Monday, June 23, 2008

The other pledge

A condom company has created a condom pledge program. They'll give a free sample to anyone who takes the following pledge:

"I pledge to embrace and advocate for the use of condoms, as a proven way to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and as an essential part of living a sexually healthy lifestyle."

Already they have over 100,000 condom pledgers and have created a map of the pledgers' locations, a number which took the virginity pledge about 4 months to reach. Amusingly, the first minute of the video on their site could have been a video for an abstinence program.

Of course I support the message of the pledge, but somehow I don't see any reason to think this pledge would be any more effective than virginity pledges. Nice marketing idea, though! It looks like public service and piggybacks onto a well-known political issue at a time of high awareness.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Subsidizing only abstinence-only: federalist sex education

The Boston Globe reports that Lowell middle schools would prefer to teach comprehensive sex education, but are teaching abstinence-only sex education because a federal grant makes that free:

While state backing for the abstinence-only program lapsed this year, the schools will continue to use them next year, since they are offered for free under a federal grant, the officials said.

"Right now we're trying to prioritize," Mayor Edward "Bud" Caulfield said recently, after the School Committee voted last month to cut 10 teachers to help erase a $3 million budget deficit. "We're operating on a shoestring."

Caulfield, who also is chairman of the School Committee, said he believes in comprehensive sex education....

Anita M. Downs, who stepped down recently as Lowell City-Wide Parent Council chairwoman and remains on the board, ... said she believes the schools should restore comprehensive sex education, which was dropped for budgetary reasons in 2003.

Downs acknowledged money is scarce, but said the district should create partnerships with outside organizations that might provide comprehensive sex education for free. "It is very important, because it's going to affect our future in a lot of ways," she said.

...Lowell switched from comprehensive sex education taught by health teachers in 2003, after budget problems forced schools to cut 14 of 17 of the teachers, said Lowell deputy superintendent for curriculum Jean Franco.

Can any real conservative defend using federal money to subsidize only curricula which meet federal standards contrary to community standards?

Independent organizations which subsidize comprehensive sex education for schools with little money would be great, but clearly they can't compete with a $200 million per year federal program for abstinence-only. Nonetheless, anyone know of any?

The K-mart abstinence pants controversy

I stopped at Kmart on my way back from the airport in mid-April and ran across the now famous "True Love Waits" blue and grey sweatpants at the end of a rack of a dozen other varieties, including non-existent sports teams and the usual inane statements that clothing stores (both high and low brow) use as filler. I thought it was cute that they had this message among all the others since (like all other stores) I've noticed sexually-suggestive messages on other t-shirts, so it seemed fair that they would have at least this more mixed message of abstinence on the ass. I laughed as I thought about buying some to show in my virginity pledge presentations at conferences, but decided to come back when they went on clearance. I didn't think of them again until hearing them mentioned on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

I'm surprised these pants have sparked commentary about whether they work, why the product description is in the third person, why they are only made for girls, and whether the message's placement looks like like a chastity belt. Since the controversy, Kmart has taken down the abstinence pants.

It's possible that these pants are a trademark violation since the Southern Baptist Conference (SBC) owns the True Love Waits program and sells related t-shirts on their website, but otherwise what's the big deal? Doesn't every store write dumb stuff on t-shirts, especially for girls? A brief look through the Kmart website finds the following t-shirts:

  • Girls' Short Sleeve Don't Just Stand There Buy Me Something Tee: "Your little shopper is sure to love this fun tee. The screen print design is lavished with glitter." Just $4.79!
  • 'She will flip for this crewneck tee in a sassy glitter print with "There's no such thing as too many flip flops".'

Any self-respecting person should be ashamed to wear these.

