Some Republicans in the Ohio legislature want to prohibit public schools from teaching anything other than abstinence as a means of preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. They are pandering to right-wing extremists and endangering the health and lives of young people.

In his book Solving America’s Sexual Crises, Ira Reiss says the vast majority of the young will discard abstinence. Reiss, a sociologist who has studied American sexual behavior for over 40 years, relates that many 10-year-olds support the idea of abstinence before marriage.

But Reiss also reports that before they are out of their teens, approximately 80% of young people have had sex and a significant percentage have had four or more partners. And a study by Northern Kentucky University showed that of those college undergraduates who claimed to have kept their virginity pledges, 55% admitted to having engaged in oral sex.

The fact is that teachings about abstinence are often overridden later by such things as raging hormones, heated passions, natural teenage rebellion, peer pressure, messages from advertising and the entertainment media, and the example set by many adults.

It’s nothing new to have large numbers of young Americans engaging in premarital sex. This has occurred even in times when the activity was highly disapproved by society.

One example is the decade of the 1920s, when 80% of men and 50% of women were not virgins when they married. Another case is the conservative 1950s, when the number of pregnant brides more than doubled, the number of illegitimate babies put up for adoption rose substantially, and teen birth rates had never been so high.

Moreover, most of the parents of today’s teens did not practice abstinence before marriage. In fact, never in the 2,000 years of Christianity have a majority of people practiced abstinence.

It’s absurd to think all young persons in today’s society will do so. Besides historical evidence, environmental influences, and biological makeup, another reason for dismissing the notion is the modern tendency to marry later in life. On average, American men marry at age 27 and women at 25.

No wonder 95% of contemporary Americans have premarital sex. The average age at which they first do so is under 17.

Because many of the young will not wait until marriage before having sex, it is unconscionable to deny them comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives in this time when HIV can kill them. The use of condoms can greatly reduce the chance of pregnancy and the risk of contracting HIV, chlamydia, herpes, hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other serious sexually transmitted diseases.

But as sex therapist Dr. Joan A. Nelson writes, young people “can’t prevent what they don’t understand.”

Additionally, the World Health Organization analyzed 35 studies of comprehensive sex education programs from around the world. It concluded that the programs do not increase sexual activity among young people.

Two separate studies in the U.S. revealed that making condoms available to high school students does not increase sexual activity. Instead, it leads to more condom use by teens who are already sexually active. Other research shows that young people who receive abstinence-only sex ed are less likely to use contraceptives, especially condoms, when they have sex.

Those studies and others are some of the reasons why comprehensive sex education is advocated by the American Medical Association; the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine; the Centers for Disease Control; the National Institutes of Health; the American Academy of Pediatrics; the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; and the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States.

As Sol Gordon, a sexologist and former director of the Institute for Family Research and Education, explains: “All our research reveals that young people who are knowledgeable about their sexuality are more likely to delay their first sexual experience. Knowledge isn’t harmful [yet] virtually all opposition in this country to sex education is based upon the supposition that knowledge is harmful.”

Further, international comparisons indicate that by failing to be open and candid with young people about sexuality, society increases the likelihood they will have sex. In 1999, Washington Post columnist Judy Mann noted that the U.S. is unique among Western nations in its reluctance to provide the young with information regarding sex.

This prudishness has not discouraged sexual activity. American girls are four to five times more likely to have a baby or obtain an abortion than their peers in other developed countries. The pregnancy rate for American teens is four times higher than in Canada, despite identical rates of sexual activity. The U.S. abortion rate is five times higher than in the Netherlands.

American teenagers also have much higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Their incidence of gonorrhea is 70 times higher than that of teens in the Netherlands and France. And American teens on average become sexually active at lower ages than their European peers.

Mann suggests that American society’s secrecy about sexuality, by increasing the allure of the forbidden, tempts young people to explore sex prematurely.

Author Kay Nolte Smith expresses a similar view. “It’s a well established fact of human psychology that a person – or a culture – which represses its sexuality will experience great sexual cravings. And the greater the repression, the more depraved the desires will be. A prudish, Victorian culture has the darkest underside.”

Finally, the young have natural curiosities about sex. If information and instruction are withheld from them, they are more likely to try satisfying their curiosities by engaging in sex.

Rather than limiting students’ knowledge about sexuality and letting them obtain partial or inaccurate information from equally uneducated peers, schools need to remember the poet Alexander Pope’s admonition:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

In sum, the probable results of abstinence-only sex education will be more young people having sex and fewer of them knowing how to lower the risks of pregnancy and disease. This is a recipe for disaster for many of them, and Republicans in the General Assembly should be ashamed of themselves for promoting it.

[For further information on this subject, please see the website for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (www.siecus.org).]