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Is abstinence-based sex education the best choice for our teens?

By 9 February 2010October 8th, 2018News

Irish Times – 9 February 2010

Controversial religious programmes from the US are finding their equivalents here, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

JUST SAY NO – that’s the fundamental message of controversial abstinence campaigns such as the US-based Silver Ring Thing, aimed at encouraging teenagers to save sex for the marriage bed. But this is not just an American phenomenon. Similar “abstinence-centred” approaches are taking an increasingly defining role in the sex education of young people in Ireland. And a report from the US last week indicated that abstinence-focused approaches can – contrary to the findings of many other international studies – convince a significant proportion of teenagers to delay sexual activity.

Love for Life, an education project based in Craigavon, Co Armagh, delivers Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programmes to over 50 per cent of post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, including the grammar school that my own children attend in Belfast.

The charity has also led sessions in Dublin, Cork, Sligo, Tipperary and Dundalk, and aspires to deliver programmes on an Ireland-wide basis.

Founded on “a Christian model of values”, Love for Life aims to “demonstrate these values in social action”. But although it appears to share many similarities with programmes such as Silver Ring Thing – a high-energy, teen-friendly approach, for example, with sessions being led by young, cheerful and approachable leaders – Love for Life is keen to emphasise that its agenda is “abstinence-centred” rather than “abstinence-only”.

“We’re not here to preach, or to be overly prescriptive. We want young people to consider delaying sex, to think about their relationships and to identify the pressures on them,” says Olwyn Mark, from Love for Life.

The group insists that judgement is not involved: “All Love for Life work is underpinned with an acceptance of each individual as being incredibly unique and special, irrespective of what choice they make in any area of their lives.”

Together with Evangelical Alliance, Love for Life is also one of the key organisers of a conference, Not Just a One Night Stand, being held today at a Presbyterian church in east Belfast. Timed to coincide with Marriage Week, the one-day event is open to all “16 to [unmarried] 30 somethings”, attending as individuals or couples. It’s designed to promote “biblical thinking on love, sex and marriage”, and, according to Mark, “to help young people connect their faith with their sexuality”. Mark says the discussion will be frank and to the point, and will incorporate a session dealing with “frequently avoided questions” that may have puzzled, concerned or disturbed the delegates.

Among the speakers will be Jonathan Berry, who says that he was previously involved in a long-term gay relationship from the age of 17 to 24, before converting to Christianity. Berry, who now describes himself as “a contented single”, is director of a UK-wide ministry called True Freedom Trust, which seeks to “support people saved out of a gay lifestyle, and those already in the church who struggle with same-sex attractions”.

Also appearing will be Rachel Gardner of the Romance Academy project – motto: “no sex please, we’re teenagers” – a 12-week programme during which young people pledge to abstain from all sexual contact in order to challenge “current cultural attitudes to sex and relationships”.

Encouraging youngsters to delay their ‘sexual debut’, as it’s termed in the world of RSE, is a strategy that instinctively appeals to most parents, most of whom would prefer to see their children begin their sexual lives in the context of a loving relationship. “I like the fact that they challenged the super-sexualised media messages that our kids are bombarded with,” says Joy McGartland, whose 15-year-old daughter attended a Love for Life session recently.

As for the teenagers themselves, while some find the advice useful, others display a certain amount of cynicism. “We got loads of statistics showing why married people have better sex lives. The other thing they do is try to scare you out of having sex by telling you about all the disgusting effects of sexually transmitted infections,” says Alex, a 16-year-old participant.

And some parents are uncomfortable with the perceived ethos of the Christian abstinence movement. “It seems to me that they are shying away from the realities of teenage life,” according to Katy Morgan, the mother of a 15-year-old girl. “I’d prefer my daughter to receive neutral, pragmatic teaching, including how to use contraception effectively and sensibly. For all the talk of choice and inclusivity, there’s a lot of unspoken values going on here.”

Is that fair criticism? It’s true that, the dedicated website set up by Love for Life, acknowledges that there are three options for a young woman experiencing a crisis pregnancy – to keep the baby, to have it adopted or to have an abortion – none of which, it advises, are easy paths to take. But all the organisations recommended for further help and support on the site appear to be either Christian, anti-abortion or both. “We do have our own ethical and moral framework,” admits Olwyn Mark. “But our key message is: don’t rush into sexual relationships, and do make healthy choices.”

Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association Northern Ireland, says that open dialogue about sex and relationships is essential. “Recently I had a conversation with a headmistress who asked me why in this day and age, when contraception is widely available, so many young women become pregnant. When I asked her if she taught all methods of contraception in her school she admitted that they only taught natural methods. She failed to see the correlation.”

Simpson believes that “the ethos of the school is important but schools must ensure that their RSE programme is respectful and sensitive to those pupils, teachers and parents who are gay, who choose to have sex outside marriage using various methods of contraception to avoid pregnancy or getting an STI, or who will for very personal reasons choose at some point in their lives to end a pregnancy.”

Michael Barron, director of Belong2, the Dublin-based youth group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people in Ireland, is concerned that abstinence-centred strategies are now becoming mainstream in the Republic too: “Although it’s dressed up in different ways, abstinence is essentially presented as the only option. It reinforces negative messages around sex. Our message to the young people is: you’re fine as you are.”

Niall Behan, of the Irish Family Planning Association, agrees that abstinence-focused schemes “are not the best approach”.

As far as he is concerned, they “marginalise and build up taboos. They often have antiquated views of women’s place in society, and they completely ignore young people who might be gay.”

“Abstinence in itself is not a bad thing,” says Breedagh Hughes, of the Royal College of Midwives. “The important thing is that it is informed abstinence, not based on fear. Young people should be given all the knowledge they need about sex. If they’re not, you can be sure they will go and find out for themselves.”