Don't just say No

September 14, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Teens want straight talk about sexually transmitted infections. Public health will benefit by giving it to them, experts said.

People ages 15 to 24 account for almost half of the nearly 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States each year, according to information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at on the Web. That includes such infections as HIV, genital warts and chlamydia.

Some sex educators criticize state and federal abstinence-only-before-marriage programs - which discourage the use of condoms and other contraceptive methods that prevent pregnancy and the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections - with denying young people information that could save their lives.

"Young people don't have the factual information that they need to make accountable and responsible decisions," said sexologist Beverly Whipple, who holds a doctoral degree in neurophysiology. "If teens do not have information, they're curious and they're going to try to go out and find out."


Whipple, who served as president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and vice president of the World Association for Sexology, won the American Association of Sex Educators' Professional Standard of Excellence Award. She has published several books and numerous research papers about sexuality.

She said teens need reliable sex information that's based upon their values. Many of today's teens reject the abstinence-only-before-marriage message, said Susie Wilson, executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University.

"Teens today see it as moralizing. They do not see it as being helpful or constructive to them," Wilson said. "When people preach to them, they know adults aren't playing straight to them, so they completely turn off to that message. And it's a completely unrealistic message. It's really a religious ideology. It has nothing to do with the public health."

Money controls the message

The government holds the country's sex education purse strings - so the government controls the sex education message in public schools in all states except California, Wilson and Whipple said.

"If you take federal money, the only information you can give young people is about the failure rate of condoms. Teachers are restricted from giving straight answers to kids' questions," Wilson said. "It's totally crazy, and what's so tragic is that it's hurting young people."

Federal and state lawmakers have spent nearly $900 million on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since 1998. President George W. Bush is seeking to spend an additional $270 million this fiscal year, according to information from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States at on the Web.

Funding does restrict the type of information that sex education teachers can give students in Washington County Public Schools, said Edward Masood, the school system's supervisor of arts, health and physical education/athletics. But the county's abstinence-based program works, said Brian Getz, who has been teaching sex education to sophomores at Smithsburg High School for more than a decade.

"We're always worried about doing statistics on how many kids are having sex, how many kids have STDs," Getz said. "Why don't we look at how many kids aren't having sex, how many kids don't have STDs? Let's praise those kids."

Getz said he lists common STIs and their symptoms, explains how the infections are acquired and treated, and gives students national and local STI statistics. He said he must tell students about the failure rate of condoms, and can't direct them to the best condoms on the market, but Getz does emphasize the importance of using condoms with a spermicide and microbicide such as nonoxynol-9.

"I'm going to give them the cold hard facts," he said. "We don't teach the kids how to have sex ... I have to teach abstinence, but there are kids having sex. If you're going to have sex, my God, protect yourself."

Sex education resources

There's no real substitute for comprehensive sex education in public schools, but there are resources available to help teens learn how to protect themselves against STIs, Wilson and Whipple said.

Rutgers' sex information Web site for teens at gets more than 30,000 hits daily, and site editors received about 20,000 serious, sex-related questions from adolescent readers last year, Wilson said. The Sex, Etc. newsletter reaches 800,000 teens nationwide, she said. Teens write stories for both publications.

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