MZ Hemmingway of the blog GetReligion has a useful piece at Doublethink about abstinence-only education.
The liberal caricature of abstinence education is of school marms rapping the knuckles of teens and telling them—day after day—not to have sex. In fact, a review of curricula for abstinence education programs shows surprisingly little about sex—and a lot about building self-esteem, understanding risky behavior, finding responsible partners, and growing a family.
ReCapturing the Vision, one abstinence curriculum used for girls-only education, begins with a unit designed to help students see their bodies as beautiful and to accept themselves as they are. Other units teach them how to define their morals and values, resist negative influences, manage conflict and understand their emotions, and determine how to achieve personal, academic, professional, and financial goals. The final unit uses mock interviews, job searches, and résumé writing to help girls transition to adulthood.
Also throws in some rational-choice thinking to explain why teenage pregnancy might seem (or even actually be) appealing.
From the perspective of disadvantaged youth, the teen years might not be the worst ones in which to bear a child given government and parental help available at that time. And the upper-middle-class ideal of waiting until the end of one’s fecundity to pop out some babies, provided you haven’t mistakenly held off too long, probably seems downright odd. The fact is that millennia of history show teenage pregnancy isn’t exactly uncommon or unwelcome to humans. Just because the normal social encouragements in favor of delay (waiting for the involvement of an active father, a marriage, a stable income) have been swept aside as outmoded doesn’t mean the desire for children has also gone out the window.
In fact, the entire Planned Parenthood approach is to discuss teenage pregnancy as a physical malady to be prevented and treated rather than a mostly positive aspect of life that requires an appropriate context. There is no suggestion in Planned Parenthood’s sex education materials that it is ever desirable to be pregnant before the age of 20, even in the context of marriage.
By contrast, abstinence education focuses on decision-making and self-esteem boosting. It doesn’t tell teenagers that children will destroy your life, but that the more you make good decisions and dodge risks—by avoiding drugs and casual sex, by seeking a loving partner who respects you, by having children in the context of a family—the likelier you and your children are to be happy.
Hemmingway reveals how “abstinence education” means more than a wagging finger—there is potential there for a comprehensive and even empowering pedagogy. But is it being lived up to?