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Monday, April 16, 2007

Wherein I go from abstinence-only to hatin' on the suburbs

by folkbum

As someone who works daily with adolescents--particularly the urban adolescents whose behavior has made Milwaukee the second-ranking city for teen pregnancy nation-wide--I could have told you what the expensive researchers have now conculded:
Students who participated in a Milwaukee after-school abstinence program were just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not take part in the program, according to a national study.

They also used condoms at similar rates and had a similar number of sexual partners, the study found. Mathematica Policy Research Inc. conducted the research, which Congress mandated to evaluate the effectiveness of the $176 million the federal government spends each year on abstinence-until-marriage education. The study was released this month.

From fall 1999 to fall 2001, 326 middle-school-age boys and girls participated in the Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy program administered by Rosalie Manor Community & Family Services in Milwaukee. The year-round program met between two and four times a week, Al Castro, the organization's executive director, said Friday.

When that group was surveyed in late 2005 and early 2006, 60% of those who had participated in the program had remained abstinent, compared with 62% of youths who hadn't taken the class. The study compared them to 178 youths who did not participate in the abstinence program.
The single most persuasive element in these students' lives is their peer group. If their peers are having sex and using condoms, then they will as well. The last people they will listen to and trust are the adults who tell them that what their friends are doing--and probably having fun while they're at it--is wrong.

Those of us who work with adolescents figured out a long time ago that the best way to change adolescent behavior is to either a) make those adolescents think the change in behavior is their own idea or 2) make the change in behavior seem the popular thing to do. While I don't know the specific curriculum for these anstinence-only programs, what I know about them generally is that they do neither a) nor 2), instead teaching from authority and explicitly telling students that abstinence will be a difficult choice.

Actually, I'm pretty impressed that so many of the students from both groups remained abstinent even though some of them must now be eighteen or twenty years old.

Teenage sexual behavior and teen pregnancy is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something that can be eliminated or reduced without considering the whole constellation of other behaviors and realities that make life here in the big city such a challenge. I sometimes feel like a broken record when I say that education, employment, health care, segregation and racism, housing, crime, and, yes, teen pregnancy are all a part of a larger picture that must be addressed.

Until the state makes a commitment to this city (in much the same way as the nation must make a commitment to all of its cities), the spiral will widen and every important indicator will continue to point downwards. As much as the polite media may offer sadly distant commentary--and the impolite bloggers offer hateful screeds--nothing is going to happen here until a whole lot more people are willing to have an honest conversation and come down here and get their hands dirty trying to improve the place.

Yes, I ramble. It's what I do. But if the world is going to remain shocked--just shocked!--at the crime or the teen pregnancy rate or the low test scores in Milwaukee, then to maintain some credibility the world is going to have to offer some real help at some point. Identifying the things that frighten or disgust you gets real old real fast. Abstinence-only has failed as a solution, as did white-flight, as did welfare reform, as did school vouchers, as did truth-in-sentencing, and on and on and on.

So, suburbs, state of Wisconsin, talk radio, bloggers: Get back to me when you're ready to try something that isn't merely implementation of favorite conservative talking points. Maybe then we can make some legitimate progress.

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