Ode to Sex Ed, or, Miss Teen Mom USA Probably Lives in Mississippi


YOU WOULD THINK, given the He-man Woman-Hating GOP attacking women’s right to abortion, as well as the move to replace sexual education in schools with an “Abstinence Only” or at the least, “Abstinence Emphatically Preferred” curriculum, that America’s sweethearts are just cranking out babies like sausages. And you’d be wrong. Teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest in thirty years, the lowest they’ve been since 1940 when the CDC started keeping count. Yes, the numbers vary wildly, state to state (Mississippi and Texas are messing with the curve) but as a nation, it’s an improvement. What’s the cause of this success? The consistent use of “highly effective” contraceptive methods—like the pill, patch, IUD—comprehensive sexual education, and access to places like Planned Parenthood and other reproductive heath services that allow teens to obtain birth control without a parent’s permission. Boom. Education.

States with the lowest teen birth rates—New Hampshire, Maine, Wisconsin, Montana and Alaska—have schools where sex-ed covers abstinence and contraception. The big loser in the Miss American Teen Mommy competition, New Hampshire, coming in last place with a dismal teen birth rate of just under 16 births per 1,000 girls. While Mississippi, number one in teen pregnancy, goes big, pulling down 55 births per 1,000 girls. Guess what Miss Mississippi’s talent is?

Rounding out the top five in teenage pregnancy are New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. What do all five states have in common? They don’t like sexual education in their schools. Despite the fact it’s taught pass/fail. Meaning if you show up, stay awake and don’t put anybody’s eye out, you pass. Just like having sex, fellas. And if you’re good, you might get to see a movie.

Sexual education isn’t required in Mississippi—that’s a homeschool issue—however, when it is taught, “Abstinence-Only” is the state standard. In New Mexico, second highest teen birth rate—and first runner-up in the Miss Ooops There Goes My Childhood pageant—it’s not only not required, when it is taught there are no standards or requirements on what should be taught. The fact is, a lot of states would rather ignore sex education—it’s annoying, like teaching evolution, or celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

"Abstinence-Only" sex ed really works!

While legislators in states like Utah, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Arizona are day by day working to run the devil of sexual education out of their schools in favor of “Abstinence-Only” programs, they are clearly responsible in some part for causing the high teen pregnancy rate in their states. Studies show that teens who report abstinence as their form of birth control have sex just as much as teens who do use birth control, but, duh, get pregnant more. I guess wearing that “True Love Waits” bracelet only cuts off circulation to your brain, not your genitals.

In all seriousness, I respect the no-sex-without-love concept. Waiting is good. No one should have sex before they’re ready to. That said, “Abstinence-Only” programs don’t make kids not want to have sex, or stop kids from having sex; they only deter them from being prepared and protected when they do have sex. Which not only increases the risk of unwanted pregnancy, but also sexually transmitted diseases. While American teen birth rates are falling, we still rank first among developed nations in rates of both teen pregnancy and STDs. Roughly nine million teens and young adults will contract an STD this year. Before you go and get all embarrassed, remember, George Washington had gonorrhea too!

Even in schools where there is a sex-ed curriculum, of sorts, the information that is being disseminated is often a perverse pastiche of science, religion, and fantasy. For instance: HIV can be spread via sweat and tears, half of gay male teenagers in theUnited States have tested positive for HIV, condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse, touching another person’s genitals can result in pregnancy, women who have an abortion are prone to suicide, as many as 10% of women who have an abortion become sterile, abortions cause cancer, and a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person”.

Despite the numbers, Texas Governor Rick “The Stick” Perry proclaims, “Abstinence works.” (Excuse me Rick, put down your saber/10-inch-transvaginal shaming wand—do you see the irony in this? Your state is in the top five here…Are you really that…No I didn’t say I’d do your ironing…Oh forget it.)

Abstinence works, except when it doesn’t. You know when you forget your abstinence, or you accidentally poke a hole in it, or it pops out of your hand and you lose it in the sand dunes, or when you’re in the heat of the moment—and really—you don’t give a shit. Perry’s concern is with, “the way it’s being taught or the way it’s being applied out there.” And he’s not alone.

Tennessee recently passed a bill that added language to the state’s “Abstinence-Only” sex education curriculum warning against “gateway sexual activity”. What constitutes a gateway sexual activity is not defined; it is assumed, in the time honored tradition of I-know-it-when-I-see-it, that one just knows. However, the suggestion that gateway sexual activity is one that “encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity” throws open the chained gates of imagination. Holding hands, kissing, hay rides, riding a motorcycle, watching gladiator movies, sharing an ice cream cone, listening to Barry White, the phrase: gateway sexual activity. That’s hot.  I find this amusing, but not so amusing: under the law, Tennessee teachers could be disciplined for not cracking down on gateway sexual activity, and groups like Planned Parenthood could be fined $500 for promoting such “gateway” activity.

Next time, more on the gateway activity…

About Elissa Schappell

Elissa Schappell is the author of the short story collections Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. A former senior editor of The Paris Review, she is the co-founder and editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
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