Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Abstinence Education

As a former youth pastor who has spent a lot of time teaching students about sexuality, I was very interested in this Austin Statesman article on Sunday about districts moving away from abstinence-only sex education. If you didn't know, there has been a long debate in public education about how to each kids about sex. The "consensus" professional view has shifted over the years, and now another shift seems to be taking place. The recent history goes something like this...

The last decade has seen a large increase in federal funding for abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. This has spawned a large number of non-profit organizations that specialize in teaching students to wait for marriage before they become sexually active. These non-profits get large amounts of federal funding and then are contracted by school districts to come in and do their sex-education. All well and good except that now federal money is moving away from abstinence-only education because of recent research showing that it is not working - in other words, more kids are having unprotected sex resulting in higher pregnancy rates and higher STD transmission rates. The education establishment is now wondering if abstinence-plus sex education would reverse these trends. In other words, if educators still tell students that waiting is the best option, but also teach them how to use condoms and more details about STDs, would we see these trends go the other direction?

The Statesman article is very good, with lots of charts and graphs to help illustrate the data that public officials are wrestling with. I'm not sold on all their conclusions, but they do raise a great question that the Christian community should think about. For the sake of argument, let's agree with the following presuppositions (I'm not saying that I do) and see where we land. When abstinence-only education is compared to abstinence-plus education, we find that abstinence-only education helps the average student wait an additional year before beginning their sexual activity, but also increase pregnancy rates and STD rates by 10%, how should we move forward? In other words, if the average student begins sexual activity at 17 instead of 16 and yet more teen girls get pregnant or more students get STDs, what policy should school districts have when it comes to sex-education? I'd love to hear your thoughts...

A few of mine (that won't necessarily clear this up):

1) Kids should learn about sex at home. We shouldn't depend on the school district to teach our kids about sex. Parents need to be more open with their kids and kids more open with their parents so that sex is not off-limits at home. I think kids make stupid decisions with sex when they get bad information from peers and they are not prepared for the temptations that come as a teenager. Parents, let's make sure to help our kids through this with gospel-grace and brutal honesty. We can't pass this off on a school-administrator.

2) God desires our best - saving sex for marriage. As a society, we need to keep in mind that sexuality is not just about pregnancy and disease. These are obviously huge issues, but sex is ultimately about God. He created it and His intent is that we enjoy it within the boundaries that will give it the most meaning and beauty and keep us from the most pain. I've talked with plenty of students over the years who have been destroyed by sexual activity, but not because they were pregnant or had a STD. They had given themselves away to someone else and connected too intimately with them. As many have said before, "you can't put a condom on your heart."

3) God desires the best for kids. What complicates this discussion for me is that God desires the best for children - a consistent theme that shows up throughout the Bible. In fact, I'm preaching a passage this Sunday that reminds us that Jesus welcomes children to Himself even when no one else does. My point is that we have to think holistically about this issue. If abstinence-only education results in more abortions or more kids born into and raised in poverty, we need to think hard before we rubber-stamp it as they only way.

Any insight on this one?


Brent said...

As someone who has taught some type of "True Love Waits" since being at DTS when the material was being "test grouped," I've learned a few things:

First, in my experience, when abstinence-based education in public schools is taught, it's done without the aspect of relationship with Christ as the primary focus. That alone dooms it to well-intentioned morality talk...and "failure."

Second, the "success rate" of any type of Scriptural teaching is irrelevant. I mean, how many sermons on gossip are given and then how many people actually stop gossipping? My responsibility is to speak boldly and with authority where Scripture does (remaining silent about the what it doesn't say, as well) and allow the "chips to fall" where they may.

Third, one issue is out there with regard to how parents/churches teach this: How do we expect our young people, especially the girls, to move from "absolutely nothing" to "healthy sexuality" on their honeymoon? Literally an overnight transformation, right? It's an interesting discussion regarding balance at the very least. What does our teaching actually teach our young women about being sexual/sensual, in a healthy, scriptural manner? How can they instruct their spouse if they don't know themselves very well? A discussion worth having, I think.

Finally, the entire issue hinges on our dependence on Scritpure and our ability to trust it, hence, trust God Himself. The more we teach Galatians 5:16ff, with grace as the driving factor in the abundant life, rather than a "don't because God says don't" in all areas or the spiritual life, they'll trust more when it is specific to one teaching, such as sex outside marriage. This is why I really don't care what's taught in schools one way or another.

I could go on, but this should suffice for now.

Keith Ferguson said...

Good thoughts, Brent. I totally agree about all your thoughts on how we teach sexuality in the church - Christ-centered, focused on grace. Do you think schools should teach anything about sex?

Brent said...

Sure. Biological and all that. I'm all for full-scale information regarding methods of birth control and STD's--of which I'm cool with abstinence being promoted as an option students can consider. and the like. But morality? Not so much. Either way. I'll leave that up to parents--which will eventually lead to churches teaming with them if they happen to believe in Christ. If they don't, well, why would we expect non-believers to behave as anything but non-believers?

Tracey Flowers said...

I liked the post and comments. Parents should be on the front lines with this and it should be an open topic in homes. The more correct info young people have the better. The morality should come from home. The church should be open in discussing the topic. We treat it as such a "no-no" topic. God has a design and plan and HIs word gives that plan clearly. Kids get wrong info from peers. We have great influence with our children.
You can't let your children live in a bubble and then pop it without any preparation for what's out there. We are here to help them navigate in this world and abiding in obedience to God.