If, in five to ten years’ time, the rates of HIV-infection and teenage pregnancies go up in Trinidad and Tobago, Education Minister Hazel Manning will have to shoulder a lot of the blame. Not that she will, though, given that hubby Patrick has never made a wrong decision in his entire political career. Nonetheless, it is under Hazel’s watch that the Education Ministry has introduced an abstinence-only in the teaching of sex education: and the fact that Hazel and the Ministry technocrats can play politics with an issue where children’s lives are at stake reveals how deficient they are in moral fortitude. Indeed, they may even have a purely mercenary motive for adopting this ineffectual policy: the Bushmen’s administration (to borrow columnist Lenny Grant’s inventive nomenclature) has refused to fund any sex education programmes which promote condom use.
Nonetheless, according to US ambassador Roy Austin, us heah natives should jess bow down to Massa Bush cuz of all the aid he done give us. However, when aid leads to AIDS, I think we should be rather less than grateful. Which is not to exculpate Hazel and her minions, nor Health Minister John Rahael and his travelling wife. Abstinence-only programmes do not work. One study showed that teenagers who made public pledges of abstinence had the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who didn’t. More worryingly, only 40 percent of males who pledged abstinence used a condom during sex, as compared to 59 percent of non-pledgers. And female non-pledgers were twice as likely as female pledgers to go for STD tests.
This study was funded by America’s National Institute of Child Health and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. But I will lay my head on a block that neither the Education nor the Health Ministries here are going to do any similar sort of tracking to see what results their abstinence-only policy has. After all, this is a country where politicians are happy to look like they’re doing something, rather than actually working. My prediction is that the abstinence-only policy will either have negative effects or none at all. After all, the policy itself is not based on any genuine criteria or even genuine concern about what is best for young people. As with the arguments against legalising abortion or giving homosexuals equal rights or abolishing capital punishment, abstinence-only is a case of outdated religious principles blocking social progress and, by so doing, adding to the sum of human misery.
There was a time, long ago, when moral strictures against fornication were eminently practical. That time was when human beings still lived in small bands and there was no birth control. A woman who was too promiscuous would have too many children for too many men, and as a result probably not get sufficient protection and resources for her offspring. This is why marriage came about in the first place: a public acknowledgement that two people were in a sexual relationship helped to mitigate, though not eliminate, violent rivalries. And, even so, the biological evidence suggests that infidelity was fairly common and that marriages probably didn’t last for more than four years.
Many religious strictures are based on these biological instincts (which is a main reason for the cultural success of religion). But, in the modern world, confusing these ancient instincts with moral rightness often leads to immoral social policies. Sex education is perhaps the main instance of such confusion. The purpose of sex education is, first of all, to teach children biological facts about reproduction. Secondly, sex education tries to instil values that would help youth avoid the consequences of irresponsible sexual behaviour: mainly, pregnancy and disease. Now, obviously, the most effective way of achieving these ends is by chastity before marriage and fidelity during. But, even more obviously, education policies must take account of people’s actual behaviour: and youths are actually having sex at around 17 years of age.
The believers’ argument that telling youths to abstain and be faithful will lead to behavioural change is entirely without foundation, not least because the loudest trumpeters of such values are often known hypocrites (which, reminds me, I need a new chair to sat in) or just extremely unpleasant human beings (mayhap I better bestir myself to Courts…nay). This is why three-pronged sex education programmes - abstinence, fidelity, and condom use - have proven in different countries to be the most effective in lowering teenage pregnancies and STD infections. The religious apologists love to argue that “secular values” are the cause of these ills, but as usual their arguments completely ignore reality: in this case, the reality that the countries with the lowest rates of STDs and teen pregnancies are those with comprehensive sex education programmes which emphasise, in particular, condom use.
This is because the policy-makers in those countries aren’t trying to change behaviour per se, but only targeting specific actions. And any conscientious policy-maker would agree that the consequences of irresponsible sex are too devastating not to implement proper sex education policies for youths. But here is where we run into the problem with the religious mindset again: religious beliefs frequently suspend people’s conscience. Pedagogy researcher Michael Gurian, in his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, writes, “Teenagers must take risks; most will take risks they consider (later in life) slightly or seriously immoral, and certainly quite dangerous. It has always been the job of mentors and educators to help young people through their risk behaviours.”
Gurian recommends the following measures for an effective sex education class. The class should be team-taught, by a female teacher and a male (who may be a teacher or a counsellor or a father or other male volunteer). Same-sex and separate groupings should both be used, so sensitive and difficult areas can be covered. Fathers and elder males should be conscripted to talk about their own experiences and a man’s responsibilities. Sex education must be taught in all the high school years, not just some. It is unlikely that the Education Ministry will promote or even approve of such measures. But the true power in education has never been with the Ministry, but with the teachers. Whether teachers use that power for good or ill, however, depends on them not catering to the ignorance of the powers-that-be.