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Healthy Respect Media Release

Sex, Drugs and Cigarettes:
The mixed message we send our kids

4/28/09 -- For one co-ed, classroom lessons apply to real life situations

What is it about abstinence that baffles so many opinion-makers and policymakers? It is a simple concept that is applied in many other areas of public policy affecting teens. Yet somehow when it comes to sex and teens, adults lose their common sense.

Take smoking, for instance. Everyone agrees that cigarettes are harmful to your health and should be avoided, especially by the young. Thus the message from government, educators and opinion-makers is "Just don't do it!"

All around our culture the message is strong and consistent, and millions of dollars in settlements against tobacco companies have gone toward assuring that the right message gets out to our youth.

No one suggests that we should tell kids, "Don't smoke, but if you do, use low-nicotine or filtered cigarettes." Of course not - that would dilute the "don't smoke" message and send a confusing signal to youngsters. An abstinence message is seen as the only sensible one when it comes to tobacco.

Substitute illegal drugs for tobacco and the need for a consistent "no" message is even more vital. "Get Real - Use Clean Needles" would be a non-starter in a campaign for our kids to act responsibly with heroin.

Yet when it comes to sex, the rules change for many in the public policy business. These kids are going to do it anyway, so let's make it safe, is the common mindset. This sounds good, until you consider the implications. After all, despite anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns, some kids do get hooked on cigarettes and drugs - yet the "don't do it" message is still seen as the best one, despite the obvious failure to reach every single youth.

A Current Issue in DC

Today, with the new administration in Washington, sexual abstinence programs are coming under more intense scrutiny and criticism. Federal dollars that had flowed to authentic abstinence programs are being scaled back and a new bill called "Responsible Education About Life (REAL)" is being pushed in the US Senate. It would mandate "comprehensive" sex education to include information about condoms and contraception.

Even detractors admit that abstinence is the only way to protect teens from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the latter of which are at epidemic levels among teens, with up to 1 in 5 teen girls carrying at least one STI.

Rather than take the common sense approach that most parents would insist upon for their children - "just don't do it!" - lawmakers want to do away with the one policy that has any hope of effecting any good among teens - the one that they know works best with smoking and drugs.

You have to figure that when it comes to sex, senators, other lawmakers and media elites do not trust kids to do the right thing. We have to wonder how much low expectations produce reduced performance levels among youngsters, and why after decades of flooding our classrooms with condoms, teen pregnancy remains high and STI levels have skyrocketed.

The Healthy Respect Difference

At Healthy Respect, we work with high-risk urban students every day, and we know the good they can do when challenged.