Wisconsin Must Return to Comprehensive Sex Education

In light of the recent repeal of the Wisconsin's Healthy Youth Act, school sex education has been thrust into the spotlight as a critical controversial issue, as reported by Reuters. According to NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, there are roughly 900,000 teen pregnancies in the United States each year, and 48 percent of all new sexually transmitted infection (STI) cases occur among teens and young adults ages 15-24. Based on these staggering statistics, it is very apparent why this issue has raised public concern.

The rationale of the law's conservative opponents is clear; in their minds abstinence-focused education offers a sufficient solution to the moral dilemma posed by teenage sex. However, society's approach to sex education can have far greater implications than the moral ones upon which these opponents base their argument. The implementation of abstinence-focused education in schools will likely lead to lack of awareness among young people, and, by extension, elevated teen pregnancy and STI rates -- both consequences that will adversely affect the economy and society at large.

One of the most significant consequences of teen pregnancy is an increase in high school dropout rates. According to One Wisconsin Now, more than 60 percent of mothers under the age of 18 never graduate from high school. In addition, young fathers are also more likely to drop out. In a society in which a high school diploma is often a fundamental requirement for minimum-wage employment, this poses a serious problem.

Young parents forced to drop out will inevitably suffer the consequences of being undereducated in a competitive economy where advancement is heavily dependent upon academic credentials. Gone are the days when the acquisition of a high school diploma offered a guarantee of employment; graduation from high school has become a basic expectation for success in the work force.

The failure of young parents to complete a high school education is bound to affect more than just the individuals that drop out. Society and the Wisconsin economy will suffer as a result of increased teen pregnancy. As shown by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a correlation between the quality of worker education and higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. Although seemingly an isolated issue, the high school dropout rate resulting from teen pregnancy could have a far greater impact if teen pregnancy rates increase as a result of the repeal of the Healthy Youth Act.

Although teen pregnancy is an adverse result of inadequate sex education, it is certainly not the only one. STI rates are also disproportionately high among teens and young people ages 15-24, arguably due to a sex education program that fails to account for real-life circumstances. In essence, protecting oneself from STIs can be as simple as knowing how to properly use effective barrier methods, such as condoms. However, hindering a complete education on sexual health by implementing of abstinence-focused sex education programs is unwise. The result will likely lead to fewer young people gaining a full awareness of birth control options and sexual wellness that could lead to immeasurably safer sexual practices.

In terms of social consequences, studies done by groups like Advocates for Youth consistently indicate that abstinence-focused sex education has little effect on sexual behavior in youth. With this in mind, the approach to sex education should be focused more on educating young people within the confines of their already existing attitudes rather than attempting to facilitate change where it is unlikely to occur.

Whether we as a society -- our legislators in particular -- are willing to accept it or not, young people are going to engage in sexual behavior. This is an undeniable reality that we need to accept and learn to respond to effectively. Abstinence-focused education programs fail to address youth sexual health issues in the confines of this reality. No one is denying that abstinence is the safest approach to sex; however it is utterly unreasonable to presume that all, or even most young people will choose this route. It is time for Wisconsin's legislators to learn to accept reality. The fact that young people have sex is not changing. What must change, however, is the return to comprehensive and honest sex education for our youth.

Hannah Sleznikow (hsleznikow@wisc.edu) is a senior majoring in political science.

This piece first appeared in The Badger Herald: www.badgerherald.com Questions: Signe Brewster, Editor-in-Chief, The Badger Herald sbrewster@badgerherald.com (608) 257-4712 x101