Sex has a price tag – and young girls often pay the most, physically and emotionally.
That statement, by abstinence proponent Pam Stenzel, is at the heart of a controversy at a West Virginia high school. An 18-year-old student named Katelyn Campbell – who did not attend Stenzel’s lecture on abstinence—nonetheless claims that it amounted to “slut-shaming.”
“The tone in her videos was really combative,” Campbell told ABC News last week. “It just seemed like she was going out to get [teens] who’d already had sex.”
I can’t comment on the entirety of Stenzel’s work. But the crux of her speech – that sex has a price tag – is a medical reality, regardless of whether Campbell and other proponents of politically correct sex ed want to hear it.
As I’ve mentioned before, I worked as a researcher for Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of the books Unprotected and You’re Teaching My Child What? I’ve browsed health websites, “sex ed” manuals, and even teen magazines like Seventeen. Although much of the health information is politicized, the advice offered to young girls on sexual decision-making is downright scandalous.
“There is no right time to have your first intercourse. This is a choice you make,” declares GoAskAlice.com, a popular health website. This canard is repeated ad nauseam in sex education programs and magazines geared toward middle and high school students, such as Seventeen. (Don’t let the name fool you – most of its readership is under 16.)
“There is no correct age at which you are ‘supposed’ to have sex,” declares the health website coolnurse.com. “Everyone has to make a very personal decision about what is right for them.”
Really? What if a girl decides that sex is right for her at age 12 or 13?
One fact absent from most sex education programs is that young girls are more susceptible to STDs than mature women. They don’t include information about the cervical transformation zone (or T-Zone), a ring of cells that is vulnerable to infection. The transformation zone is dramatically larger in a teenage girl, but it shrinks as she gets older. I didn’t find a single mention of the T-Zone in any of the comprehensive sex education guides I reviewed. How many girls have been put at risk for STDs because they believe that sex is “safe” as long as they use condoms and feel ready?
Also, on a strictly neurological level, kids are not able to make a mature decision to have sex. In adolescents, the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and accurate risk assessment are not fully developed – and won’t be until their 20s. Adults acknowledge this medical fact when debating other issues affecting kids. For example, teens’ limited capacity for risk assessment is often cited as the reason not to let them drive until age 16 or drink until age 21. If we think high school seniors are too immature to have a beer, why do we think eighth-graders are able to understand the risks of sexual activity, let alone use condoms and birth control reliably?
Oh, now I remember: telling a 14-year-old girl she’s too young to have sex would be making a moral judgment. The correct response is to hand her a condom and applaud her for making a “personal decision” about whether she is “ready.”
It is negligent to instruct teens to make choices based on fleeting feelings of “readiness,” since studies show that early sexual debut is usually a regretted decision. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 72 percent of girls and 55 percent of boys say they wish they had waited longer to have sex. The younger a girl is when she loses her virginity, the more likely she is to regret that decision later.
Interestingly, the same survey found that 78 percent of all teenage respondents believed that teens shouldn’t have sex at all – probably because they were the first generation to have the “have sex as soon as you’re ready” mantra foisted on them and have suffered the consequences. While it is nearly impossible to find a woman who delayed sex and regrets not starting young and having multiple partners, I challenge anyone reading this to find even one girl who had sex at 12, 13, or 14 and believes it was a good decision.
Before writing this piece, I asked several of my friends their opinions on sex education. One, a self-described liberal feminist, told me, “I’m all for teaching kids about condoms, but I don’t think we should be telling emotionally immature kids to have sex based on feelings.”
Amen. Whether or not you agree with Stenzel’s abstinence-only position, there is no doubt that instructing girls in middle school and high school that sex has no “price tag” is a direct threat to their health.
And that’s a somewhat more pressing concern than “slut-shaming.”