I recently received a lengthy critique not only of specific columns I had written but also of the existence of this sex column in general. The timing of this criticism with midterm elections this week has reminded me that the discussion of sexuality and sex education in general remains controversial.
I'd like to start off this column by reviewing the case for a comprehensive sex education. Sexually active people benefit from comprehensive sex education. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that comprehensive sex education helps prevent the contraction and transmission of sexually transmitted infections and diseases and the frequency of unwanted pregnancies. Such an effect thereby reduces the frequency of abortions, deaths due to HIV/AIDS and the number of unwanted children.
In a 2004 National College Health Assessment study, 48.5 percent of St. Olaf students (compared with 71.7 percent of college students nationally) reported having been sexually active in the past year, suggesting that about half of the St. Olaf population might benefit directly in some way from an environment that allows the open discussion of sexuality.
So if comprehensive sex education works for the public well-being, why is there still such controversy about it? Obviously, the current administration has chosen to invest in abstinence-only education. I recognize that some abstinence-only programs have been associated with small delays in the onset of sexual activity in their target demographics and can also function as support networks for demographics who do remain celibate until marriage. However, those demographics who receive abstinence-only education rather than comprehensive sex education are also less likely to use contraceptives or condoms, and are less likely to procure testing or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), thereby transmitting them at higher rates. Abstinence may prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy, but abstinence-only education does not.
Much of the support for abstinence-only education is rooted in traditional Christian religious beliefs about the role of sexuality. I realize that many traditional Christians believe in the sanctity of sex in the institution of heterosexual marriage, which is allegedly unchanging and universal. I will be the first to say that I support the traditional marriages of the Bible, including the many arranged polygamous marriages of the Old Testament, which were entered into solely for economic reasons. However, I also believe that many other types of relationships, the committed and monogamous ones based in romantic love (these are quite culturally popular right now), are also quite nice.
Right now the lack of enough comprehensive sex education in the United States has contributed to a public health crisis. As of 2004, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25 to 44. Likewise, about half of all urban men of color who have sex with men in the United States will test positive for HIV. While institutionalized racism, homophobia and sexism have also contributed heavily to these statistics, the support of abstinence-only education can only perpetuate these crises. Yet abstinence-only education is the solution? I think I'm missing something.
Wait, I've got a guess: Looking at most of the leadership in this country, there's this weird thing where almost everyone in power is still white, wealthy, male, straight and Christian. You know, that whole white supremacist capitalist patriarchy thing that those crazy liberals like to talk about? Huh. But that can't be it; they're all Christian, so they must all love their neighbors, right? Like, ALL of their neighbors. I just can't imagine why such a demographic might feel apathetic or indifferent to the effects of idealist policies, such as abstinence-only sex education, on people who are disproportionately low income, of color, female, and/or queer. If you have any ideas, let me know.
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