Abstinence-Only Education Challenged

New research is challenging the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. Eric White of Best Men, a program that advocates abstinence for young men is joined by sex educator Deborah Roffman to share their thoughts on what youngsters should be taught about sex.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: We get back on the Money Train. Our money coach Alvin Hall gives our listener tips on buying a first home. But first, we're going to talk about abstinence education. Yesterday, we heard from Devon Kennedy, a high school senior who has chosen to be abstinent.

(Soundbite of archived TELL ME MORE broadcast)

Mr. DEVON KENNEDY (Member, Best Men): If you have something to strive for, it makes it easier if you want to be a doctor or you want to be a lawyer. But if you come up with a kid in high school, it's kind of hard to continue with that plan.

MARTIN: Devon is a member of Best Men, a program that advocates abstinence for young people. They take their philosophy into the classroom. But recently, lawmakers have been debating whether programs like Best Men that receive government funding are actually effective in keeping teens from having sex.

Joining me now to talk about more about this is Eric White. He is the national director of Best Men. Also here in the studio with me is Deborah Roffman. She teaches human sexuality education and is the author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex."

Mr. ERIC WHITE (Director, Best Men): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Mr. White, let me start with you. Why do you think programs like yours deserve government support and a place in public schools?

Mr. WHITE: Well, Best Men is a youth development program with a character-building curriculum design to offer an answer to challenging facing - the challenges that face boys today. And I think that when we look at a program like Best Men, it's a comprehensive approach that looks at all the different opportunities and challenges that these young boys face, and gives them an alternative so that they can avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately impact particularly boys of color into the kind of young men that we all look for.

MARTIN: Devon talked about the fact that the program encourages abstinence until marriage. Doesn't that make it a values-based program, or a program about morality masquerading as a public health issue?

Mr. WHITE: I think we all make decisions based on values. So any organization, any approach to how we serve our children comes out as some kind of values. The approach is based on that - the best, healthiest lifestyle.

MARTIN: Deborah Roffman, I would think most people agree. Teenagers shouldn't be having sex. What's wrong with abstinence education? It seems like common sense.

Ms. DEBORAH ROFFMAN (Author, "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex"): There is absolutely nothing wrong with educating children about options such as abstinence. However, the issues that young people face today are very complex. Their solutions are very complex. And from my way of thinking, abstinence-only education is an either/or solution to a very complex problem that just cries out for both/and thinking.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example of what you would consider to be a more effective both/and unthinking.

Ms. ROFFMAN: Well, I can give you two examples. One is I would encourage people to look at the Michael Carrera program that's out of the Children's AIDS Society. Some its elements are very similar to the Best Men and Best Friends approaches, where there's mentoring involved. It's a very comprehensive approach. It's a holistic program that deals with these kids in all levels of their life, certainly not just the sexual aspect. They have had great success in supporting kids in many of the same ways as the Best Men program.

MARTIN: But you're saying - I think what I hear you saying is that if you really want to be comprehensive, it can be abstinence, but it also have to have some information about contraception also, if you really want to cover your bases.

Ms. ROFFMAN: Well, let's talk about values for a minute. You can have an absolute value on abstinence if you choose. And I think that you have to take ownership for that. I think programs like the Carrera model have as their fundamental value the health and safety of all kids. And the truth is that the vast majority of young people in this country will not have sexual intercourse, will not wait until they are married. They will have it prior to marriage.

And in a program like that and in the comprehensive sex education program, the program speaks to all children, and we don't limit our focus onto those kids who single-mindedly choose a behavior or told to choose a single behavior when there are lots of behaviors that they can engage in safely and healthfully and morally.

