This is largely prompted by this post, although I’ve thought about this topic before.
I went to school in a pretty conservative area (Northern Maine is not the liberal enclave you envision when you think of New England). A few conservative Christian churches had a heavy influence on what was permissible, culturally and academically, in the schools, and my health teacher was a member of one of these churches, only furthering the influence of religion in that class. My sex ed experience was far from comprehensive (although I hesitate to lump it in with the worst of the abstinence only methods out there). And every year there were at least a few girls who got pregnant (and likely many more that we didn’t hear about because they miscarried/aborted/it ended up only being a scare and not an actual pregnancy). I have no idea what the STD/STI rate was like, but I’d venture it wasn’t low. In short, lots of people were still having sex, despite the fact that we were told from fourth grade on that we shouldn’t have sex.
No one mentioned what to do if you got pregnant in my health class. Birth control methods were mentioned only briefly, and then only to highlight the fact that they were not 100% effective, so we should just not have sex. We were told about how we shouldn’t have sex, how we should wait for marriage and what we could do instead of having sex. But even this we didn’t spend much time on; I’m pretty sure we spent longer learning about cancer, something (hopefully) few of us will experience, than about sex, something (likely) most of us will experience to some degree.
The thing that just occurred to me was how ridiculous it is that we expect sex ed to stop teens from having sex. As stated in the post, even the most comprehensive sex ed programs focus on how not to have sex, which is certainly an important aspect which should not be overlooked. But the fact of the matter is that teens know sex feels good, and they know adults do it. The attempt to turn sex into something bad and to be avoided is completely undermined by the experiences of teens and their perceptions of adults.
What is more, this method of sex ed promotes a vision of the world in which sex is not something that is considered healthy or an appropriate part of life. Most (but not all) people feel that sex is a necessary part of their life, and would not want to give it up without very particular circumstances. Why are we surprised by people failing to practice safer sex when we spend years telling them that sex is something to be ashamed of, only to turn them loose into the feelings of needing sex that accompany the teen years and adulthood?
We need to figure out a way to encourage a more balanced attitude toward sex. It’s not something to be feared and I don’t think we should teach teens that their primary reaction should be to avoid it. I fully believe that it’s possible for teens to incorporate sex into their lives in a healthy manner and we should be encouraging that, rather than just telling them what they can do other than sex. They know, they’ve been doing the non-sex activities for years.
In short, do I think thirteen year olds should be having sex? Probably not. Do I think sex ed should talk about sex being a good, healthy thing and how to make sure it’s good and healthy? Yes.