An Ounce of Prevention…

We're all familiar with the saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Except, when it comes to pregnancy there is no "cure" right?  So actually, in regards to encouraging teens to wait for marriage to have sex, an ounce of prevention is priceless in some cases.  Although the narrative we hear is that abortion is the cure for an unwanted pregnancy, if we stop and think about it, does pregnancy really need a cure?  Is a human life something to be cured?  It seems that if we want to reduce teen pregnancy, abortion, and STD rates, shouldn’t we be pouring resources and effort into making sure young people are equipped with all the information about the benefits of waiting to have sex until marriage and the potential repercussions of teen sex?

The Perfect Storm

When we remove (or give the illusion of removing) consequences from actions, those actions lose any caution that should rightfully surround them.  When it comes to teen sex, I believe this is at the heart of the issue.  We’ve given the illusion that sex can be made “safe” through contraception, condoms, and abortion.  The result?  Teens are engaging in sexual activity with reckless abandon and reaping all the consequences that they weren’t warned about.  Not only are they having to deal with unplanned pregnancy, and STD’s in epidemic proportions, they are also emotionally and relationally confused about the meaning of sex. Teens are prone to take higher risk in general, they tend to think “bad things happen, but they won’t happen to me”, as they get older, they realize bad things can and will happen to them (sometimes because of their own risk taking) and then usually tend to take less risk. 

So, combine the cultural message that sex can be made “safe” outside of marriage and teens propensity to take risk. . . and you have a perfect storm, with teens caught in the middle. Dealing with consequences that they feel blindsided by.

This is the reason I believe in the abstinence message.  Teens need to know what the best and healthiest options are for them when making decisions that could forever change their future.

Teen sex is considered a “risky behavior” right alongside drug, alcohol, and tobacco use.  However, the prevention model approaching teen sex is wildly different than the model used for other risky behaviors.  Drug, alcohol, and tobacco use are all approached with a primary prevention model, meaning the goal is to keep them from engaging in that risky behavior in the first place.  Think about it, every message teens hear about these behaviors is “don’t do drugs”, “don’t participate in underage drinking or smoking”, “don’t get addicted”, and that “these are unhealthy behaviors”.  When it comes to teen sex, here’s the message: “Use a condom so you’ll be safe”.  This is categorized as a secondary prevention model, meaning the assumption is being made that teens are going to engage in this behavior.  It’s putting an expectation on teens to engage in those behaviors!  Those that resist the abstinence message often say that its “fear based”, that couldn't be further from the truth.  Abstinence education is all about providing healthy life choices in a goal oriented way.  It’s about giving teens all the information, including the most beneficial and healthiest option, which is sexual risk avoidance.  If we can change the social norm so that teen sex becomes something that is considered a risky behavior instead of something that’s inevitable for teens to do, I think we would see a big change in the number of teens engaging in sexual activity.

According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,

“early sexual intercourse is a serious adolescent risk behavior.  Early initiation of sexual intercourse is associated with other behaviors that increase risk, including more frequent intercourse and greater numbers of sexual partners, and lower probability of contraceptive use during the adolescent years.  Thus, individuals who initiate sexual intercourse relatively early in their adolescence are at high risk for sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy involvement for a longer period.  Numerous psychosocial theories of health behavior, as well as previous empirical research, suggest that the timing of first sexual intercourse is influenced by a broad array of socioenvironmental and personal factors. Among the most powerful sources of social influence are parents, siblings, sexual partners, and friends.”

I’d like to challenge the idea that our culture is communicating to teens, the message that sex is a casual, common, and consequence-less act.  The term “casual sex” is an oxymoron, casual implies a cavalier, nonchalant, indifferent attitude toward something.  Sex should never be treated like that!  I teach my students that we are affected five ways when we have sex, physically, mentally-emotionally, socially, spiritually, and financially.  Should we be sending a message that something that affects every area of your life so significantly can be treated casually and without importance?  No!  Sex can only be casual once you’ve dehumanized it enough to place no more importance on it than you would a stroll in the park.  Those perpetuating the “casual sex” message are diminishing the value and importance of sex while proclaiming themselves as the “sexually enlightened” members of society.  As generations living in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, as those who are supposedly the “sexually enlightened, liberated, and free” sex has been reduced to nothing more than a casual encounter.  We’ve made it boring actually.

