Volume > Issue > Teaching Sexual Abstinence to Teenagers

Teaching Sexual Abstinence to Teenagers


By Thomas Lickona | July-August 1992
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of the bestselling Raising Good Children and the editor of the widely used professional text Moral Development and Behav­ior. He is in heavy demand as a speaker and has been a guest on numerous radio and television talk shows, including "Good Morning America" and "Latenight America." The above article is adapted from his new book, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, and is used with permission of Bantam Books.
Recently, I went to a center for teen­age girls where the teacher asked what they would like to discuss most. Human biology? Care for their infant? Physiology of childbirth? Family planning? The girls showed no interest. Then the teacher asked, “Would you like to discuss now to say no to your boyfriend without losing his love?” All hands shot up. — Eunice Kennedy Shriver

In the midst of the pitched battles over sex education, there is a consensus about this: Sexual behavior is determined by values, not mere knowledge. Consequently, sex education must educate young people about the moral dimensions of sexual conduct. There is also now a consensus among experts in adolescent development and those who have witnessed the destructive effects of premature sex: Sex is not for kids, and abstaining from sexual rela­tionships is in the best interests of teenagers themselves and society at large.

The challenge now before schools is to help young people make the moral decision not to get sexually involved. Happily, large numbers of teenagers are relieved to be given good reasons for staying away from sexual involvement and strategies for doing so.

There is a clear and present need to help young people understand the moral issues involved in sex and to develop sexual self-control:

· According to the Centers for Disease Con­trol, sexually transmitted diseases are now at an all-time high among teenagers. Each year 2.5 million adolescents will contract a sexual­ly transmitted disease.
· Although, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, more teenagers (47 percent) “regularly used” contraceptives in 1988 than in 1982 (22 percent), the overall teen preg­nancy rate remained the same — one reason being that more teens were having sex. Each year one of every ten U.S. teenage girls becomes pregnant.
· Nearly a third of all abortions in this country are performed on teenagers — more than 400,000 a year.
· Of the teenage girls who give birth, about 60 percent are unmarried. One of every four babies in the U.S. is now born out of wed­lock (compared to one of 20 in 1960).
· Most teen mothers will spend at least part of their lives as single parents, often on public assistance. Teenage childbearing is one of the root causes of poverty.
· The babies of teenage mothers, compared to infants born to women in their 20s, are more likely to be abused, held back in school, exhibit behavior disorders, have emotional problems, become drug-addicted, and later become teenage parents themselves.

Data, however, don’t tell the whole story. Talk to teachers and others who are close to children and adolescents and you will hear story after sad story testifying to the changes that have taken place in the sexual attitudes and behavior of the young.

· A nurse who does substitute teaching in central New York health education classes told of high school students who, before the start of one class, “talked and joked openly about their sexual activities, who was doing what with whom, what went on the night before, and so on. I was speechless. When I finally asked them if they didn’t ever worry about AIDS, they just laughed.”
· At an Indiana high school a teacher says, “The air is thick with sex talk. Kids in the halls will say — boy to girl, girl to boy — ‘I want to f— you.'”
· A ninth-grade teacher in Alberta, Canada, told of a 14-year-old boy in her class who watched pornographic movies at home with his father. “He’s going to see it later any­way,” was the father’s comment. After months of watching such movies, this boy sexually abused his cousin, a three-year-old girl.

Not all children and teenagers, of course, fit the disturbing patterns described in these stories. But virtually all young people have been affected, in some way, by the eroticized environment that is the legacy of the “sexual revolution.” A generation of children has grown up in a society in which large numbers of adults, preoccupied by sex themselves, no longer try to protect children from premature exposure to sex or even from exposure to pornographic and perverted forms of sexuality. Moreover, television, movies, and supermarket magazines all send the message that sex is the central and indispensable source of human happiness and that sex between uncommitted persons is standard human behavior. Rock lyrics — in songs such as “I Want Your Sex” — beckon young listeners toward early sexual gratification.

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