Sex education failing to curb risky encounters by teenagers

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A Leger Marketing survey on the sexual attitudes of Canada’s young women suggests our current approach to sex education isn’t working.

Comprehensive, no-holds barred sex education programs were supposed to produce women who are knowledgeable, confident and capable of making smart sexual decisions.

But the survey reveals a very different product: A generation who are sloppy and unknowledgeable about birth control, and relatively unconcerned about risky sexual behaviours.

Despite being pummelled with the ‘always use a condom’ philosophy, one in five women (aged 16-24) never use condoms. Age and maturity don’t matter much, as condom use declines with age. Surprisingly, 23 to 24 year-olds are more likely to not use them than their younger counterparts.

About 90 per cent of these “one in five” are/ have been on oral contraceptives (OCs). But that’s of little comfort, since they apparently believe that OCs are capable of protecting them against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

If this data is concerning, so is its interpretation by the socalled experts. The Canadawide news story quoted Saleema Noon, a Vancouverbased, private sexual-health educator. The statistics on birth control pills set off alarm bells for her — but not for reasons you might think. Her great concern is that 71 per cent of women aren’t committed to any particular brand of OC and are open to switching.

The market is about to be flooded by generic OCs. Without a strong commitment to brand-name contraceptives, Noon believes young women will be attracted to the cheaper generic pills that may have different side effects and “haven’t been subjected to the rigorous testing” of brand-name pills. As such, she reminds young people it is their “right” to “specifically ask for that brand name” product, and encourages them to stick to it, regardless of price or recommendations of health professionals.

But her worries are false and misleading. Generic drugs have the exact same chemistry as brand-name drugs, and Noon should know that. (Perhaps we should be asking which pharmaceutical companies are supporting Noon and her sales pitch for brand-name products.)

If prominent educators are passing on the wrong information about OCs, it explains some of the confusion exhibited by those who are the products of that education. But it also suggests we should be highly concerned about the accuracy of the information sex educators are handing out.

A second concern raised by this survey is the prominent shift in attitudes towards casual sex. One in four women has what is popularly called a “friend with benefits” (a casual sex partner with no formal relationship or expectations), and 16 per cent of these never use condoms in such situations.

This is the product of our latest sexual revolution: a ‘hook-up’ culture, where the relationship norm is no dating or commitments; just sex. It seems sex has been recast as a recreational activity, leading one American writer to call it “the new midnight basketball.”

Naturally, this attitude has led to an unprecedented epidemic of STDs. Yet sex educators refuse to respond by encouraging changes in sexual behaviour. Instead, they have tweaked the “safe sex” moniker to “safer sex” and worked with Planned Parenthood to change the nasty term “STD” to a more friendly “STI” (sexually transmitted infection) in an effort to alleviate young peoples’ worries about STDs.

But STDs aren’t always curable, they can recur throughout a lifetime, and they have been implicated in causing infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and the vast majority of the cases of cervical cancer. That’s why I refuse to follow suit and falsely communicate the idea that STD infections can easily be cured without any serious or lasting consequences.

Our teens leave high school with more knowledge about sexuality and greater access to birth control than ever before. Yet, somehow, they aren’t getting the right message.

One of the most telling stories about attitudes toward sex and how we should respond is a 1993 news story about a high school athletic clique called the Spur Posse.

California police laid rape charges against eight of the elite athletes when it was discovered the group had a competition that awarded a point each time the members had sex with a different girl. The leader had 66 points.

The heart of the problem was revealed when one of the arrested teens told The New York Times, “They pass out condoms, teach sex education and pregnancy-this and pregnancy-that. But they don’t teach us any rules.”

We expect teens to enter the adult world of sexuality without any rules or expectations — other than to wear a condom.

Evidently, the biggest problem with sex education may be what we aren’t saying to our kids.

Latest posts by Susan Martinuk (see all)

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