Sex Education Vs. Abstinence Education: Part 1

In middle school and high school, students begin to face complex issues that go beyond the classroom but still impact their education. The way schools should handle topics regarding sexuality is one such issue at the center of ongoing debate. How do we teach students about sex? Do we teach students about sex? Where does the parents’ job end and the schools’ begin?

From this issue arise two oppositional viewpoints, both of which have students’ best intentions at heart: sex education, in which students are taught about safe sex practices, and abstinence education, in which students are encouraged to abstain until marriage. The effects, implications and success of both methods continue to be discussed, and while a definitive answer may not exist, has attempted to shed light on the issue by interviewing educators on both sides.

In this first interview, we spoke to Julie Mayfield, director of Rel8, an Illinois-based abstinence education group that works in schools to engage students on the topic. Rel8 is a non-profit organization founded in 2006 under the Mosaic Pregnancy and Health Centers, and is a member of the National Abstinence Education Association.

See what Julie had to say about abstinence education, and click here to learn about the other side of the debate from Abby Rosenstein, program manager of School Health Equity at Advocates for Youth! Tell us about Rel8 and your approach to abstinence education. What is exemplary abstinence education?

Julie Mayfield: We wanted to offer schools an educator from our staff to teach an eight-day-long curriculum. We see teen and unplanned pregnancies every day in our offices, so we felt a program during school would give kids good information and answer their questions. Encouraging them to choose abstinence, we felt, aligns with our mission. Immediately, we saw there was a need in our area for some sort of sex education. We were slammed with schools very quickly that first year, and that got us off the ground. We received a community-based education grant to teach abstinence. Our program grew from our two counties to 25 across Illinois. We are now privately funded and serving about 3,200 students in 16 to 18 schools.

Our eight days take up schools’ sex education unit. Teachers are in the room with us and can use that discussion further as they go on to different things. Our books are eight chapters. We have a version for middle school and for high school. Each chapter is a different topic, and even though topics are different, they all tie back to why abstinence can be a good choice. They’re designed to be taught in eight 45-minute classes. Each student has a chapter of homework per night to prepare them for the next day’s topic.

Exemplary abstinence education requires ongoing support for students through teachers, counselors, after-school programs and the community. Schools talk about comprehensive programs where there are different components that factor into health education. There’s a much bigger umbrella of influences in a teen’s life that require collaboration and education. If that can be achieved, it will foster those healthy abstaining choices in the best way possible. What is the issue at the heart of this debate?

JM: Whether it’s in our state, in organizations teaching “condom-centered” education or on the national level, the biggest issue is not all students are going to get married. To teach abstinence, do you teach it until marriage? How do you address sexual orientation? What about the kids who have sex anyway?

Condom-centered educators believe promoting birth control and contraceptives addresses all these needs. But schools try to prevent any type of teen risky behavior — drugs, alcohol, smoking. They’re not going to say, “We know you are going to smoke, so here’s a pack.” Sexual activity among teenagers is a risky behavior, but schools take a secondary approach. They say, “We don’t want you to, but if you are, just be safe about it.” Rel8 believes a primary approach is the best whether it’s sex, drugs or alcohol. When do you think abstinence education should begin?

JM: The younger the better, as long as it’s appropriate to their maturity level. If you can instill values in students they can comprehend that encourage abstinence as the best choice sooner than middle school, great. For the younger students, there are always things that can be brought up — even if it’s just “stranger danger” or things about abuse. We address healthy and unhealthy relationships in our curriculum and talk about all kinds of abuse, and kids are like, “I didn’t realize what was happening at home is abuse.” If younger kids learn about good touch versus bad touch and things like that, it would be very healthy. It could also help them in the long run as they face puberty and those tough decisions. So exemplary abstinence education is more than teaching students to say no to sex?

JM: It is far more than just sending a message. I had an eighth grade class last year. Many of them, even though in middle school, had probably been sexually active. A girl raised her hand and said, “Mrs. Mayfield, you’ve never told us ‘do not have sex.’” Before I could respond, another girl said, “She told us she wasn’t here to tell us what to do and she’d give us information to make decisions for ourselves and encourage us that abstinence is the best choice, but she’s not our mom and isn’t trying to tell us what to do.”

We’re not forcing something upon them to make them do anything. We talk about bullying and pornography and things they struggle with that don’t have to do with STDs or pregnancy. We talk about struggles with self-esteem, how the media affects our body image, how choosing our friends affects our lives and how do we choose someone to date. What is the ultimate success of nationwide abstinence education?

JM: I feel we need to keep control within the school districts to determine what type of sex education is taught. Many states including Illinois are trying to fight laws mandating one type of sex education for all public schools within the state. I feel that takes away the rights for local districts to decide what their communities want and need, and that’s not fair. Whether it’s abstinence or not, that control should come from within the community, and many state legislators are fighting against that. In a perfect world, we continue to allow schools to choose what they want because I believe many will choose abstinence education. If we can continue to be in schools, we are going to see a continued decrease in teen birth rates and, eventually, STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Teen pregnancy rates have significantly declined in the last 20 years, and that’s great. STD rates continue to climb, and that’s not good. Also, the out-of-wedlock birth rates among all age groups is higher than ever. Those have implications and not just for individuals, but for society, community and health care costs as a whole. Ideally if we have communities decide what sex education approach they need, these numbers will decrease. Mississippi has very strict abstinence education policies but the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. What went wrong with that abstinence model, or were there other issues?

JM: When you look at examples like Mississippi, there are other issues they’re facing. It’s not that their current sex education model isn’t working, but there are other strikes against it, such as incredibly high poverty rates or a high minority population. We know that unplanned pregnancies and STDs among these populations are the highest in the country. It’s a perfect storm. I think that’s going to take more than just a school effort to teach kids abstinence; it’ll have to be community-wide education for adults and children, not just about abstinence, but overall life skills — parenting, working, job skills, getting a job. I would not blame the teen pregnancy rate simply on the failure of their abstinence education policy.