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article imagePittsburgh Parents Attack Abstinence-Only Sex Ed, Want Teens to Learn About STDs

By David Silverberg     Mar 18, 2008 in World
A national debate is brewing over the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education in U.S. schools, and a Pittsburgh school board petition has sparked discussion about the bigger problem. Should teens learn more about sex to better protect themselves?
Digital Journal — A group led by local parents in Pittsburgh is calling on the school board to include a comprehensive sex education program that discusses contraceptive use and sexual practices. A circulated petition criticizes abstinence-only education as ineffective and short-sighted, highlighting a major issue among education watchdogs in the past year.
The petition says Pittsburgh schools are using an outdated textbook called Totally Awesome Health. The petition notes: "The text book relays fear and shame to our teens, informing them that 'being sexually active can affect [your] mental health. Stress can result from guilt that is associated with being sexually active,' while never specifying what sexual activity is. In addition, the text never discusses how to use condoms or any other form of contraception."
It’s not that the petition’s proponents want to strip abstinence from the curriculum. Instead, they want sex education to supplement abstinence lessons with “age-appropriate, information about how to use contraceptives effectively to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs, including HIV/AIDS.” Also, students should also be given information about single-parent families and gay and lesbian teens.
The online petition idea began when several parents and Pittsburgh residents were appalled to find out their public school system had mandated an abstinence-only sex-ed policy. In an interview with, one of the petition's founders, Terri Klein, said: "I was shocked to learn that in the 12 years my two children will be in the Pittsburgh school system, they will never hear the word 'condom' and why it be a life-saving measure."
Klein says the problem with current curriculum is more of a "sin of omission" than anything else. "Today's sex-ed class says to refrain from sexual activity but 'sexual activity' is never defined," she notes.
The Pittsburgh School Board petition (attracting 260 signatures so far) is indicative of the controversy currently gaining momentum in public education across the U.S.; in many areas parents are pressuring school boards to revise their policies on sex and AIDS education, some meeting with success and others losing in the Senate.
And the issue has won more attention in light of a new study estimating that one in four teenage girls in the U.S. are infected with an STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some experts say abstinence-only education is contributing to those high STD rates while others claim more vigilance is needed in preventing young girls from engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
Sex education expert Nora Gelperin told a Seattle newspaper:
"Sexuality is still a very taboo subject in our society. Teens tell us that they can't make decisions in the dark and that adults aren't properly preparing them to make responsible decisions."
A statement from the National Abstinence Education Association, reacting to high U.S. teen birth rates, decries the spread of comprehensive sex education, which they say reaches three-quarters of American students. They say this approach “tells teens high-risk sexual activity is safe as long as a condom is used. [The CDC report] reveals that this mainstream risk-reduction message is not healthy public health policy."
Religion and politics often muddy the waters of the sex-education debate. Various advocacy groups have attacked the U.S. federal government for requesting $204 million for more abstinence-only programs, which they claim only furthers the agenda of conservative Congressmen and evangelical Christians.
Also, a study found that four abstinence education programs failed to curb the sexual enthusiasm of teens involved in the programs: “Youth in the four evaluated programs were no more likely than youth not in the programs to have abstained from sex in the four to six years after they began participating in the study.”
At what cost is the U.S. maintaining the sexual purity of teenagers? Because the efficacy of abstinence-only programs is still in question, the Pittsburgh School Board petition is providing an excellent litmus test on modern public reaction to outdated school programs. If the call to action works, and school officials begin a more comprehensive and inclusive sex-ed program, the overhaul could spark similar moves in other states. What would the U.S. be like if sex-until-marriage lessons were supplemented with lessons about the realities of oral sex, herpes and queer culture?
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