High abortion rate equals too many unplanned pregnancies equals the need for “better” sex education plus more access to contraception, right? Wrong.
Current concern over high abortion statistics in Australia has re-ignited the sex education and contraception debate. But ask experienced crisis pregnancy counsellors and they will tell you that the majority of pregnant teenagers do not lack either knowledge or access to contraception. Rather, they are pregnant because of deep-seated unmet needs. Depression, unresolved grief, family dysfunction and poor parenting commonly drive teens to look to a sexual relationship for replacement love, acceptance and comfort. The ability to make abstract contraceptive decisions is overridden by the adolescent’s search to fill the void.
Pregnancy prone girls unconsciously desire a child, someone to love who will love them in return. Lack of support from partner or parents plus pressure to abort leaves them with their initial problems unresolved and repeat pregnancies (and abortions) for them are common.
The real need is for more and better access to effective intervention counselling to break this cycle and empower these adolescents to make healthier decisions about their relationships and sexual choices. Counsellors must be skilled at uncovering the hidden issues that “more knowledge” and “more contraceptive choices” cannot address.
But what about the earlier onset of puberty? That has to equal the need for earlier education about safe sex, right? Wrong again.
Girls in particular are reaching puberty earlier, but development in other areas for both sexes lags many more years behind. Responsible sexual behaviour requires mental, emotional and psychological maturity, given the abstract concepts involved in any understanding of contraception and “safe sex” and the long-term implications of a “mistake”. Many adults themselves cannot come up with the goods here. You have only to look at current abortion and STD statistics among the adult sexually active population to appreciate this fact.
Expecting primary aged children to process “safe sex” information is a reflection of the helplessness of adults in the face of current social problems. A grade of 10-year-olds learning how to roll condoms onto bananas (now showing at a state primary school near you) can only be judged as a lesson in child abuse. Last time I looked, the sexualising of children by exposure to adult sexual concepts - think of cinema and video ratings - was against the law. Getting them to participate in such acts - with or without parents present - is a violation of the natural latency stage of their sexual development and leaves them vulnerable to sexual predators.
Bewildered parents, caught between the fear of the statistics on teenage pregnancy and the tendency for some schools to label the concerned as moralists, are feeling powerless to fulfill their role as protector of their child: “I’m not comfortable with this, but what can I do?”
Yes, children need to be educated about sexuality but it must be age appropriate, developmentally sound and supportive of the parent’s primary role in this domain. Programs that boost the confidence of parents to educate their own children about sex and the values that are inextricably linked to it will do more to lower teenage pregnancy statistics than trying to train children to think and act like adults.
Did someone mention values? Yes, guilty. Hard as you try you can’t strip the values from any discussion about sex. Promote “safe sex” to a group of children or young teens and by default you imply sexual activity is appropriate for them. Is it? Given the statistics on teenage pregnancy, abortion and STDs, the conclusion seems obvious. “Safe sex” is an option and can certainly be explained appropriately to adolescents as they mature, but it should not be presented even by implication as the best choice.
Abstinence education for adolescents is valid but it’s not being done well, if at all. Those who would attempt it are up against the might of the media and its constant use of sex to sell and entertain. They have to survive the labels - “religious fundamentalist”, “moralist”, “unrealistic”, “out of touch”. They have to remember not to apologise for promoting the best option to the young people in their care.
As adults we are partly a product of our generation, the way we were parented about sexuality, our experiences, our fears and our politics. These things can inform our attitude to sexuality education but they are separate to the actual needs of children and adolescents now.
In terms of sexual health promotion for children and adolescents, there is a clear difference between tolerating diverse views and presenting each as equal. A formula combining correct age-appropriate information about sexual issues, creative strategies to normalise abstinence, and effective accessible counselling for the troubled, will help protect children and young teens during their most vulnerable years. As they mature they will be able to make better decisions about sex. It will take political guts and a seismic social shift to do it, but the alternative is a betrayal of our children.
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