Media Fail: Washington Times Completely Distorts Pediatricians’ Call for Comprehensive Sex Ed

Amanda Marcotte

A Washington Times article completely misrepresents the recent statement by The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supporting comprehensive sex ed.

Congrats to Cheryl Wetzstein of the Washington Times, for reaching new heights in the practice of writing blatant sex panic propaganda up as if it was a news item. “Pediatricians shift on abstinence programs” mimics the language of ordinary science reporting, but a comparison of the article to the actual report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics on sex education reveals that Wetzstein is way more interested in creating panic in her readers than in reporting on the mundane realities. 

The AAP’s report is a revision of previous statements that were friendlier towards abstinence-only education, one that was the direct result of much research in the intervening years that showed that abstinence-only doesn’t work to achieve important public health goals, such as preventing unintended pregnancy and STIs in minors.  Because of the AAP’s commitment to evidence and their commitment to health, they are going to follow the evidence when it comes to making health recommendations.  Apparently, Wetzstein feels they didn’t make enough room to allow mindless anti-sex right-wing ideology to dictate their decisions.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has disappointed pro-family advocates by rejecting what it calls “ineffective” abstinence education as a way of countering the onslaught of sex-laden music, television shows, movies and online pornography — a shift from the group’s previous policy statement issues nine years ago.

Notice how it’s a given for Wetzstein that advocating for education methods that increase STI and unintended pregnancy rates for minors is “pro-family.”  You can see why the AAP might disagree, as it’s composed of pediatricians who see with their own eyes how “pro-family” it’s not to be treating gonorrhea in a 14-year-old, or referring a 15-year-old to an abortion provider or a ob-gyn.  Families don’t feel very “pro” in these kinds of circumstances.  Often, there is much intra-family distress when these things happen.

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The AAP’s argument is simple, even though you’d never know the basic gist of it from the Washington Times coverage.  They simply argue that in the absence of real education about sex and contraception—an absence which defines abstinence-only education—kids will get all the messages about sex from internet porn and MTV.  And these are hardly good teachers, as the AAP points out. For all the talk of sex on TV, for instance, almost no one talks about taking heath precautions or preventing unintended pregnancy.  The report also points to empirical data linking heavy exposure to sexual content in the media to getting STIs or having sex at younger ages. 

Wetzstein exploits these correlations in order to make hysterical implications about the report that are actually contradicted in the report itself.

Instead, the doctors, in a statement issued late last month, endorse comprehensive sex education — even though the latter has been shown to be sexually explicit at times — as the best way to educate the young and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

So, let’s get this straight. Wetzstein is arguing that having a 50-year-old gym teacher roll a condom on a banana under fluorescent lights is as sexually exciting to teenagers as sexy pop stars making out with hot models in music videos, and therefore as likely to compel said kids to try out this sex stuff themselves.  But the evidence actually cited in the AAP report indicates the opposite. 

Eight peer-reviewed, controlled clinical trials have revealed that giving teenagers freer access to condoms does not increase their sexual activity or encourage virginal teenagers to be- gin having sex, but it does increase the use of condoms among those who are already sexually active.

The report also gently points out that teenagers aren’t stupid, and can understand more complex messages than, “Just say no.”  In fact, outside of the realm of sex education, even hard line right wingers tend to understand that adolescents can handle information that’s more complex than what’s offered on “Barney.”  We expect adolescents to read Shakespeare, excel in chemistry and trigonometry, and put together a yearbook.  In comparison to these activities, the message, “Wait until you’re emotionally ready to have sex, and use a condom when you do,” is incredibly simple.

Unlike the Washington Times, the AAP understands the importance of context and nuance in media.  Much of the report details how it’s not just the mention of sex in the mainstream media that’s the problem, but it’s the specific way that it’s portrayed. 

American media make sex seem like a harmless sport in which everyone engages, and results of considerable research have indicated that the media can have a major effect on young people’s attitudes and behaviors.

It’s not just the mention of sex that’s the problem, in other words, it’s how it’s portrayed.  In fact, the AAP report cites reams of evidence to show that heavy sexual content in the media can contribute to healthier choices.  For instance, they note that nations that have more contraceptive advertising have a lower rate of teenage pregnancy.  Beyond just advertising, the AAP cites evidence that television programs such as ERFriends and Gray’s Anatomy had accurate information about sexual health and discussion of contraception, and these resulted in improved understanding and communication about these issues in the audience.

“Explicit” is a vague term when describing media portrayals of sexuality, and it incorrectly implies that teenagers’ curiosity about sex can effectively be squashed completely by pretending to kids that it doesn’t exist, or only issuing blanket condemnations of sexual activity that do nothing to relieve their curiosity.  In reality, there’s many flavors of explicit sexual content.  Some are provocative, sure.  They’re meant to be in order to capture prurient interest and/or sell some ads.  But blunt language about sexuality doesn’t have to be arousing.  Sometimes answering kids’ questions in a straightforward, health-oriented, non-provocative manner can calm their curiosity, and incline them to delay having sex until they’re emotionally prepared.  And of course, explicit and straightforward education in contraception makes it that much easier for kids to know how to use it when the day comes to do so. 

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