Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Governor Notices Arizona Only Ranks 5th in Nation on Teen Birthrates, Acts Accordingly

Arizona's teens are currently getting their collective birth-giving asses handed to them by the kids in Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas, so Governor Jan Brewer is springing into action by opening the floodgates to the federal abstinence-only funding that her rational predecessor, Janet Napolitano, said uh, no to.
"This governor believes that abstinence education is the right path to take," said gubernatorial spokesman Paul Senseman. He said the fact the program won't cost the state anything only bolsters Brewer's belief that it makes sense.

See? It's free! What's not to like? Oh.

Napolitano, in refusing to take more federal funding last year, cited a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It found that teens in abstinence-only programs "were no more likely than youth who were assigned to the 'services as usual' control group to have abstained from sex."

Acting state health director Will Humble (no relation to state environmental quality "commissioner" Benjamin Grumbles) likes the abstinence-only curriculum because it promotes self-esteem and decision-making for teenagers, at least when that decision is to not have sex. Interestingly, while Humble thinks pairing those inarguably important skills with actual information about contraceptive would be a good idea, he's not even inching out onto that limb when it comes to his official job of, I don't know, safeguarding kids' health.

Humble also said he personally believes that birth control "probably should" be part of a high school curriculum. None of these funds, however, can be used to tell those teens who are going to be sexually active how to prevent pregnancy or avoid sexually transmitted diseases.

Yeah, "probably." But with contraception off the table, what kinds of things, then, will the federal dollars allow teachers to tell Arizona children?

Federal regulations say the dollars can be used only for programs teaching that abstinence from sex outside of marriage is the "expected standard for all school-age children." Programs also must teach that sex outside of marriage "is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects..."

In other words, the federal funding cannot be used to provide factual information about preventing pregnancy and life-threatening diseases, but it can be used to tell kids lies. Because nothing prepares kids for healthy adult sexual relationships like instilling the belief that a gold ring will magically protect them from whatever viruses their spouses might have picked up before the second or third time they renewed their virginity by making yet another purity vow, or will miraculously transform an abusive or exploitative relationship into the stuff dreamed by rainbow unicorns who breathe whipped cream with sprinkles. And, honestly, the greatest part of that funding by necessity will have to go toward busy-work modules that can be stretched to cover an entire semester's worth of classtime, since abstinence education can be boiled down to "no sex before marriage because it will make you insane and then kill you; the end," which can be communicated in just about as much time as it took you to read the sixteen words between the quotation marks there. Even allowing an extra second's dramatic pause there to accomodate the semicolon, it leaves an awful lot of instructional time to fill. And when you can't talk about things like biology or contraception, well, worksheets all around! Don't color outside the lines, kids!

The state of Illinois is re-evaluating abstinence programs this week too, with, not surprisingly, the same sets of arguments and data at loggerheads there as well, with the difference that sex-ed curricula are determined by local school districts rather than being standardized by the state education department. Roughly 40 percent of Illinois students get the abstinence-only classes, and the patchwork of lessons taught in middle schools makes high school health teachers pull their hair out.

Joliet Central High School teacher Susan Cailteux is reminded of how varied the sex education curriculum is at the elementary and middle school level every time she begins a unit with a 25-point quiz on the reproductive system.

"I'll get kids with a 5. They don't even get the uterus right," said Cailteux, who teaches high school sophomores about both abstinence and contraception. "It's very frustrating at times because you expect them to know the basics, but the basics have not been taught."

Sophomore Tim Nemec, 16, of Joliet acknowledged that he never learned much about reproduction or the risk of infections until he took the health course required of all sophomores at Joliet Central. After that, he noticed a shift in some classmates' attitudes.

"There were some kids who went in like, 'I don't care. I'll do what I want,' " Nemec said. "But after a while, they were sort of like, 'Wow, I don't know if this person is clean or not,' or, 'I could actually get someone pregnant.' "

In a country where two-thirds of high school seniors report being sexually active, with one in five of those reporting more than three partners, the need for universally taught, accurate information would seem to be self-evident, but too many people favor the fingers-tightly-in-ears, eyes-closed, la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you approach to their kids' *shudder* sexuality.

Abstinence-only advocates contend that, just as adults drill teens not to drink and drive, educators should teach them to avoid risk by maintaining celibacy until marriage.

They have their metaphors slightly out of focus. Providing accurate data about biology and contraceptives is not. the. same. as tossing your 16-year-old the car keys and a fifth of Jack. No, we don't want kids driving drunk. So we tell them not to drink, but we also tell them that if they do drink, or if the person they're riding with drinks, that they can call us for a ride home with no questions asked. We put a cab company's number in their cell phones and give them a twenty to keep in their wallets so they'll have a safe way out if they get into that situation. That in no way equates to saying well, I know you're going to drink anyway, so go ahead and take the Mustang! Driving drunk does not equate to having sex, but it does equate to having unprotected, stupid sex you're not mature enough to handle. So we do tell our kids that the only surefire way to avoid pregnancy is to keep penises far, far away from vaginas, and the only surefire way to avoid every STD is to not touch anyone ever, but then we also equip them with knowledge and the means to protect themselves when reality asserts itself. Because to do otherwise is to willfully punish them for their humanity by letting their lives get really fucked up by unwanted pregnancies and unwanted viruses, whether they're married at the time or not. And no amount of federal freebies--or the prospect of Arizona being NUMBER ONE!--can ever make that a good bargain.

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