 Per this survey on married and unmarried couples, married couples have more sex, better sex, and are more satisfied with their sex lives than unmarried couples.  When I tell students this they are sometimes skeptical, so I explain it through a different lens.  I ask them if there’s anything they would be worried about if they went out and had sex this weekend.  Every class comes up with the same five worries: 1) Pregnancy 2) STD’s 3) Parents finding out 4) Relationship ending 5) Getting a reputation/peers finding out.  After determining the foremost five worries, I explain to them that the abstinence message often comes under criticism, adults who say “why can’t you just tell them to wait to have sex until they graduate or when they’re older?” I then explain that the reason I won’t ever tell students to just try and make it to the end of high school is because even with a brand-new diploma in their hand, none of those five worries go away.  I ask them if the five worries go away when they’re in college, they say no.  I ask them if the five worries go away when they’re engaged, they say no.  I explain how I’m married and I don’t worry about any of those things.  The “hook up culture” has created so much confusion, hurt, and baggage attached to sex that most teens believe sex doesn’t have anything to do with respect.  I know this because when I present to students I ask them a series of true or false questions, one of the questions asks “Sex has a lot to do with respect”, in almost every class the answer is a unanimous “FALSE”.  It breaks my heart a little more each time I hear that answer.  Teens in our culture do not believe that sex is something worthy of respect, and that is a tragedy.

One of the main messages of abstinence education is to challenge teens to not only view themselves as worthy of respect, but that sexual expression is worthy of respect.  To elevate it from a casual act to something so valuable that marriage is the only framework in which it makes sense.  I always challenge my students to visualize their future, goals, and dreams, and then weigh each decision against that vision.  Is this decision going to help you attain that vision or potentially take it away from you, or at least make it a whole lot harder for you to get there?  It’s so important to go beyond the “just say no” message that is, frankly, outdated.  We need to start equipping teens with the tools for success. 

Giving them the why behind the wait.

Plunging into the awkward conversations and uncomfortable questions.  A large part of that begins at home.  Parents, you have the biggest influence over your kid’s decision to participate in sexual behavior.  Their perception of your disapproval of sexual activity is a huge factor in whether they will engage in sexual behavior or not (according to this study).  So, have the awkward conversations, not just once, but create an open dialogue with your kids about this topic, because it is one of the number one issues facing them today. While I’m honored to have the chance to speak to teens about this issue, many parents leave it up to health teachers or people like me to talk to their kids about this topic.  When the fact of the matter is, you hold the most sway over their beliefs and behaviors, so take the leap and start the dialogue!

I have become so passionate about this message because realistically, the amount of pressure placed on teens by their peers, culture, the media, and adults to have sex, is absolutely staggering.  

And yet, the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that over 74% of teens in Alaska say that they're choosing to wait to have sex.  

Wow!  So, amidst a culture that's encouraging them to be "sexually liberated", friends who pressure them, and adults who expect it of them, teens are still saying no.  Let's wake up and realize that teens are fighting this battle against all odds (some of which we’ve stacked against them) and need our help and encouragement.  As parents, teachers, pastors, family members and friends let's rally behind these young people and have the uncomfortable conversations, encourage healthy sexual decisions, and love unconditionally. 

As January 17th approaches and we reflect on the sanctity of human life, the ways we can protect and preserve it, uphold the value and sacredness of it.  I want to challenge you to also think about how you can communicate that message to the young people in your life.  Showing teens that their lives are also priceless and worthy of protection and preservation.  Advocate for the right to a healthy life at every age.  An ounce of prevention, right?

Sarah Herzberg, SRAS

Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Program Director

Fyndout Free Pregnancy Center

Sarah HerzbergComment