Kmart just wants to sell clothes and they don't care what they write on them, as long as they sell. They choose dozens of slogans a year, and this year apparently they decided one of them should be abstinence-related. Since most t-shirt slogans are slight variations on trademarks, I'm guessing that they didn't even realize that TLW was trademarked or they would have chosen an abstinence slogan which was not a trademark. Though a look through Cafe Press reveals TLW t-shirts being sold by people other than the organization which owns the trademark, so maybe the SBC has chosen not to enforce their trademark ownership.

Teens can wear the abstinence pants with this Extra Virgin thong, created by a Hollywood comedy writer friend of mine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Adolescents committing adultery in their heart

A former evangelical Christian describes attempting to avoid lustful thoughts as an adolescent on this week's This American Life. His pastor suggests a visit to Sex Addicts Anonymous, and a Christian counselor suggests masturbation.

Listen directly on the website or download the podcast through itunes this week. 9 minutes long, just after 34 minutes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Virginity pledges in the Onion

Today's Onion includes the following wedding announcement:

WEDDINGS: Trinity Communion Church congratulates youth group members Jason Torrence and Julie Barber, both 16, for wisely choosing to marry rather than break their abstinence pledges.

Monday, June 2, 2008

All parents are for truth

As Congress considers Abstinence-Only Sex Education funding, the Parents for Truth campaign has put out a video with dramatic music about comprehensive sex education. A startlingly well-coiffed blonde woman comes home to her daughter doing homework at the kitchen table and the kind of music in the background which cues the viewer that a red phone is about to ring in the white house. She receives a cell phone call from an African-American friend telling her about the content of the sex education course, which lists "showering together" as an activity that a couple can do together. The woman asks her daughter whether they learned in school that it's okay to shower with boys, and the daughter says yes. The woman retreats into indignant thought.

1. It violates the one rule of sex ed that Focus on the Family and Planned Parenthood agree on: parents should discuss sex with their kids. Instead of retreating into silence, the parent in the PFT video had a perfect teachable moment. She could have asked her daughter what they said about showering with boys --- I'm guessing it was on a list of "things to do instead of intercourse" --- and what she and her friends think about it. "Ick," seems like the most likely response from a 13 year old. The mom could then ask the daughter whether they could talk after dinner about the day's lesson, so they'd get to talk about the subject and the mother could convey her nuanced views. Parents don't realize how much influence they have on their kids' decisions.

2. Parents For Truth doesn't like the showering-together text, and they don't even quote the grape jelly lubricant sex ed text, but I find it hard to believe there's not a single comprehensive sex education curriculum that they'd find acceptable. Textbook companies produce different products for red and blue states/school districts. Reasonable people can disagree about the content of sex education, and they inevitably will. We don't need one national sex ed curriculum.

Of course parents who are upset by a specific sex ed curriculum should speak up, but there's no excuse to assert a national conspiracy theory. The campaign's main website says that comprehensive sex education folks are deliberately misleading parents in order to teach kids about sex. That's needlessly paranoid.

3. I would expect real conservatives to recoil from tying funds to curriculum content. Federal funding mandating a specific piece of school curriculum whose content meets eight distinct criteria is anomalous. There's no federal funding for private organizations and states to develop new statistics or calculus or physics curricula. Frankly, I think the federal government ought to create a $200+ million statistics education program, in which students are taught that evidence-based policy is the only right way: the abstinence slogan is that only abstinence is 100% effective; statistics would claim effectiveness with 95% confidence.

4. Abstinence is a life situation in which many adolescents find themselves, some unwillingly, so should be affirmed. Sex education should address the entire population of the abstinent, whether they're popular kids who have been dating since 6th grade and choose to be abstinent or geeks who don't find someone willing to hold their hand until well past high school graduation. Religion aside, it's a hard balance: sex education has so much to teach about sex --- mechanics, decision-making, motivations, alternatives to intercourse, condoms, birth control choice, and grape jelly --- and yet if it's not carefully worded, the socially marginalized might feel even more marginal. The painful cycle of hope and rejection is something we'd all rather forget, and debates about sex ed sometimes proceed as though it were obvious how you find a person to abstain from sex with.

