anal and oral sex as “not sex”, and thus they don’t even think that they can pass STD’s around. It’s ignorance inside and outside the abstinence education circle.

  • Violet, I could not agree more. People forget we have a whole generation of kids who don’t categorize oral sex as *sex*. Many of the teens in the study probably consider themselves abstinent because they haven’t had penile-vaginal intercourse. And even many adults seem to be very vague about what activities create a risk for which STDs. (I remember telling one AIDS activist that a person using condoms could still get syphilis and she almost fell out of her chair.) The lack of education about STDs is staggering and I think could easily explain the results.

  • Rob

    This is an interesting and informative comment. When you read the original published article it does appear that they defined sex as penile/ vaginal penetrative intercourse, this definition excudes homosexual or lesbian behavour. It does not appear that they defined abstinance. About 15 years ago I saw four teenagers who had very successfully passed clamidya around each other with cunnilingus and fellatio. ( They were refreshing open about the fact that they had been servicing each other and how)
    Have you written to the editor of Pediatrics?