"I am confident that if we took the time to ask
why so many teenagers are sexually active today, we would discover the
solution is not a simple one. Maybe we have not asked in fear of discovering
that a satisfactory solution requires more thought and energy than deciding
whether or not to keep a basket of condoms in the nurse's room."
he topic of condom
distribution in public schools has caused many heated debates throughout
our country in the last decade. Proponents of distribution state that
free condom distribution will ensure that teenagers will practice safe
sex and that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy will
decline. Opponents of distribution state that free condom distribution
will encourage sexual activity and foster the idea that premarital sex
is acceptable. Judges in federal court have even considered whether or
not condom distribution and sex education without prior parental notification
violates parents' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The only viewpoint
absent in a discussion of this very controversial topic is the one that
holds the most value: the viewpoint of America's teenagers. Teenagers
are the only ones who can fully explain why condom distribution fails
to respond to the needs that foster sexual activity among young people.
Though I am not a sexually active teenager, refraining from sexual involvement
has been difficult. I have been in serious relationships where the desire
to have sex has been complicated by emotional expectations. Abstinence
is especially hard in a society that seems to promote sex, as long as
it is "safe" sex. I feel that the support, which used to come
from authority figures such as parents and educators, is crumbling because
of the initiation of programs such as condom distribution. It is as though
parents and schools have forgotten that some teenagers, for whatever personal
reasons, do not desire to be sexually active. I do not minimize the need
to educate teenagers about safe sex and the risks of sexually transmitted
diseases, for I am fully aware of how sexually active American teenagers
are today. The latest statistic I read on this subject claims that "Most
teenagers (75% to 86%) have their first sexual intercourse between the
ages of 15-20" (Fanburg). No doubt a large majority of American teenagers
are sexually active, but I believe the assumption that all teenagers are,
or desire to be, sexually active is fallacious. I think that in making
this assumption, we have oversimplified the solution to the problem. I
am confident that if we took the time to ask why so many teenagers are
sexually active today, we would discover the solution is not a simple
one. Maybe we have not asked in fear of discovering that a satisfactory
solution requires more thought and energy than deciding whether or not
to keep a basket of condoms in the nurse's room.
John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, reveals hidden
solutions to preventing the problems caused by teenage sex. These solutions
have remained hidden because they involve directly communicating with
American teenagers. Leo's article specifically discusses the opinions
of young women about sexual intercourse, motherhood, and self-esteem issues.
The title of Leo's article, "Learning to Say No," immediately
informs the reader that contrary to most of society's beliefs, teenagers
often struggle with their decision to have sexual intercourse. The title
implies that "saying no" to sexual intercourse is not as simple
as some depict it to be; rather, the ability to refuse needs to be taught
as an important component of any sexual education program. Leo explicitly
states that the most effective method of preventing teen pregnancies is
not distributing condoms, but teaching teenage girls how to refuse sex.
The purpose of Leo's argument is to reveal that their partners often pressure
young teenage girls into sex. Leo effectively explains the reasons behind
this pressure when he says: "Many girls don't want to drift into
early sex and early motherhood, but they do. Their problem isn't a shortage
of latex products but a lack of sense of self and a lack of social support
for abstinence among friends and parents and in our anything-goes sexual
culture." Leo's main method of support for his argument is the presentation
of statistical information and the citation of credible authorities. For
instance, Leo refers to the research of a respected authority by stating,
"When Marion Howard, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at
Emory University, asked more than 1,000 teenage girls in Atlanta what
they wanted to learn in sex education, 84 percent of the girls answered
'How to say no without hurting the other person's feelings.' " Just
think about the significance of that statistic. It implies that over 80%
of teenage girls do not want to have sexual intercourse with their partners.
Parents, judges, and school teachers may be correct in assuming that many
teenagers today are sexually active, but assuming that all teenagers desire
to be sexually active is a whole different story--a story which we do
not want to consider, a story that we pretend does not exist.
While Leo's opinion may initially seem drastic to the reader, his reliance
upon extensive statistics and examples of successful programs convinces
the reader at least to consider the validity of his argument. One way
Leo communicates his persona in the article occurs in his depiction of
society's support for condom distribution. For example, Leo writes, "The
word 'abstinence,' of course, is a Pavlovian signal for group snickering
in Medialand, where everyone knows for sure that from age 11 or so, American
children copulate much of the time no matter what society thinks or does.
All we can do is shrug, swath everybody in latex and get out the way of
the hormonal rush." In this statement Leo assumes the persona of
a cynical member of the media, allowing the reader to share and understand
his sarcastic viewpoint. Not only his mask, but also his language, fully
reveal his persona. The way he addresses society's view on abstinence
as being "A Pavlovian signal for group snickering in Medialand"
clearly and wittily expresses his negative feelings towards our sex-driven
media and the way which they disregard the value and plausibility of abstinence.
