- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

Recently, the federal government released the reassuring news that an overwhelming number of U.S. teens have had formal sex education.

This report caused some hand-wringing over the purported lack of contraception education, so I’d like to address that with some new data.

To recap, the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 95 percent of U.S. teens have had “formal instruction” in sex education.

The study looked at categories of sex-ed issues, so observers could get a sense of what the kids were being taught.

The most popular topic, according to the kids, was learning about sexually transmitted diseases, followed by “how to prevent HIV/AIDS.” (Hint: This is a “use a condom” class).

The next two popular subjects were “how to say ‘no’ to sex” (recalled by 87 percent of teen girls and 81 percent of boys), and learning about “methods of birth control” (recalled by 70 percent of girls and 62 percent of boys.)

This last statistic generated alarming media statements about how “only two-thirds of teens” have been taught about birth-control methods. The upshot was that sex education was falling down on its job!

I have long felt that sex education has become a mildly interesting diversion in a teen’s academic schedule. Many children are exposed to hard-core pornography while they are in elementary school, and lascivious television, movies, magazines, cartoons, music lyrics and Internet sites fill in a lot of blanks.

But today’s observation is about the so-called lack of formal education about birth control for teens.

If U.S. teens didn’t know about birth control, they wouldn’t use it, right? Well, according to another federal report, 28 percent of 10.4 million teen girls, ages 15 to 19, use a birth-control method. (If this percent seems small, remember, most teen girls aren’t sexually active and don’t need these products yet).

Of some 3.6 million teen girls considered “at risk of unintended pregnancy” (i.e., sexually active but not trying to become pregnant), 81 percent are using a birth-control method.

There’s certainly work to do to get that 81 percent higher, but that’s a powerful affirmation that even at-risk teens know about birth control.

Moreover, 99 percent of sexually experienced American women, ages 15 to 44, say they have used some form of birth control in their lives. This figure — which essentially means birth-control use is “universal” among U.S. women — is another strong indication that decades of sex education has indeed conveyed information about birth control to millions of Americans.

While we’re on the topic of contraception, I’d like to mention that “Use of Contraception in the United States: 1982-2008,” released this summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offers interesting data about why women stop using birth control.

I raise this topic because so much is written about how teens and women don’t use birth control because they don’t have “access” to it, etc.

The CDC report points to other reasons: More than 13 million women stopped using the pill because it gave them “side effects.” Some 1.3 million women ditched it because it was too difficult to use (i.e., hard to remember to take). And around 1.4 million women stopped using the pill — full pause here — because they got pregnant while taking it.

Bottom line, cost, insurance coverage and access were only minor reasons women said they stopped using the pill.

And when it came to condoms, virtually no one stopped using them because they were difficult to get. Instead, the biggest reasons to skip the condoms were because the women’s male partners didn’t like them, because the women felt condoms reduced their sexual pleasure, and women “worried that the [condom] would not work.” That fear of failure was valid, by the way, since about 277,000 women said they became pregnant while using condoms.

The pill celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, and birth control use is ubiquitous. But findings like these show that contraceptive science still has plenty of mysteries to solve.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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