Center for American Progress

Rights, Respect, Responsibility: A New Vision for Adolescent Sexual Health
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Rights, Respect, Responsibility: A New Vision for Adolescent Sexual Health

In his new budget, President Bush doubles federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This request flies in the face of every mainstream medical organization in the country, and comes on heels of a series of state Department of Health evaluations showing these programs ineffective – failing in their goal to reduce sexual activity.

The federal Department of Education requires schools to use “scientifically proven” reading methods if they want “No Child Left Behind” funding. The president himself stated that efforts in this arena must be focused on “methods that work. Not feel-good methods, not sound-good methods, but methods that actually work.” This quality control doesn’t seem to apply when the issue is sex education.

What’s been proven to work? Teaching young people to wait to have sex but telling them how to use contraception (namely condoms) if they don’t wait.

Decades of peer-reviewed research shows such programs delay sexual initiation and improve contraceptive and condom use among sexually active teens.

Advocates for Youth is one of scores of medical and public health organizations – from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the Institutes of Medicine to the American Medical Association – that support this comprehensive approach.

Where have the nearly 1 billion federal and state abstinence-only-until-marriage dollars gone? To fund unproven programs that lecture teens only about health risks and failure rates of contraceptives because federal guidelines require that they censor information about health benefits, including how to use condoms to prevent HIV and other STDs.

It’s time to get real. By the age of 18, 70 percent of teens have had sex. Each and every day in the United States, some 10,000 teens get a sexually transmitted disease, 2,400 get pregnant and 55 contract HIV. Young women, especially African Americans and Latinas, are becoming the new face of the AIDS epidemic, accounting for a rising proportion of new HIV infections.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are failing to address these challenges. We need new, evidence-based policies that work. But we also need a new vision – a new way for society to think about adolescent sexual health.

Why not a society where sexuality is viewed as a normal, positive aspect of being human, of being alive, rather than as forbidden fruit to be locked away in a fortress of shame, fear, and denial?

Why not a society where public policy is based on science and research rather than politics and ideology masquerading as public health?

Why not a society where values, morality, and character are used to infuse sexuality with meaning – with its truly human dimension – rather than misused to deny young people information that could one day save their very lives?

And why not a society where young people are taken seriously, where they are valued more than stereotyped, prized as assets rather than discounted as liabilities?

At Advocates for Youth, we call this vision the “Three Rs”: Rights, Respect, Responsibility.

Rights: Young people have the right to information and services that will protect their health and maybe even save their lives in the era of HIV/AIDS.

Respect: Young people deserve respect – to be treated as social assets and not social liabilities, to be viewed as partners in prevention and not merely as part of the problem, to be viewed as human beings capable of making good decisions and not as mere hormonal accidents waiting to happen. In short, to be involved in the programs and policies that affect their lives. The value of respect extends to young people’s sexuality. It is something positive and good and not merely a “risk factor” like alcohol, drug abuse, and smoking.

Responsibility: Responsibility is a two-way street. Young people have the responsibility to make the right choices to avoid unintended pregnancy, to prevent the spread of STDs, and to make the connection between sexuality and values. But adults have the responsibility to provide the tools and support they need to make these choices – education, services, and open, honest communication about sex.

In this vision, rights, respect, and responsibility work in unison. Respect young people, give them their rights to information and services and they’ll make good, responsible decisions. Take away the tools, and you remove the foundation for sound decision-making.

James Wagoner is president of Advocates for Youth in Washington, D.c=

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