More support for the theory that the wingnuts and fundies aren’t really concerned about reducing the number of abortions, pregnancies and STDs among teenagers so much as punishing them for having sex: studies in Western Europe show that a non-punitive, accepting attitude toward teen sex, along with comprehensive sex education and social support, correlate with far lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and STDs than we have here in the US.
A 2001 Guttmacher Institute report, drawing on data from 30 countries in Western and Eastern Europe, concluded: “Societal acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality and clear expectations about commitment and prevention childbearing and STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] within teenage relationships, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and STDs.” The study cited Sweden as the “clearest of the case-study countries in viewing sexuality among young people as natural and good.”
Cecilia Ekéus, a nurse midwife with a PhD in public international health who works with the Institute of Women and Child Health at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says Swedish society teaches that sex should occur in a committed relationship “and also that teenagers should use contraceptives, be informed and take responsibility. But in general we are open and positive and think that it’s okay.”
Ah, Sweden. I knew there was something I liked about you other than lingonberries and cheap, fun furniture. There’s also the attitude that kids are capable of making independent, informed decisions about sex and that it’s the schools’ duty to give them the information:
In Sweden, compulsory sex education starts when children are 10 to 12. Without parental consent, teens can get free medical care, free condoms, prescriptions for inexpensive oral contraceptives and general advice at youth clinics. Emergency contraceptives (the so-called morning-after pill) are available without a prescription.
Not surprisingly, religion has a far smaller influence on sex education in Europe than it does in the US, despite the official separation of church and state here. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church is much more hands-off:
Religion tends to insert itself less in government policy on sex education, contraception and abortion in Western Europe than in the United States, says Michaud. The Catholic Church exerted minimal influence in Switzerland’s AIDS prevention campaign, he said. “All in all, the church has been very tolerant and does not really get involved in sexual matters,” Michaud wrote in an e-mail.
Imagine a world…
Anyway. One other interesting finding of the study was that the effects of sexually explicit movies, television programs and TV and print advertising (it’s not uncommon, after all, for nude women to appear in European ads) were offset by the comprehensive, straightforward information about sex that European kids receive. So the next time someone gets the vapors about “THE CHILDREN!” you can point them to this study — knowledge is power.
Also interesting was the role that social disapproval of teen pregnancy played in keeping the pregnancy rate down. Clearly, the wingnut attitude that pregnancy is a “consequence” of sex is not shared by Western Europeans, who are just peachy with the sex but would rather not have teenage girls getting pregnant. And if they don’t get pregnant in the first place, they won’t be having abortions. See how that works?
Instead, here in this country, there are certain groups who obsessively focus on the virginity of teenage girls, and federally-funded abstinence-only sex education programs in the public schools that are shown to not do a damn thing. We have uninformed kids doing things like having anal and oral sex (unprotected, natch — wouldn’t want to use condoms, because that would be, like, totally planning to have sex, and that would be wrong) because they’ve been told that the only “real” sex is penile-vaginal. In many cases, they’re even being taught by these programs that condoms don’t work to protect you from diseases or pregnancy (yet, somehow, wedding rings do), and that birth control pills cause cancer. So we have high rates of STDs, pregnancy and abortions among teenagers, even those who took virginity pledges, yet there’s resistance to actually doing anything concrete to address those problems because doing so might “promote promiscuity.” The one that really gets me is the resistance to the HPV vaccine, given long before the child becomes sexual, on the grounds that it might “encourage promiscuity.” No, it would PREVENT CANCER.
When I read things like the following from Pierre-Andre Michaud, chief of the Multidisciplinary Unit for Adolescent Health at the University of Lausanne Hospital in Switzerland and a leading researcher in European teen sexuality, I get a little upset that my great-grandparents didn’t wait just a few more years to leave Ireland, until after my grandfather was born, so that I could be eligible for an EU passport:
“My feeling is that it is impossible to have a double message toward young people,” Michaud said, in a phone interview from his Lausanne office. “You can’t say at the same time, ‘Be abstinent, it’s the only fair, good way, to escape from having HIV . . . and at the same time say, ‘Look, if you ever happen to have sex, then please do that and that and that.’ You probably have to choose the message.”
Abstinence, he said, is not something the Swiss press on teens. “We think it’s unfair. It’s useless. It’s inefficient. We have been advocating the use of the condom . . . and I think that we tend to be successful.”
As Lynn Harris from Salon points out, however, the picture in the US isn’t uniformly bad, though we have a lot of work to do to shake off the influence of the godbags and the anti-sex crowd:
To be fair, though, the message offered by educators of comprehensive sex ed in the U.S. can, in skilled hands, be more nuanced than Michaud suggests — and I’d say teens are smart enough to get it. Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins says the real mixed message is this: “We have a very hyper-sexualized media and, concurrent with that, a total aversion to giving clear and consistent messages about how you reduce risk.” Right. And even if American parents might not send their teen off to Valborgsmässoafton with a condom and a wink, there’s still plenty of middle ground here in which grown-ups can make their point. Bottom line, there’s a big difference between being cautious about sex and being weird about it. (I mean, I just saw “Carrie” again the other night, and her mother struck me less as quaint psycho harridan, more as prescient metaphor.) There’s a difference between keeping kids informed and freaking them out, between encouraging abstinence and fetishizing virginity. But as long as our powers that be refuse to see that, there’ll be a big, sad difference between us and western Europe.
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