You’ve got to feel very sorry for Bristol Palin. The poor teenager isn’t running for political office and yet she’s the subject of two front page stories in the NY Times today. All of a sudden, every talking head on the cable news is wondering how her pregnancy will influence the election. Is this what politics has become?
And yet, this teenage pregnancy is indicative of something: the pitiful failure of abstinence-only sex education. Governor Palin, of course, strongly supports abstinence-only education in the classroom. (She also believes in teaching creationism alongside evolutionary theory, but that’s another matter.) The problem with this belief is that abstinence-only classes don’t work. Here is the Washington Post:
A long-awaited national study has concluded that abstinence-only sex education, a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s social agenda, does not keep teenagers from having sex. Neither does it increase or decrease the likelihood that if they do have sex, they will use a condom.
Why doesn’t abstinence-only education deter teens from having sex? Consider this R-rated experiment, led by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neuroeconomist George Loewenstein. They began by asking twenty-five male undergraduates at UC-Berkeley a series of provocative sexual questions. The first set of questions concerned their sexual preferences. Could they imagine having sex with a 60 year old woman? What about getting sexually excited by contact with an animal? Did they like getting tied up during sex? The next set of questions dealt with sexual morality. Would the male students slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with them? Would they keep trying to have sex after their date said “no”? The final set of questions was about safe sex. Would the men insist on using a condom? Is it safe to have unprotected sex if you “pull out” before ejaculation?
Each male student answered these naughty hypotheticals in two different states of mind. In the first condition, the subjects were told to answer the questions without being aroused. They were supposed to contemplate sex in an un-sexual state of mind. In the second condition, the subjects were shown pornography while answering the questions. (They were alone in their dorm room for this part of the experiment.) When asked in advance, the men didn’t think that being aroused would significantly alter their answers. They assumed that their sexual preferences were relatively immune to such temporary emotional biases.
The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crimes – such as using a date-rape drugs – when staring at pornographic images. And, of course, being aroused also made them much less likely to use condoms. Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant when they actually had an erection. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”
Recent research suggests that the willpower of adolescents is especially compromised. While the emotional brains of teens are operating at full throttle (those raging hormones don’t help), the mental muscles that check these emotions are still being built. A recent study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards – things like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – was significantly more active and mature in the adolescent brain than the prefrontal cortex, which helps us resist such temptations. This anatomy helps explain why adolescents are so much more likely engage in risky, impulsive behavior.
The essential lesson, then, is that teens are going to have sex. Even the fear of God isn’t going to stop them. What we need to do is educate them about the risks of sex and teach them how to use condoms and birth control. Pretending we’re more rational and less “sinful” than we actually are only leads to unwanted outcomes.