Although Leo risks committing the fallacy of false dichotomy, he effectively
satirizes society's belief that the only way to solve the problem is to
Leo is correct when he states that girls are struggling to "say no"
in today's society. I believe the reason I was able to "say no"
was due to the strong support of my family and friends. If they lack that
support and source of love, many girls may agree to have sexual intercourse
with their partners. The reason is not their "raging hormones,"
but their desire to hold onto what they see as the one source of love
in their lives. For this reason, I understand why programs that promote
the teaching of concepts like self-esteem, self-assertiveness, and the
need to protect girls from boys are more effective than condom distribution.
Rush Limbaugh's article, "Condoms: The New Diploma," likewise
describes the need to protect girls from sexual pressure. Limbaugh nostalgically
remembers that "Not so long ago, school policy, including that on
many college campuses, was designed to protect the girls from the natural
and instinctive aggressive pursuit of young men" (427).
Even though most schools do not distribute condoms, the fact that some
do illustrates the changing attitude of schools towards teenage sex. Schools
are no longer places that encourage and support girls in their decision
to stay abstinent; rather, they have become an environment that promotes
the message, "It's okay. We know you are going to have sex. Here
is a condom; we just want you to be safe." Even when schools' sex
education programs promote abstinence, the provision of condoms defeats
the entire message. Limbaugh's essay includes a quotation from Nancy Corwin,
a member of the Jacksonville, Florida, school board, who believes that
"Schools send a nonsensical message when they teach kids not to have
sex but then give them condoms" (428). Not only is condom distribution
sending a mixed message to teenage Americans, but also it avoids the true
problem. Haven Bradford Gow, in his article "Condom Distribution
in High School" argues, "When schools supply children with contraceptives,
they simply address the symptoms, rather than the root causes of the problem,
which are our popular sexual attitudes and practices" (183).
We are a society that addresses symptoms and not causes. For instance,
instead of eating properly and exercising to lose weight, we would rather
purchase "fat-trapper pills" and invest in millions of other
diet gimmicks. Our search for the easy solution to teenage promiscuity
is no different. It is so much less time-consuming, and less embarrassing
to advocate "safe" sex through condom distribution than to step
back and really examine why teenagers are having sex so early.
I think deep down many know that the reasons go far beyond just hormones,
but admitting the true causes requires one to take responsibility for
a complicated solution, a solution that involves action, not only by teenagers,
but also by parents and teachers. Even Anna Quindlen, a proponent of condom
distribution, acknowledges another, deeper issue that lies beneath the
condom distribution debate. In her essay entitle "A Pyrrhic Victory,"
Quindlen emphasizes, "This isn't really about condoms, of course,
but about control and the shock of adolescent sexuality and the difficulty
parents have communicating with their kids
" (432). Lack of
open communication and understanding existing between the majority of
teenagers and their parents, Quindlen says, is the true culprit in the
search for reasons behind the increase in teenage sexual intercourse today.
Lack of communication does not pertain just to issues of sexual intercourse
but to all issues. I believe that when teenagers do not receive a clear
message concerning the love and support of their parents, often, as I
have said, they seek that love and support in a romantic relationship.
When the threat of losing that one source of love arises, teenage girls
will do almost anything, even giving up their virginity, to preserve the
relationship. For similar reasons, Leo also mentions the need to target
boys through sex education courses. In his closing paragraph, Leo quotes
Edwin Delattre, the dean of the Boston University School of Education,
who asserts his opinion that sex-education programs need to teach a "a
variation of the golden rule." Specifically, they must teach that
"it's wrong to manipulate and exploit a partner for sexual gratification,
and it's wrong to launch a pregnancy and not take responsibility for it."
The final sentence of Leo's article is a rhetorical question: "Isn't
that [responsible sexual discipline] a teachable moral premise that commands
To that question, I answer, "yes." I believe the true, effective
way of preventing, or at least decreasing, teenage promiscuity is once
again to teach morals and to create an environment that applauds and supports
people who choose abstinence as method of safe sex. We also need to teach
males not to pressure their girlfriends for sex. I am not claiming that
no teenage female wants to have sex, for some of my close girlfriends
do desire a sexual relationship, but sex ed programs need to demonstrate
that using sex as a substitute for intimacy and love in many teenage relationships
is inexcusably wrong. Additionally, parents and teenagers need to open
up mutual lines of communication. Teenagers must know that whether they
decide to be sexually active or abstinent, their parents will still love
and support them. I believe if this love, support, and respect from romantic
partners, parents, and friends is established, we will see far more beneficial
outcomes than those which any condom can deliver.
Fanburg, Johathan T. (1995, May). Students Opinions of
Condom Distribution at Denver, Colorado, high school. Journal of School
Health. v65 n5 p181(S).
Gow, Haven Bradford. (1994, March-April). Condom Distribution in High
School. The Clearing House. v67 n4 p183(2).
Leo, John. (1994, June 20). Learning to Say No. U.S.
News & World Report. v116 ~4 p24(l).
Limbaugh, Rush H. "Condoms: The new Diploma." Current Issues
and Enduring Questions. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau, Boston:
Bedford Books, 1996.
Quindlen, Anna. "A Pyrrhic Victory." Current
Issues and Enduring Questions. Ed Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. Boston:
Bedford Books, 1996. 431-432
Sex and America's Teenagers. Washington, DC: The Man Guttmacher
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