Teens deserve better sex ed than this

July 6, 2010

SpiritBlog

Loving Couple at SunsetThe ThreeSixty Journalism program for teens based in St. Paul is a good attempt to get young talent more interested in journalism. But a few stories from this year’s program featured in the pages of the July 6 StarTribune left me alternating between shaking my head and scratching it.

I don’t take issue with the quality of the writing in “Peers pass the word on safe sex” or “Clinics care for teens, few strings attached.” Rather, it’s the shortsighted viewpoints and unfortunate messages conveyed by the stories that I — and I’m sure a few others who’ve read them — are concerned about.

Here’s how the first story begins:

“On your mark. Get set. Ready? Go!

“Two teens tear off the plastic wrappers containing the latex condoms. They quickly pull the wet, slippery material over two wooden sticks that resemble penises. Douglas G. Washington cries out in desperation as Julia Bailey wins the race. They both laugh.”

The story goes on to explain how Washington and Bailey are peer educators who teach other teens about “reproductive health.” While their efforts to educate others about healthy relationships and communication might otherwise be admirable, these youth are trained by organizations like the Teen Age Medical Service clinic in Minneapolis — which figures prominently in the stories — to also promote “safe sex” and hand out condoms.

The other story, “Peers pass the word on safe sex,” talks about the need for minors to have a place where they can receive confidential health services, including access to birth control, without their parents’ knowledge.

The stories’ underlying, although unstated, messages are basically these:

• First, we shouldn’t expect kids to abstain from sex, so we need to provide them with birth control and teach them how to use it.

• Second, parents don’t have a right to have a say in their teens’ decision-making about sex, even though bad decisions could lead to serious harm and life-altering consequences.

These are both false messages.

Such shortsighted approaches treat sex solely as a physical act — as if there were no psychological, emotional, spiritual or (heaven forbid) moral aspects to sexual intercourse. Because kids are physically capable of having sex, this reasoning goes, we should help facilitate it in a way that reduces — but by no means eliminates — the possibility of contracting diseases and becoming pregnant.

Well, sex is surely about more than the physical act, as any married couple will tell you. And youth that have sex risk more than disease and pregnancy, although those are risks too often downplayed by “safe sex” advocates. Teens increase the chance of being hurt psychologically and emotionally by partners who are no better equipped to deal with all the complexities and consequences that sex entails.

Is that really what we as a society want for our children? And, do we really want to cut parents out of the process, particularly when it comes to the health and well-being of their children?

Surely, we can do better.

I’m well aware that some mothers and fathers aren’t good parents, and some kids face special challenges in learning good behaviors. But I think far fewer kids would be having sex if community organizations spent more time teaching parents and youth in a different way.

It’s not about teaching teens how to use a condom or giving them birth control on the sly. It’s about teaching them that sex is a gift to be reserved for their married lives, about how to say no and feel good about it, and about how to express love in healthy, age-appropriate ways.

I’m willing to give teens a little more credit than the “safe sex” advocates. I think youth are capable of making the smart choice to abstain from sex if they’re given the tools and help they really need.

And, we shouldn’t be shutting parents out of the process; rather, we should be providing them whenever possible with the education and resources to help them help their children to make good decisions.

Our Catholic Church understands this. Now, if only more of our communities and social service agencies did as well.

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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