Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Abstinence


Film tries new tack with teens

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        Girls, what happened? We used to encourage each other to resist going too far, too young. Now I'm hearing things like this:

        “I was the last of my friends to lose my virginity. On the night after it happened, all of my girlfriends threw me a big party, because they were so proud that I had finally done it, gotten it over with.”

        How sad. The testimony of this young woman, who had an abortion at 16, was for me the grimmest part of a new video series being offered to Northern Kentucky schools.

        Choosing the Best is available free from the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department. The curriculum pushes abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

        After much debate last year, the district adopted this approach and abandoned one that also had addressed contraception.

        The switch made sense. Parents here don't want their kids learning about condoms in school, so few teachers had taken advantage of the district's materials.

Teens talk

        That may change with Choosing the Best.

        I liked what I saw in the videos. They mix teen interviews with documentary-like footage. There are segments on the pressure to have sex, on strategies for saying no and on the consequences of pregnancy and disease.

        The tone isn't preachy or maudlin, because young people aren't that way. In the videos, tailored to either middle- or high-schoolers, teen-agers describe their own sexual experiences with that unique mix of regret, bravado and giggly embarrassment.

        The presentation is fair. Segments address girls who pressure boys, not just the other way around. There's even a two-sided account of a drunken encounter that led to a date-rape accusation.

        Humor also is in evidence. A trio of girls struggles to guess what “abstinence” means. A boy barely out of braces says: “I don't think anything is worth having AIDs ... an orgasm, chocolate milk, anything.”

        This is likeable stuff. Whether it works is another question.

        Studies have indicated Choosing the Best has a positive effect, but those studies didn't compare participants with non-participants. A more rigorous evaluation is under way.

        In general, experts believe school-based programs can work. Teen pregnancy, abortion and birth rates have declined every year since 1991, says Dr. Douglas Kirby of ETR Associates, a California-based research company.

        For a recent paper, Dr. Kirby looked at more than 250 scientifically valid studies of prevention programs. To ensure the report's fairness, he ran it by experts in the liberal and conservative camps.

        One finding: Programs that address abstinence and contraception do not increase sexual activity among teens and have even been shown to reduce it.

        Only three studies evaluated abstinence-only programs, and they did not show an overall positive effect. But Dr. Kirby cautioned against drawing conclusions from such limited data.

        A new federal study on such programs should be out in a few years, which is good news.

        In the meantime, I have a question.

        Girlfriends, what are you thinking? The party should be for the virgins.

        Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or at ksamples@enquirer.com.

       



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