February 04, 2010

How do you define success?

You may notice my profile says "News junkie," and this is seriously no joke. (Seriously no joke? Seriously? Damn girl...)

I have a Google Reader subscription that includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and all the blogs I've listed on the right. How do I have time to read all that? Well obviously I don't. I do a whole lot of reading the preview paragraphs, while skipping most of the full articles.

So... where exactly am I going with this? I wanted to shout out Casey for delivering this (previously skipped) item to my email.

Washington Post: Abstinence-only programs might work, study says
Subject: write about this
Date: February 1, 2010 6:42:28 PM EST

Rather, will you please???

I don't know what to think about this. This basically says that a well designed abstinence only (non-moralistic, wait until you are READY) reduces sexual activity/delays sexual activity. But what about teen pregnancy? not even mentioned. they did not study that. hmmm... So let me get this right....they might delay sex two years then get pregnant at 15??

Make some sense of this (in a blog!!) I promise I will comment :-)

(Photo credit: Audrey Hay)
I'll be holding you to that promise, C!  

And hell yes I'm stalling. Some very smart people read this blog and y'all intimidate me! But here we go.

I think Casey's questions lie a bit outside the scope of the study. A fair amount of research ties delayed sexual activity to reduced pregnancy and STI's. The Post, however, conflates those concepts without adequate support. As is often the case, my gripe is more with the journalism than with the science.

In terms of the study itself, I think it reveals some important things. Here's the gist (author pauses to work out her main points...)
The study released Monday involved 662 African American students from four public middle schools in a city in the Northeastern United States. It was conducted between 2001 and 2004.

Students were randomly assigned to go through one of the following: an eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching them other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.


Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.
Two variables seem to separate this study's ab-only approach from what we usually hear about: abstinence-only until marriage, (AOUM).

First, it apparently avoids the scare tactics endemic to AOUM.
The abstinence-only portion involved a series of sessions in which instructors talked to students in small groups about their views about abstinence and their knowledge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also conducted role-playing exercises and brainstorming sessions designed to correct misconceptions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, encourage abstinence and offer ways to resist pressure to have sex.
Based on this description, it seems like this curriculum lacks the common ab-only obsession with birth-control failure rates. Perhaps this obsession is born of a belief that we can sell kids on the idea that no sex is safe sex, thereby scaring them out of each others' pants. I clearly remember being told, during one of those all-girl assemblies in the gym, that an HIV virus could get through the pores in a latex condom about as easily "as you could roll a BB through those double doors." I only wish I were exaggerating.

Credit: Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

AOUM's failure-rate fixation always bothered me, first as its audience and later as a rhetorical scholar. Persuasion researchers observe: when you hammer a scare tactic too hard, you totally undermine its effectiveness. To grossly oversimplify, you hit a point of diminishing return after which the audience thinks, "well I'm screwed either way so I may as well do what I want." It's this effect, I believe, that leads so many kids who go through AOUM to forgo birth control altogether once they do start having sex.

Second, the approach studied here departs from AOUM, in that marriage itself is off the table. Even though:
"For our critics to use marriage as the thing that sets the program in this study apart from federally funded programs is an exaggeration and smacks of an effort to dismiss abstinence education rather than understanding what it is," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.
Bullshit. Omitting "until marriage" from the ab-only curriculum makes a significant difference. It acknowledges the older age at which most Americans marry. More important, it avoids the sexist and heterosexist moralizing built into AOUM. Granted I haven't seen the curriculum. But without that moralizing, it seems unlikely that it gets bogged down in any fetishizing of the hymen. Most crucial of all, it doesn't alienate GLBT kids whose government refuses to recognize their (someday) committed relationships as marriages.

Credit: Bill Schorr, United Media (via MSNBC)

When I really parse the numbers, though, I find one vital configuration that wasn't studied. What's the result when we combine wait-til-you're-ready with comprehensive discussions about birth- and STD-control options? The design of this study offered no such combination. Any public health scholars out there lookin for a thesis? :)

If I had kids, of course I wouldn't want them getting busy at 13. Given all the emotional and cultural baggage we hang on sex, I can't deny I think waiting is better. I can't imagine a parent who wouldn't prefer for their kids to delay sexual activity. Nothing wrong with schools supporting such a totally mainstream belief.

That said, I also can't understand the parents who object to giving their kids all the information available. Isn't that the point of raising children? To produce adults who are capable of gathering and assessing information, and making decisions based on what they've learned? Censoring condoms -- or worse, making spurious claims about their ineffectiveness -- only retards students' ability to make adult decisions in the future. That's the very definition of unethical persuasion.

Parents want to weigh in? Casey, you're up!


  1. Oh I love you Misty. And I have to figure out how to get a notice every time you post..... That's why I am so late in commenting... I missed the post.

    "Fetishizing the hymen" I could have done without that today. But I agree. When we put so much emphasis on virginity (especially female), we set kids up for feeling absolutely horrible about their first sexual experience. Then we create casts of high schoolers that are pariahs just because someone KNOWS that they have had sex.

  2. Good call Casey!!

    I forgot; it's only super-easy to subscribe to feeds if you're using the Firefox browser. Setting aside what I think of people who still use IE...

    Just kidding IE users. And my apologies to all for not thinking of this sooner.

  3. hey now... I use Chrome!! How cool am I???

  4. How do you like Chrome? I've been on Firefox as long as I can remember and am kinda scared to change. Email me with a thorough review, will ya?


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