- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In 1988, George Michael won a Grammy award for his album “Faith.” This disc featured sexually graphic songs, the most controversial being “I Want Your Sex.”

Apparently, teens were listening to Mr. Michael. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control surveyed teens and learned 50 percent of males and 37 percent of females ages 15-17 had experienced sex sometime during their short lifetime. While a generation of teens was learning to just say no to drugs during the ‘80s, many were saying yes to sex.

Now comes the same CDC reporting on a new bunch of teens and the findings are encouraging. Amid the current maelstrom that is the public and political debate over sexual education in the schools, the CDC released a report showing a significant decline in adolescents who have had intercourse. Among teens aged 15-17 only 30 percent of females and 31 percent of males reported engaging in sexual relations in their lifetimes.

These numbers collected in 2002 were down from 1995 when 38 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys reported sexual relations. At least for males, there is a significant downward trend from the days of “I Want Your Sex.”

Pundits and experts reacting to these results have unfortunately divided along ideological lines. Those favoring contraceptive-based sexual education programs cite another finding of the CDC report: Condom usage among those having sex is on the rise. Eight in 10 sexually active teens use contraception. So apparently these programs have some effect. Abstinence-only proponents are quick to point out abstinence programming also seems to be getting results.

So who is right?

I suspect both groups can claim some credit. While I favor abstinence programming in educational settings, my reading of the research tells me that when adults teach contraception is a good idea, teens listen. Perhaps there is a clue there for those on both sides to examine. If you missed it, let me elaborate.

Teens listen.

Not all teens of course, but apparently many do. In fact, it appears from the new survey, even many adolescent males can cut through the hormonal haze and actually reflect upon their choices before they act. I think this is a crucial observation. Having established that teens listen, it is critically important to ask: What should we tell them?

First, we should ensure these research results are made widely known. Despite the message of MTV and network television programs, everybody is not “doing it.” Less than one-third of teens are having sex before age 18. Spreading this message puts peer pressure back in the hands of teens who encourage self-control and self-respect.

Second, early sex is not usually “good sex” or even “safe sex.” Of those teens who have sexual relations, a significant majority report dissatisfaction and disappointment with the experience. Especially for teen girls, “safer sex” is not often emotionally safe. In fact, when asked, the vast majority of sexually experienced girls say they wished they had waited.

According to a 2000 poll by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, nearly two-thirds of teens who initiated sexual activity said they wished they had delayed their decision.

Among girls, the results were striking: 72 percent of girls wished they had waited.

Third, policymakers should not be intimidated by those who say teens won’t abstain. We now know there are good scientific reasons to abandon moral neutrality in sex education. Teens will abstain if given good reasons to do so. Furthermore, in the recent CDC research, nearly 40 percent of teens said they avoided sex because of religious reasons.

There are two important lessons here. One is that faith-based initiatives are reaching this important subset of teens; and the second is that multiple exposure to information (abstinence) across multiple settings (home, school and worship center) presents a consistent message that is being heard.

Fourth, delaying sexual behavior until marriage seems to be a prescription for long-term sexual fulfillment. This directly contrasts with the leftover values from the “free love” era that freedom and sex combine to produce the deepest form of sexual satisfaction.

Teens need to know sexual adjustment is highest for those in married, monogamous relationships. Not all teens will wait until marriage, but it appears that those who do are not cheated out of anything.

Of course, not all teens will agree with or heed the advice given in abstinence-only health education. The vast majority of these teens use contraception. This highlights a point for the grown-ups in the sex education discussion: If teens are clearly listening to us, why can’t we listen to the data and work together to better prepare the next generation?

Answering this last question will determine what teens hear from health educators and parents. The choice is not insignificant. As a culture, do we want teens delaying sexual involvement even longer? Do we want those percentages of sexually active teens to drop more? Do we want sexually active teens to know the consequences of their choices? Then we must tell them what we know. They are listening.

Warren Throckmorton is associate professor of psychology and director of Counseling at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. His essays have been published in more than 60 newspapers and on numerous Web sites. He maintains DrThrockmorton.com and can be reached at ewthrockmorton@gcc.edu.

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