MARTIN: Mr. White, what about that? What about the argument that just focus on abstinence until marriage - for whatever's motivating it, whether it's religion or some other set of values - it doesn't cover kids who are maybe gay or lesbian, bisexual - who, even if they don't engage in that behavior, identify themselves that way? So that model doesn't apply to them. And also does it apply to kids who - for whom marriage is not a goal. And if the goal is public health, it should keep them healthy until they're adult enough to handle the consequences. Does abstinence until marriage help those kids in those two groups?

Mr. WHITE: That's a good question. And I think it does. And the reason why is because the emphasis is not just abstinence until marriage, but its young people, children - abstaining until marriage. If you go to the research, 83 percent of parents believe that their children should wait to have sex before they get married. So the conversation about sexual behavior is draped around children, young people.

And when we set the standards high, most children want to get married, most people recognized the value of abstaining. It is a key to successful, faithful relationships. And so when we have a conversation with a young man or a young woman who happens to be gay or lesbian or not, the message can be the same that for the healthiest reasons, the healthiest choice you can make, as a young person today, is to abstain.

MARTIN: Deborah?

Ms. ROFFMAN: Well, first of all, I need to say that Devon is marvelous young person, there is no question about that. And I absolutely have no doubt in my mind that he has been greatly influenced by Best Men in very, very positive ways. No one would doubt the fact that sexual intercourse - which I consider to be actually the most fundamentally powerful behavior there is in the world. It has the ability to create new life, to take - potentially take life and change any number of people's lives forever, does not belong in the hands of children. However, we have to live in the 21st century, where our children live. And we have to prepare our children to live in the world in which they are living.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the politics of abstinence education. With me are human sexuality educator Deborah Roffman and Eric White, who directs the program Best Men, which advocates abstinence among young men.

Eric, what do you make of the data that shows that after a decade of improvement - according to that point of view - in the percentage of teenagers having sex, is that number has essentially plateaued? And that the period in which that number has plateaued is essentially the period that abstinence-only education has really taken off.

Mr. WHITE: I'll answer that question in a moment, but I like to respond, if I could…

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. WHITE: …to Deborah. I think that one of the great challenges, especially in our program, where we work with young boys of color in particular - African-American and Latino boys - my concern is that oftentimes, that's the message that are given, is that you can't control yourself. That, you know what, you're going to do it anyway, so why don't we go ahead and encourage that you do it safely? And, in fact, I don't think that's the case.

I think as we put the standards high for young men, particularly the young men that we're working with, they respond. They're going to (unintelligible) into that. That if you set the standards high, this is an opportunity for these young men to reach for it. And so while people wait for 12 years or 20 years, again we - I'd like to think that that is something we can do. We talk about the reality of what our children live in, but the reality is that they have a choice.

MARTIN: And so, a final thought for you, Deborah Roffman. Congress is debating this issue now. Do you think that these programs should continue?

Ms. ROFFMAN: I believe that it is absolutely unconscionable to withhold potentially life-saving information from anyone, including young people, under any circumstances. The notion seems to be that if you provide information, it will encourage behavior. We have to give that up. That has never been documented to be true. But the opposite of that has been documented, which is information is the cornerstone of responsible and ethical decision-making.

MARTIN: Okay. Eric White, last thought from you.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think first of all, when you talk about if the parents want their kids to postpone, postpone until (unintelligible). And so I think one of things that they talk about is they want to postpone until they're an adult. I think that's a fair statement to say. So that's one. Secondly, I think the issue that because we promote abstinence does not mean that we don't provide information about sexually transmitted disease, about AIDS, etc.

So we provide information, but we're encouraging students that from a holistic approach, that the safest and most effective approach to making an informed decision about what will get you from here to there - and there being a successful, fulfilling life, both relational and professionally - includes abstinence. So I don't think the fact that we promote abstinence only means that we're being very narrow.

MARTIN: Eric White is the director of Best Men, a program that promotes abstinence among young men, and Deborah Roffman, certified human sexuality educator. She teaches human sexuality at the Park School in Baltimore. They both joined us here in the studio. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. WHITE: Thank you for (unintelligible).

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