Now that I have your attention, let’s narrow the focus a bit and talk about sex education in South Carolina. It may not be as titillating, but it’s still really important.
A look at human nature, a recent study, and our state governments tell us four things we know for sure. But before we get into the four specifics, when it comes to a highly-charged subject such as sex or sex education, it’s always nice to begin with some real facts.
There is some very good work being done in our state in these areas by the New Morning Foundation and an advocacy group called Tell Them. Their recent authoritative study, entitled Comprehensive Health Education Act: 25 Years and 250,000 Teen Pregnancies Later, provides lots of good data.
Though it will surprise many people to learn, way back in 1988 we passed the Comprehensive Health Education Act (CHEA), which was an amazingly good and forward-thinking law. By looking at the history of 25 years’ worth of experience, there is a lot we can learn.
Which brings us back to my four things.
First, young people are going to have sex. We can talk for months about whether they should, what we as parents and teachers should say about this, what the Bible says, and on and on, ad infinitum. The truth remains: young people are going to have sex. According the study, 19 percent of middle school students have had sexual intercourse, and it jumps to 50 percent among high school students and to 60 percent among high school seniors.
And when young people have sex and they don’t have the basic information about the possible consequences, bad things happen. There are 68 new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) reported among adolescents every day in South Carolina. Among 15-19 year olds, the pregnancy rate is 36.5 for every 1,000 young women — the 11th highest in the country.
Each year teen mothers cost the state $197 million, and from 1991 to 2008, the cost to the taxpayers was $4.1 billion.
Second, what we are doing now is not working. When CHEA was passed in 1988, the law was quite good, but there was one fatal flaw. Many of the most important provisions were essentially voluntary and schools and school districts soon learned that they could simply ignore important parts of the law. As a result, today 75 percent of SC school districts are “noncompliant” with CHEA.
Here are just two examples of the problem: only 44% of school districts reported teaching STD and HIV prevention in grades 6-9, and only 66 percent of the materials used are “medically accurate,” while 24 percent are actually “harmful.”
Third, we know what works. There are proven, effective things we can do. In the nation as a whole, we have had a whopping 52 percen decline in teen births since 1991, just after CHEA was passed.
There are lots of factors, but it all boils down to: 1) giving young people medically-accurate and age-appropriate information; 2) providing access to condoms and other methods of birth control; and 3) beginning this process earlier rather than later.
Here’s just one great example close to home. When CHEA was originally passed, the town of Denmark (and Bamberg County as a whole) had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state. Since then, parents, educators and the community have worked together and adopted this three-part strategy, and pregnancy rates have dropped by over 50 percent. Today, they have one of the lowest rates in the state.
As parents, we all wish abstinence education was the answer. And in some narrow circumstances with some people, it has a positive impact — but overall, it doesn’t. We just need to face the facts – as much as we think of our children as our sweet little innocent Mary and Johnny, the truth is that they are most likely getting it on long before we want to admit to ourselves that its happening.
Fourth, the Legislature is critical to what happens next. Right now the state legislature is considering new legislation to update and expand the work of CHEA. The question is: are they going to get caught up in moralistic rhetoric or actually go with what works?
Let’s hope they do the right thing — and then, maybe, the sex talk 25 years from now will be about how great we have done as a state.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and is president of the SC New Democrats.