It's an issue rarely addressed, except in the paper with perhaps the best name ever, "Smart teens don't have sex (or kiss much either)".

Making curricula be sensitive to its diverse audiences' beliefs and circumstances is common courtesy, and shouldn't require a federal mandate to accomplish. If there are curricula that aren't, they should at least remember the geeks.

5. The vast majority of even the most religious teenagers have sex, so are at risk for STDs and pregnancy. Adolescents who know accurate information about the effectiveness of birth control and condoms are more likely to use them, and there's no excuse in the age of google for presenting inaccurate or outdated information or any other type of propaganda. As Santelli says, it's unethical and a violation of human rights to withhold information or give misinformation that could preserve health and save lives.

There are ways to present accurate and comprehensive contraception information in a religiously-acceptable way. "Even if you don't plan on having sex, you should know this so you can teach those who are having sex." And they might. I had a case of condoms in my dorm room during my freshman year of college. I put them in a bag hanging on my room's door handle, and every night would hear rustling. I had no use for them myself, and (despite my liberal school district) I'd actually never seen one in person until I volunteered to be a peer counselor where they taught us how condoms were used.

Going back further, I remember at the beginning of AIDS when I was too young to know anything about drugs, my synagogue assembled all the religious school classes and taught us about HIV prevention. One of the things they taught us was that we should not reuse needles after injecting drugs, but if we did need to reuse the needles we should sterilize the needles in a solution of bleach and water. At this point in my life, I didn't even know what bleach was and I'd never seen it in person, or held a bottle in my hand. I remember the first time I bought and used bleach in my laundry, it felt so transgressive. A fortiori, drugs were completely off the horizon, and learning about needle sterilization didn't make them seem any more desirable.

If I could be Philosopher King for a day, I would let states and school districts go back to choosing their own curricula with no subsidies to any curricula. The curricula would be up to local control, but ideally they would (1) include accurate information on condoms and instructions on condom use (fortunately many states mandate review for accuracy), (2) affirm those abstinent whether willingly or unwillingly, and (3) have a few homework assignments in which kids have to talk with their parents about specific issues. Finally, I would direct the $200 million to a federal statistics curriculum.

That fantasy aside, no matter what the outcome of this Congressional vote is, the arguments and polarization will continue unless people learn to find common ground and agree to disagree on the rest.

"More sex is safer sex"

"More sex is safer sex" is the title of Freakonomics author Steven Landsburg's latest book. The title idea is taken from Landsburg's 10 year old Slate column, based on a paper by Michael Kremer, but the book was published last year. The argument seems to be that the most promiscuous spread disease, so if people with few sex partners each added a sex partner, those with many sex partners would have to have fewer partners, and there would overall be less disease transmission. In other words, abstinence messages appeal to those with few lifetime sexual partners, increases the variance in the number of sex partners, and spreads more disease.

Gil Kalai covers the idea briefly in his review of the book in the AMS bulletin, and phrases it in terms of graph theory: if people are nodes in a graph, and each sexual encounter is an edge, then "if we fix the number of edges (sexual encounters), then the epidemic will spread more rapidly when the variance in the degrees of the vertices is larger."

That assumption that the number of sexual encounters in a population is fixed would be interesting to test. Population-level properties are usually not investigated when studying interventions: people tend to look at individual-level outcomes. Since the goal of abstinence education is to decrease the total number of sexual encounters in a group, or in wonky jargon "decrease the size of the sexual pie", it would be interesting to see if that were true. To extend the idea even farther, we could go from micro-level behavior to the macro, and look at the elasticity of demand for sexual encounters in a population, using macro-level data and standard (flawed) macro demand equations.

Another way of saying "More sex is safer sex" is "If sex is made deviant, only deviants will have sex." Logically, I can't help but think of, "If guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns," but, oddly, the overlap between the gun control and sex control lobbies is very small.