Abstinence Only: A Teen Peer Educator Speaks Out

Ginny McNulty

A message from a teen peer educator to parents, schools and policy makers: Providing us with 'abstinence-only-until-marriage' programs limits our decision making abilities and puts our lives at risk.

This article was originally distributed by American Forum, a nonprofit op-ed syndication service, and is published in partnership with Rewire.

Kids returning to school might find their lessons haven’t changed all
that much from last year. That includes their school-sponsored sex
education classes. Even though last spring President Obama ended
federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — many of
which were proven ineffective in delaying sexual activity – not much
has changed yet in Georgia.

During the last school year, I spoke
at numerous presentations at my high school to raise awareness about
HIV/AIDS. I was repeatedly shocked at how little my fellow classmates
knew about HIV/AIDS. I was asked on more than one occasion if HIV is
transmitted by simple skin to skin contact. Before doing the
presentations, I assumed that the students would know the majority of
the information I was giving them. I was wrong.

Students
repeatedly asked me about the effectiveness of condoms as protection
against HIV infection. Unfortunately, I was unable to answer these
curious students because school policy prohibited it. My school
employed an abstinence-only policy, which extremely hindered me in
giving potentially life-saving information to my classmates. On one
occasion, one student confronted me during my presentation when I
talked about abstinence and not about condoms. It was difficult for me
to continue doing presentations after that incident because I whole
heartedly agreed with him.

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As a senior in high school I joined
the Teen Action Group (TAG) — Planned Parenthood’s teen peer health
educators — because I wanted to empower myself and my fellow teens on
matters of sexual health. Now, I see first-hand how responsive teens
are to complete and accurate information. Young people are thirsty for
knowledge and recognize how important this information is to their
lives. I have seen how well teens respond to messages from other teens,
often even better than they do with adult educators. For many of my
peers who have only had ineffective programs in their schools, I am
thankful that peer educators like me and the TAG group will continue to
be sources of good information in our communities.

The goal of
this program is to educate young people about delaying sexual activity,
good decision making skill and contraception as a way of reducing the
number of teen pregnancies in our state. Georgia has the 10th highest
teen pregnancy rate in the nation and according to Advocates for Youth,
the U.S. "continues to have the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth
rates in the industrialized world, although U.S. teens initiate sex at
about the same time as their European counterparts." The teen pregnancy
rate in Canada is half of that in the U.S. With many teen parents and
their children facing significant challenges for the rest of their
lives, something more has to be done.

So, I have a few messages
from myself and my fellow peer educators. To our parents: we understand
why you would prefer that we wait to become sexually active until we’re
ready to be safe. We understand that the decisions we make now can
affect the rest of our lives. We want to know what your feelings are
about sex and relationships and we know that sometimes, it can be
uncomfortable to talk about it. To schools and policy makers: providing
us with ‘abstinence-only-until-marriage’ programs limits our decision
making abilities. Withholding information about safer sex and
contraception could put our lives at risk.

President Obama’s
actions make it so now funds can only be used for scientifically based
programs. This is great news for the next generation of young people.
Georgia-schools now just need to implement changes to their programs.

Comprehensive
sex education does not send a mixed message to us. We want to discuss
the benefits of waiting to become sexually active as well as the ways
we can be safe when we do become sexually active. Knowledge is power
and by refusing us comprehensive sex education, you are depriving us of
the power over our lives and our futures.

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