The words "safe" and "teen sex" should never be uttered in the same breath. The old thinking was that teen sex without a condom was risky business; it now appears that teen sex, regardless of condom use, is about as safe as Airline Al-Qaida.
A recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services evaluated 8 widespread sexually transmitted diseases (STD's). The results? Sexually transmitted diseases are the principal causes of women's sterility, chronic disease, and early death. Condoms give girls and women no protection from 7 of the 8 STD's studied, even when used correctly. Condoms do not stop genital HPV -- the cause of almost all cervical cancer.
Even if condoms are used, it is unrealistic to think that teens will use condoms perfectly. The highest rates of adult condom use have been found in couples where one partner has HIV and the other does not.
Only 50% of these couples used condoms with every intercourse. When adults living in potentially dangerous circumstances can manage to use condoms only half the time, why would anyone think that our "it-will-never- happen-to-me" teenagers would do any better?
Planned Parenthood and related groups criticize Abstinence-Until-Marriage programs, favoring "Abstinence Plus" programs that emphasize condom use. These programs are more aptly titled "Abstinence Minus."
The Planned Parenthood teen website contains a brief essay: "Outercourse: Abstinence for Experts." It explains that there are two kinds of abstinence. "The second kind includes lots of sex play and is more open to possibilities
Planned Parenthood calls this kind of abstinence "outercourse."
Such abstinence promotion is as genuine as tobacco company ads telling kids not to smoke.
"Safe sex" programs place little emphasis on encouraging teens to abstain from sex. Sadly, a teen's involvement in premarital sexual activity increases her risk of subsequent divorce by 50%, leads to decreased educational attainment and higher rates of sexual abuse.
Teen sex is a risk-taking behavior. Sexually active teens are more likely to smoke, drink, and use drugs. Sexually active girls are ten times more likely to smoke marijuana. Taking chances with sex leads to a greater number of lifetime sexual partners, a pre-eminent risk factor for acquiring STD's.
Abstinence-Until-Marriage programs use a proven method. The federally funded Add Health Study interviewed over 12,000 teenagers. Over 1000 of them had taken an abstinence pledge. Of the 6 factors associated with delayed onset of sexual activity, the strongest by a margin of 3 to 1 was an abstinence pledge.
All adolescents should hear the unequivocal message that having sex is a risky behavior and is to be strongly discouraged for health, social, and economic reasons. President Bush recently summarized the issue well:
"When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral...[and] not sell children short by assuming they are incapable of acting responsibly."
Planned Parenthood and Advocates For Youth say that responsible teens use condoms. Since condoms are flawed, let's redefine responsibility to mean choosing a lifestyle free from risk, free to be healthy, and free to succeed.
Let's choose abstinence.
Matthew Porter is a member of the Board of Contributors, Central Texans who write regularly for the Tribune Herald. He is a family medicine physician at the Scott & White Waco Clinic and an assistant professor in the Texas A&M School of Medicine.
This article was originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, May 1, 2002. Permission to post on the Teen-Aid Web site was granted by Dr. Porter.