Real Sex…for 10 Year Olds: Why Abstinence Only Doesn’t Work

Posted on September 5, 2008

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Imagine for a second, a 50 year old adult with their eyes squinted shut, their pointer fingers jammed in their ears, and their whole upper body swiveling like a water sprinkler yelling “La La La La La!” at the top of their longs. That is the personification of the abstinence only program many socially conscious organizations are hauling around as dead weight, after being lured by the carrot of federal funding. On any given week day you will see 12 years olds being taught a perfectly valid social value, without being give any of the necessary tools to practice it.

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Abstinence only doesn’t work because of a basic credibility problem. Yes, we want our young people to wait to have sex until they are at least mature enough to understand the ramifications of their decision, if not until they are married. But abstinence only operates in a vacuum, where your children will never hear about condoms, contraceptives, abortions or same sex relationships. That reality doesn’t exist. Your child will listen and take to heart everything you tell them about sex and sexuality, applying it to their daily lives, until they are exposed to something else that you didn’t prepare them for. At that moment everything you taught them about sex comes into question.

“If mom didn’t tell me about condoms, what else did she not tell me about?”

This will serve to do the exact opposite of what you intended, pushing your child to experiment on its own, instead of trusting your judgment about sex. How can you blame them? Your advice has proven to be partial at best, and a lie at worst.

Now, at a crucial time in our countries history, the epidemic of teen pregnancy and the policy makers who decide how we combat it has come together to form a perfect storm. And we have been forbidden to talk about it. Not only are we closing our eyes and acting as if we not acknowledging our children’s sexuality will make the problem go away. We must also pretend that we don’t notice that a conservative republican, who believes in abstinence only education, has a daughter who is pregnant at 17. We are not allowed to ask her what her conversations about life and sexuality are like with her children. We cannot ask her to explain how poor, single parent households are suppose to turn the tide of teen pregnancy when the Palin’s, with an obviously strong and cohesive family unit, cannot seem to get it right.

Please don’t misunderstand my position. I too feel like attacks on the Palin family are distasteful and crass. I have no urge to rub this in their face, call them bad parents, or question their core beliefs and values. I am, however, determined to make this a national conversation about how to protect our future through proactive understanding and education about our countries sexuality. As I’m sure Governor Palin’s eldest son will be the new mascot for why we must get it right in Iraq, her infant son will be the poster child for special needs children, her daughter’s situation should be a spring board to a much needed conversation on comprehensive sexual education.

I’ve worked as a counselor and then as a consultant for a non-profit organization federally funded to teach abstinence only classes in the Washington DC public school systems. My main task eventually evolved into making the abstinence curriculum “hip-hop friendly”. I incorporated popular music videos and radio hits into the curriculum. Those extremely overt songs about promiscuous sex that your pastor rails against, we spend 3 to 4 one hour sessions dissecting in detail. It’s amazing how much 12 years understand, or at least retain, about sex from popular media, their peers and the adults around them. One of the first exercises I would do when I begin as a counselor was to ask the students to act like their were no adults in the room and give me all the slang terms for sex and genitalia they could think of. On top of the typical old sexual jargon of violence and construction terms (bang, screw, nail, smash, hit) their where some new ones (cut) some regionally specific ones (bop) and one that I only thought would creep into the minds of those brave enough to read “savage love” on a weekly basis. I am amazed how few adults know what it means, but without fail every classroom of 7th graders yelled out “tea bagging” within the top 5 responses when asked to give me slang words on sex.

Even the most protected child has to acknowledge his or her parent’s naivety about modern sexuality because of all the information blatantly omitted from their sex talks. And while this might not lead directly to loose girls and gigolo boys, it is a seed that can grow given the wrong set of circumstances and friends. This is one of few subjects, if broached early and delicately enough, that you will have your child’s undivided attention. Their natural curiosity about their body and the complete lack of concrete information about the amazing transformation they are going through makes them wide open to suggestions at the ripe old of 10 to 12 years old.

Sex is not a private matter, it is an urgent matter of public safety! For the sake of our society’s future we need to agree upon some basics facts about sex and sexuality. Your values are your own, and should be passed from parent to child in ways that you are culturally comfortable. But a shared reality is that this is a world of penises and vaginas that are constantly colliding, sharing microbes and making more penises and vaginas. This affects public health, the economy, psychological and emotional health. This reality is older and will last longer than any language that is taught in school, whether it’s Latin or html. When your 11 year old daughter hears the term “getting some head” for the first time, it would be a lot more empowering for her to be able to say “my father explained what that was, and why I shouldn’t do it, you’ve got it all wrong” instead of “what does that mean?”.

And when we are given a chance to discuss this reality publicly we cannot pass up on the chance. We can be tasteful, we can be respectful and scientific. We cannot do the age old “hear no evil, see no evil” policy that has gotten us to this point. Too many lives are at stake.