Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution for our nation is to settle down and get real about teens and sex.
I promise you this is harder than it sounds, but don’t be discouraged. It’s possible to disentangle competing agendas and find the common sense.
At the end of December, for instance, mainstream media reported that another study found that abstinence pledges are “ineffective.”
Some 53 percent of unmarried teens who pledged to save sex until marriage didn’t keep their promise, says a study in Pediatrics.
Not only did virginity-pledging teens have premarital sex, but they had similar levels of sexual experimentation, sexually transmitted infections and total number of sex partners (i.e., three) when compared with a carefully identified group of teens who shared the pledgers’ values and characteristics but didn’t promise to abstain.
“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” study author Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told The Washington Post.
The study quickly aroused mainstream media’s disdain for teen chastity programs.
“Abstinence-only is a total crock,” Jay Bookman opined in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The only thing virginity pledgers did differently from the other group was “have unprotected sex” - i.e., not use birth control or condoms when they started having sex - Michael Landauer scoffed in the Dallas Morning News. His advice? Stop supporting these “silly pledges.”
Abstinence-education proponents had their own responses.
The Rosenbaum study showed that the average virginity pledger waited until age 21 to start having sex - no small achievement in this sex-saturated culture, wrote Richard Panzer, director of Free Teens USA. Late sexual debut has proven health benefits, he added, since it typically means fewer lifetime sex partners and less chance for disease and unwanted pregnancy.
Let me now steer you to another new study that also finds that young people can say one thing but do another.
Condom use is the subject of the study in the January issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In an HIV-prevention program, 186 young women ages 15 to 21 told researchers that they used condoms every time they had sex in the previous two weeks. The women also provided vaginal samples, which were tested for sperm.
With 100 percent condom use, there should have been zero sperm in the samples. But lab analyses showed that in a third of the samples (34 percent), some tiny soldiers sneaked in anyway.
This “high level of discordance” is a “cause for concern,” wrote author Eve Rose, at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. User error - breakage, leakage, slippage, reuse, late application or early removal - could be at fault, she noted. So could “overreporting” about condom use.
I doubt you’ll read much about the Rose study. A headline like “Consistent condom use fails to stop sperm in a third of cases” may not fit with some news scripts.
But the Rose study, like the Rosenbaum abstinence study, breaks important ground and offers invaluable insights about how modern youths are actually responding to sex-education messages. “No easy answers” remains the name of this game.
Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.