A few weeks ago, the promoters and supporters of World Contraceptive Use Day received the latest news of their continued failure. Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals released results of a survey that questioned more than 6,000 young people from 26 countries on their attitudes toward sex and contraception. The report revealed, among other findings, that over the past three years the number of young people having sex without a condom with a new partner increased by 111 percent in France, 39 percent in the U.S., and 19 percent in Britain.
In response to the report Jennifer Woodside, spokeswoman for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, replied, “What young people are telling us is that they are not receiving enough sex education or the wrong type of information about sex and sexuality.” She’s absolutely right. Many teens have been receiving the wrong type of information about sex and sexuality because groups like Planned Parenthood have conspired to withhold the truth from them.
For over twenty years the pattern has been the same: Whenever surveys and studies reveal a rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies, the advocates of “comprehensive sex education” feign surprise and stammer that the results prove that we need to double down on an approach that has consistently proven to be a failure. Any evidence presented to show that pro-condom sex-ed is failing is seen by them as evidence that condoms need to be promoted even more.
A prime example is the reaction to the separate reports issued in 2004 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of North Carolina. Both organizations found that in 2000 there were 9 million new cases of STIs among teens and young adults aged 15 to 24. The response by Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute was to double-down and claim that that sex education that includes information on condoms was vital to preventing STIs. James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, added that, “Given the prevalence of STDs, young people need all the facts—including medically accurate information on condoms.”
But the Clinton Administration had pushed “safe sex” education for nearly a decade prior to the results. Why had years of “medically accurate information on condoms” led to such a growth in the rates of STIs? An examination of the evidence by the pro-comprehensive sex-ed advocates at the University of California, San Francisco showed that lack of knowledge wasn’t the most significant factor:
• In 1999, 51% of high school seniors said they had been sexually active within the last three months. (p. 3)
• From 1991 to 1997, the use of a condom during the last sexual intercourse increased from 46% to 58% (p. 6) Condom use declines, though, as young people get older. Also, the longer a sexual relationship lasts, the less likely they are to use condoms.
• 52% of teens say that one of the main reasons that teens do not use birth control is because their partners don’t want to.
• 53% of teens say the main reason teens do not use contraception is because of drinking and drugs.
• 66% would be suspicious of their partner’s sexual history if they suggested using a condom.
• 30% want more information about how to use a condom.
Why would 70 percent of the students not want more information on condom use? Perhaps because they already know how to use condoms. (How long does it take to learn all you need to know?) The problem is not a lack of education but a lack of application.
Although I’m in favor of abstinence-based education, I believe that if sex education teaches about condoms then “medically accurate information” should be provided. And what is the most accurate medical information about condoms?
In 2000, a Federal panel surveyed the published epidemiology literature and found there was not enough evidence to drawn an adequate conclusion. In other words, while we have sex educators claiming that condoms can “effectively reduce” the spread of STIs, we have known for a decade that there is no scientific basis for that broad-based claim.
What the evidence does show is that men and women who always use a condom can reduce their risk of being infected with HIV and men can limit their exposure to gonorrhea. When it comes to chlamydial infection, trichomoniasis, genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid, and gonorrhea in women, the evidence is inconclusive. And there is no evidence at all that condoms can prevent the transmission of the HPV infection.
Additionally, three percent of couples that reported “perfect use” every time they used a latex condom will be surprised to find themselves pregnant.
The “medically accurate information on condoms” is that while they are adequate for preventing the spread of HIV, nobody really knows how effective they are for most other STIs. In addition to this risk, you have a three percent chance of getting pregnant if you use condoms “perfectly.” No wonder the sex-ed advocates conspire to downplay this information. Telling kids that using condoms is only moderately safer than unprotected sex is not an appealing message, especially in an age when STIs like gonorrhea are becoming uncurable.
When the report was released, Tom Coburn, who at the time was a Congressman, told the Secretary of Health and Human Services, “this report means that when condom use is discussed, it is no longer medically accurate—or legal for the CDC—to refer to sex as ‘safe’ or ‘protected’.”
Of course, truth in advertising is not a priority for the propagandists. Ten years later their program to mislead the public about condoms has been effective while the actual effectiveness of condoms to prevent disease has not. Each year millions of teens are surprised to find they contracted an STI even though they were “protected” and “practiced safe sex.” What they should have been told is the truth: The only completely effective method for avoiding an unwanted pregnancy or STI is for both partners to abstain from sexual intercourse prior to marriage. There are no other options. There is no magical contraception that will allow you to have all the sex you want with whoever you want and remain perfectly healthy. Reality doesn’t work that way.
The fact is that while you have almost no chance of getting an STI by being abstinent, you have a high probability of acquiring some type of disease if you are sexually active. Rather sobering, isn't it? Maybe instead of keeping a condom in their purse or wallet a teen should carry a photo of genital warts. Look at those types of photos enough and abstinence will seem a more rational option.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
National Institutes on Health, Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention [PDF]
WCD 2011: Clueless or Clued Up media report
Reuters, Half of young Americans to get sex diseases
University of California, San Francisco, Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education
Reuters, More youngsters having unsafe sex: global study
BBC, UK doctors advised gonorrhoea has turned drug resistant
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