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Ask Dr. Meg: Should Schools Really Teach Abstinence?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg,

My oldest is entering middle school next year. I’m worried about what he will be taught in sex-ed, but I’m also not sure what approach is best. Do you believe in teaching abstinence in schools or should teachers be going the more comprehensive route?

Thanks for your advice!

Lauren

Dear Lauren,

I’m so glad you asked this question. It can be scary to send your pre-teen off to school where he may be taught things that conflict with your values. I have a lot to say on this subject, but here is a brief summary of my thoughts on sex education in schools:

I have been actively involved in sex education in grades 5-12 since 1996, and I am passionate about it. My approach to sex education has always been to equip students with knowledge and skill sets to make the best medical choice possible when it comes to being sexually active as teens.

From a medical standpoint, the message that teens need to get is: put the brakes on. All of the best medical data available shows us that being sexually active as a teen, with or without condoms, is very high-risk behavior. Let me run a few statistics by you:

In 1960, the U.S. had primarily two STDs: gonorrhea and syphilis. We now have more than 35 STDs.

In the 1980s, HIV came on the scene and the prevalence of genital herpes rose 500%. Now, one in five Americans older than twelve years of age tests positive for HSV 2, a form of genital herpes.

By 2000, 15.3 million Americans every year contracted a new STD and more than two-thirds of those are in their teens!

Currently, 20 million Americans contract a new STD each year and more than half are young people.

Teen girls are at much higher risk of getting cervical cancer because they have different cervical anatomy than women in their twenties.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, we are currently experiencing an epidemic of STDs among our youth, and the numbers are getting worse.

I wrote a book called Your Kids at Risk, and I highly recommend that you check it out. It is full of data and help regarding kids and sexual activity. The bottom line is: we need to help our kids avoid sexual activity.

We need to help our kids avoid sexual activity.

Several years ago I testified at a Congressional Hearing on the prevention of cervical cancer in women. Dr. Julie Gerberding (head of the CDC) wrote a statement saying that there are only two ways to drive down cervical cancer in women: reduce the number of sexual partners to as few as possible and delay the sexual debut as long as possible. We know that when a girl waits until she is out of college or high school to have sex, the number of “lifetime” sexual partners she has drops dramatically.

Comprehensive sex education is founded on the philosophy that “kids are going to have sex anyway so we might as well make sure they’re as safe as possible.” Thus, sex educators discuss condom use, masturbation and other “safer” techniques with children and high school students. Some are quite aggressive in bringing bananas into classrooms and showing kids how to put them on. The problem with this is that it is misleading for this reason: Condoms don’t always “prevent” infections. HPV, for instance, is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, as is Herpes. So, kids feel that as long as they use condoms, they won’t get infections.

Abstinence education is fabulous and has gotten a bad rap, partly because of its name. “Comprehensive” sounds wise and to many who really think that kids can’t change their behavior, “abstinence” sounds puritanical and uneducated. The truth is, kids really respond to the abstinence message. There are some great studies that show this.

I have taught abstinence to thousands of teens around the country and they love the message (they tell me) because it makes them feel empowered. Many have told me that when teachers talk to them like they are “out of control” and need to use a condom because they are, they feel put down and misunderstood. One thing I do is talk very openly about how having multiple partners can lead to depression down the road (we have studies to show that) and they listen—especially the teen boys!

Here’s what I advocate as a physician. I teach kids at an early age that sex is fabulous and it isn’t for kids. I tell them that our culture–magazines, music, movies, etc.–pushes them to believe that they need to be sexually charged in order to be worth something. I tell them that’s because those companies want their money. Then, I tell them the real deal. I give them medical data and tell them that the decision is theirs and theirs alone. I tell them that I speak to them as adults, not kids, and they love it.

Bottom line: I teach abstinence to all of my patients and the kids I talk to around the country and they respond really, really well. They listen because when we teach abstinence, we start from the position that we believe that kids can wait. We don’t believe that they are out of control, and kids love to be respected this much.

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Feeling a a bit uneasy about having "the talk" with your son or daughter?
Dr. Meeker is here to help! “How to Talk to Your Kids about Puberty & Sex (ages 8-18)” is her most comprehensive course ever and she’ll equip you to have that conversation with knowledge, confidence and sensitivity. Check it out!

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