08/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When "Abstinence" Is Overrated

I am a young person who knows how it feels to be in love. That means I
also know what it is like to be stuck between rational thought and the
urgencies of desire.

I was only five when I lost my mom to HIV/AIDS. Half orphaned as a
result of risky sexual behavior, I should be a number-one advocate for
abstinence-only education. Yet, I am stopped in my tracks by
statistics that show purity contracts and pledges of
no-sex-until-marriage are often forgotten in a few months or years.

Of course I have seen the reports of runaway teen pregnancy rates and
the inability of contraception to protect people from sexually
transmitted diseases -- and of course I want to protect myself.

But I also have emotions and in a world that does not always seem fair
or rational, I need to be able to protect myself from the consequences
of irrational decisions.

Abstinence only education campaigns have shifted from religious scare
tactics to pop culture subliminal messages. Every day, my younger
sister, age 9, and her friends are bombarded with images of purity
rings, virginity pledges, and the importance of having wholesome
values-and that's just while they are watching the Disney Channel.

But will these messages work? For some they will. Everything works for
someone, but what do we do for those who will fall victim to hopeless

While no one can agree on what the answer to that question is, popular
consensus seems to agree that abstinence only education is not it.
Statistics are screaming that telling youth to simply not have sex is
neither constructive nor realistic.

In a survey published in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics, the
official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Professor
Janet Rosenbaum found that "purity pledges" were no more effective
than their advocates make out contraceptives to be. Her five-year
study of two teen groups with similar religious views found that most
of the abstinence pledgers were not less sexually active than
non-pledgers -- but they were less likely to use condoms.

Last week the House voted to enact President Obama's request to
replace funding for abstinence-only education with money for
comprehensive "evidence-based" pregnancy and STD prevention programs.
Obama plans to shift federal spending to conventional comprehensive
sex education programs, community programs, and new innovative
programs. That's wise. Recent studies show the United States leads all
other industrialized nations except for some in the former Soviet
Union. Teen birth rates spiked up again in 2006 and 2007, a new
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study
, after 14 years of decline.

Pregnancy reduction has "stalled, and may even have reversed among
certain groups of teens," according to a report by Columbia University
and the Guttmacher Institute, not because rates of teen sexual
activity have increased, but because the use of contraceptives

Why has the "abstinence-only" flame fizzled so quickly? Advocates say
we need to give it even more of a chance. But I don't hold out much
hope. It is not that teaching abstinence is a bad thing. One of the
most accurate messages we learn in school is that "the only safe sex
is no sex." But young people want choices. We need to be able to make
informed choices.

In theory, abstinence-only education is an ideal; in practice,
emotions are real. In a tug-of-war of sexual tension, emotions often
win. When they do, it is better for us to be able to comprehend the
risks we are taking and to minimize the harms.

It is not fair that my mom was taken from me before either of our
lives could truly begin. She contracted HIV before she was married.
She made a decision. I don't want my life to follow that path, nor do
I want that for my sister or my peers. But I understand the desire,
the pleasure, and the pain that come along with sex, and ignoring
those realities is not protecting me from anything.