Bristol Palin is back in the news. And now, she’s promoting abstinence only education. Apparently, she’s forgotten all about her comment about how it’s unrealistic. Or, more likely, her mother is still hoping for a presidential bid in 2012.


In a rare turn for a political child, Bristol Palin is still in the media’s lime light. Her trick? Getting in the middle of a hot topic. When the Senator’s daughter was first revealed to be a pregnant high school student, people were shocked. When she and the father of the child got engaged, people either thought it was adorable or assumed it was a political ploy. When they broke up, no one was too surprised. But when Bristol went on national television and stated that she doesn’t think that abstinence only education (which her mother supports) is realistic she really got the media’s attention.

Here was a young woman who was living, breathing proof that what was taught to her in school about sex and her own body was simply not enough. Of course she stated that she loves her son and is happy to have the chance to raise him. But she also admitted that she is disappointed in all the opportunities that she lost and that she did not know enough to have avoided ending up with a fatherless child before she even graduated from high school. Her mother took the opportunity to remind everyone that abstinence only education is best for everyone involved; even as her daughter admitted that it abstinence is an impossible thing to ask of young adults.

What is abstinence only education and why is it so popular in the United States? By definition, it is sexual health education that only teaches young adults to avoid sex. It doesn’t cover what to do in case you do have sex, or how to avoid various diseases. Often times, abstinence only education only involves giving information about failure rates of various contraceptives and reminding students that they shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage.

This sort of education has one basic flaw in it (one big one, there are others that stem from it). It assumes that teenagers won’t have sex. The problem with that is that as Miss Palin’s example shows, teenagers have, do, and will have sex. And a class discussion on the evils of sex will only discourage a very, very small portion of the students involved. In most cases, those are the students who wouldn’t have had premarital sex anyway.

The problem is then the students who don’t have the information to have sex but end up having sex anyway. Studies have shown that those are the students who are at risk for unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, and emotional problems. Since they are not expecting to have sex, they usually don’t have a condom available with them.

Interestingly enough, this problem is far more common in the United States than Europe. A recent documentary on sexual education even showed why. European teenagers of various ages and backgrounds knew where to buy a condom, how to use a condom, and why they should have a condom on them. European commercials such as this one [NSFW] show that using condoms is necessary for sex. American condom commercials avoid using words such as condom or sex and usually appear after midnight, if at all.

During the interviews with the teenagers, a few more differences emerged. Almost all the European teenagers had condoms in their wallets and thought it would be strange to date someone who was not prepared. Most of the American teenagers and young adults didn’t have condoms with them. They believed that carrying condoms made them appear more promiscuous and some even commented that going out with someone who had a condom with them made them feel like that person expected something more from the date.

So which side had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the answer is “United States.”

Why then is abstinence only education still being taught (and encouraged) in schools across the country? Well, one of the main reasons is that it promotes having no sexual encounters until marriage. In theory, this would help young adults avoid both unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease since abstinence is the only 100% effective method of avoiding both. However, as Miss Palin stated, this is simply unrealistic.

At our core nature, humans are animals. And animals mate. Sure, we have more control over our sexual behavior than a monkey or cat, but at the end of the day people still want to have sex. Of all the life stages, young adult is one of the most chaotic ones. A teenager’s front cortex is still not fully developed and their ability to make rational decisions is highly impaired. Combined with the turbulent changes going on in their bodies, teenagers are more likely than any other age group to do something stupid or rash.

To most teenagers, the words of a teacher, religious figure, parent, or other mentor only go so far. By the time a student hits middle school, his or her peers have a far greater influence on the choices he or she will make. And it’s not only in that. In the heat of the moment, hormones are yelling in a voice far louder than that of any authority figure. A teenager who at least has the background information needed can take the necessary steps to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. A teenager who has only been taught that sex should be avoided would not only not know what measures are needed but also would be too ashamed to ask his or her partner and would feel far more shame once the hormone storm dies away.

Is there a solution? Like many other middle school students, I suffered through sexual education classes. The difference was that I lived in one of the most liberal cities in the world, and our sexual education classes covered anything and everything you could dream of. The phrase “abstinence only education” was treated with disdain. The two week lecture series went over the biological and emotional components of puberty and sex. It also went over all the possible life paths a young man or woman could face, how to avoid the undesirable ones, and everything that could possibly go wrong.

Did it work? Out of my class of about 600 students, almost all graduated from high school and of those, about 80% went on to college. There were less than teenage 20 pregnancies. (That number does not include the handful of girls who got married right out of high school and had kids before turning 20.) However, my school was considered an academic school and a feeder school to an even more academic high school and I went through sexual education with the honors students. My personal observations and history are not the most stereotypical example. However, psychological studies do back up the point that young adults with a full sexual education are statistically less likely to get pregnant (or get their partner’s pregnant) or contact a sexually transmitted disease.

Had Senator Palin endorsed sexual education in her state, would her daughter now be in college instead of having sleepless nights with her son? There is no way to know for sure. But for the sake of countless girls – and boys – just entering puberty, I hope that more states and school districts have a more comprehensive approach to sexual education.

[References taken from various psychology and sociology lectures, videos, and readings I’ve stumbled across in the past few years.]