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Bristol Palin Proves It: Abstinence Education Is Unrealistic

When I, a parent of a 17-year-old daughter due to graduate from high school this May, originally read about Bristol Palin's pregnancy during the presidential campaign, I shared the same sense of indignant outrage expressed by many upon hearing the news. Why on earth is a girl that age having sex, particularly when she was raised by a mother who staunchly supports abstinence-only education? Didn't she listen?

Yes, I'll admit my first reaction upon learning of a pregnant teenage girl is to think that it really should be that simple: telling one's child "don't have sex until you're married" should be enough. Never mind the whole virginity pledge thing; explaining the risk of STDs, AIDs and teenage pregnancy should be sufficient rationale. And, just in case it isn't, then the threat of an angry parent with "a 12-gauge double-aught buckshot" should be enough incentive for teens to "keep their britches on." And yet, obviously, it isn't. The Bristol Palins and Jamie Lynn Spears are proof enough that "just say no" doesn't always sink in.

After giving birth in late December, Bristol Palin went on CNN to talk about how the daughter of an abstinence-only supporter became an unwed teenage mother. No, she told Greta Van Susteren, it wasn't that she was lazy about contraception, nor did she have religious or personal objections to its use. She got pregnant because she had sex, and she had sex because that's what she decided to do. Or, in her own words, because her parents' instructions to abstain from having sex is "not realistic at all."

Sure, we can warn teens about the dangers of unmarried sex. We can point to Bristol Palin and say, "Look, even she's acknowledged that getting knocked up isn't fun or glamorous" no matter what the Gloucester 17 girls thought it would be. We can grab sticky tape, as Eric Love of the East Texas Abstinence Program did, and use it as a metaphor for what teenage sex will do to their future marriage:

To make the point, Mr. Love grabbed a tape dispenser and snapped off two fresh pieces. He slapped them to his filing cabinet and the floor; they trapped dirt, lint, a small metal bolt. "Now when it comes time for them to get married, the marriage pulls apart so easily," he said, trying to unite the grimy strips. "Why? Because they gave the stickiness away.

Such object lessons sound persuasive, even witty, in the confines of a classroom where students already know that nodding and pretending to agree makes the lecture shorter and the day go faster. But beyond school doors waits a world which proves how simplistic -- and futile -- our talk is. The lessons to be drawn from two pieces of lint-covered tape are drowned out by what teens see enacted on The O.C. or The Hills, television shows that are part of the teenage media diet linked with teen pregnancy.

We, as parents, can pat ourselves on the back for cleverly demonstrating the perils of putting out, or we can pay attention to the reality of our teenagers' lives:

  • Nearly half (46%) of all 15-19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.
  • By the time they reach age 19, seven in 10 teens have engaged in sexual intercourse.

That's the irony behind the abstinence-only approach: Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, the Gloucester 17 ... they're all part of that shocking 46 percent of 15-19-year-olds who are having sex even as they're receiving abstinence-only education under an unprecedented $176 million in federal funding.

If there is one lesson that we, as parents, should learn from our children it's that despite our best intentions, despite our instructions and admonishments, they aren't always going to obey. We begin learning this when they're toddlers who, after being told to stay out of the cookie jar so they don't spoil their dinner, head straight for it the instant Mommy or Daddy's back is turned. We are reminded of it when we tell them not to use foul language, then find ourselves in the principal's office, red-faced and embarrassed, because our kid was caught scrawling vulgar epithets on a bathroom wall about another kid at school.

Kids screw up. That's part of being kids. And a sad fact in today's world is that, despite whatever we tell them, kids are also screwing around.

Telling a teenager that abstinence is the only acceptable approach denies the reality of the world they're living in, just as it denies the reality of our own experience: children don't always listen.  The only thing that an abstinence-only approach gives us is the cold comfort of reminding ourselves we taught them better.

Except, obviously, we did not.