New York Times conservative columnist Russ Douthat recently reported that liberals were delighted that the teen birth rates rose in 2008. Why would they care? Well, 2008 was the last year of the Bush presidency and, after fifteen years of the teen birth rate declining, 2008 saw it rise thus it has been proven (so far as liberals are concerned) that President Bush’s $100 million-a-year abstinence-based sex-education policy failed.
Russ Douthat, one of those rare conservative writers who knows what is right when he sees it and says so whether his political kin like it or not, recently weighed in on this liberal response. I believe Douthat is right when he suggests that the real truth here is that the abstinence programs favored by social conservatives, and the “contraceptive-oriented” programs favored by liberals, both failed. (I am aware that some social conservatives have a stronger view of how to actually teach abstinence in the public schools but that is not the point I am after here.)
To make his point Douthat turned to the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s 2001 study that found sex-education had “no effect” on sexual behavior and/or contraception use. He argues that this should be no great surprise when you are talking about impulsive, hormone-flooded teens who do not know how to respond to what they were taught in school classroom when the sexual temptation comes at them full-bore in a highly sexual context outside of class. If you deal with teens at all you know this is simply true. If you have no strong (moral and social) basis for saying no to sex outside of marriage then all the sex-education teaching in the world will not help stop the problem.
Back in the early 1970s I was asked to serve on a “blue-ribbon panel” of local leaders to discuss sex-education in the classroom. I could have told you then that this battle was already over in public education. Conservatives who thought that electing a Republican social conservative who would spend money on abstinence education in the public schools were simply not living in the real world.
Douthat concludes that the whole “abstinence-versus-contraception debate” is beside the point. Socially, this is really a battle over community standards. He says Berkley liberals do not want the schools teaching their kids that premarital sex is wrong and Alabama church-goers do not want their kids “taught about the health benefits of masturbation.”
Douthat asks why Washington even should seek to resolve this culture war problem when the response clearly varies from one part of the country to another. This is one of those culture-war debates that cannot be won. And it is really a waste of money and time. You do not change sexual behavior in a public school classroom in the 21st century.
Serious Christians will teach abstinence to their children. And they know precisely who is responsible for teaching it. The problem is in the Christian home and church since we do not teach sexual ethics clearly. We prefer to allow the schools to fill in the gaps. We would be a lot better off if our families and churches provided the social and educational context in which we taught moral values and sex-education. The evidence suggests that the sexual habits of teens from our churches is not all that different from the habits of those teens who have no exposure to the teaching of the church. Maybe we have met the enemy and the enemy really is us. While we are hollering about the culture and public education failing us why not deal with the moral issue of sexuality, and why abstinence matters, in the right place: the home and the church?