What Henry VIII Teaches Us About Sex Ed
If the penalty of death couldn’t scare teens away from sex outside of marriage, why do we still act like abstinence-only sex ed can work?
Consider Catherine Howard.
Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the teenaged Catherine, was beheaded in 1542 for treason, which in her case meant adultery. (Turns out fooling around was a capital crime, if you were married to the king.) Also executed were her lovers, Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham—lucky Culpepper, a one-time favorite of Henry’s, was beheaded; not-so-lucky Dereham was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Why, you might ask, are we considering poor Kitty Howard?
Abstinence-only sex education is based on a fiction—the idea that if we really seriously explain to teenagers that socially impermissible sex is a really bad idea, they just won’t do it. But statistics, not to mention common sense, indicate that’s just not true.
The decline in teen pregnancies over the last two decades is based not on successful propagation of the abstinence-only message, but on policies that teach teens how to responsibly engage in sexual activity.
How do we know this? States that mandate abstinence-only sex education have higher pregnancy rates; in states that teach comprehensive sex ed, the rates are lower. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s hard to imagine that such an obvious connection isn’t, well, a connection.
Further, policy watchers say, the largest concentrated declines in the teen pregnancy rate are due to an increase in the use of long-term reversible contraception. But because right-wingers are working diligently to remove such devices from insurance coverage, it’s likely use will decline across all age groups.
Does that mean the teen pregnancy rate will increase? Not necessarily. But keep in mind that during an era in which socially impermissible sex meant death was on the line, teenagers like Kitty Howard couldn’t keep it in their pants. So what use is abstinence-only sex education when the worst possible consequence is pregnancy, or maybe herpes?
Howard probably would have been ecstatic if she’d gotten pregnant—and if she’d produced a male heir, Henry might’ve overlooked her affairs. But for most teenagers, pregnancy isn’t a life-saving event. And it’s worth noting that an unwanted pregnancy is more likely to end in abortion. So, getting these policies right is crucial to reducing the abortion rate, something most folks on the left and the right agree would be a good idea.
States with guidelines that promote accurate information and access to effective contraception have a lower rate of unwanted pregnancies. Yet American sex education policy remains maddeningly scattered, inconsistent, and with profoundly mixed messages given to teens who’d like to avoid pregnancy.
Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require schools to provide sex education. A shockingly small number of states require sex education to be medically accurate, and free from promotion of religion. Meanwhile, the majority of states require sex educators to stress abstinence. (Some parents resent that sex ed is a part of school. There’s a simple solution for that: Talk to your kids about sex before the school does.)
The retail chain Hobby Lobby struck a major blow against contraceptive coverage this summer with a U.S. Supreme Court victory exempting it from an Affordable Care Act requirement to cover birth control for its employees (and their children), largely by redefining two kinds of contraception as abortifacients, a classification not supported by science.
Nonetheless, it’s a reconfiguration of the status quo that’s here to stay, and which likely has implications for how states educate, and protect, teenagers about and from the consequences of sexual activity.
And taken in tandem with our persistent inability to confront the realities of teenagers' lives, it’s a maddening one-two punch: Deprive teenagers of the information they need to make smart choices about responsible sexual activity, then shut off access to the kinds of contraception that are proving most effective for teens.
Much of our schizophrenic sex ed policy is rooted in Puritanical views about sex, says Lori Lamerand, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and South Michigan. Sex is an appetite, much like the need for food. But the message sent through sex education amounts, Lamerand says, to “just don’t eat.” It’s not a viable strategy. Worse, it perpetuates the idea that it’s better to have irresponsible, unplanned sex, because acknowledging that teenagers are likely to have sex seems like an endorsement.
It’s true that abstinence is the only surefire way to prevent pregnancy, for teens or anyone else. But let’s be absolutely clear about this: Abstinence-only sex education is useless. Until we recognize that, and craft policy solutions that confront reality, any gains in preventing teen pregnancy will be short-term, at best.