paper 3

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Sex and Gender

2005 Third Web Papers

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paper 3

alex heilbronner

Sex education for children is a provocative and controversial issue. The one thing everyone seems able to agree on is that it should exist, though when to start it and how to go about doing it vary across a huge spectrum. There is currently a bill in Congress proposing a $500 million plan to reduce public sex education from a comprehensive look—enforcing contraception and safety while also discussing general issues of sexuality—to one that strictly discusses the "social, psychological, and health gains" of abstinence for unmarried people (Sternberg, 1). Advocates of such a conservative form of sex education argue that education about safer sex is not going to prevent disease and unplanned pregnancies. These people claim that only through abstinence education will teenagers learn how to protect themselves from STDs and unplanned pregnancy. Yet perhaps they have not heard that 26% of women who claim to practice abstinence get pregnant each year (Singer, 2). This inconsistency between education, public policy, and actual behavior, along with the increasingly strict regulations on abortion and birth control accessibility, is sending young women mixed messages, and then denying them the opportunity to fix their mistakes.

At the root of this issue is the concept of choice. In 1972, a step toward furthering women's autonomy was made with the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. Yet since this ruling, further legislature has once again limited a woman's choices when it comes to her body. And girls under the age of eighteen have even less autonomy—when does a female become a "woman" and get to become the boss of her body?

Abstinence-only sex education removes further choices from teenage sex. This conservative education suggests that teenagers do not have the choice to have sex, though the fact of current American life is that about 2/3 of boys and ½ of girls in the US are sexually active by age 18 (Rescorla). Clearly sex education in public schools is inadequate—abstinence only sex-ed is not sex education at all, for it does not educate children about sex; rather, it preaches to them about remaining abstinent until marriage, a sermon half of the teenage girls in this country disregard. Rather than educate young girls about various types of birth control and how or where they can access these resources, public sex education courses are ignoring the issue of teenage sex, hoping it will go away.

This sends a message to teenage girls—and not the message that they should abstain from sex. Rather, this non-discussion of safe sex and sexuality further stigmatizes sex for girls, which can cause them to be shamed by their desire to know more about aspects of sex. These girls are then less likely to ask their parents questions or seek advice from other knowledgeable sources under the pretext that such questions are inappropriate. These same girls then engage in sexual activity without being properly educated about ways to protect themselves, and can end up pregnant or infected with an STD.

Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in birth control education, began speaking out for the need to educate women about birth control options in 1918, long before oral contraceptives had been developed. She saw birth control as a way to maintain lifestyles. That is, giving a sexually active couple the choice to have a baby or not helped them to continue on the path they had set for themselves. In the early 1900's, women who had babies out of wedlock were shut away or cast out (which is still the result for some unwed mothers in certain situations these days), and Sanger knew many of these women. She spoke of a pair of sisters, one of whom became pregnant and had the baby. She was then thrown out of her house and forced to work as a servant for families who mistreated her and her child to the point that the infant died. The other sister also became pregnant, but was sent away to have an abortion, which affected her psychologically but allowed her to continue on in her society. Sanger said, "our laws force women into celibacy on the one hand, or abortion on the other," and she felt that neither option was the best option.

Currently, 21 states allow all minors to get birth control without informing their parents. Another 11 states allow "most" minors to do so (Planned Parenthood). This ensures that teens who seek out protection can receive it without their parents knowing they are sexually active (surely it is not the fear of most young women that their parents know they are using contraceptives, but that they are sexually active in the first place). But teens who choose to use prescription birth control without the knowledge of their parents are faced with the challenge of paying for it without the assistance of their parents.
Yet even if there is an open relationship between parents and their daughters, paying for birth control can be a challenge. The current Anthem insurance policy my family has does not cover oral contraceptives like Ortho-tricyclen unless they are being used as an acne treatment, which seems rather illogical. Even more illogical is that this insurance plan covers Viagra. So even beyond public policy, private programs are not seeking to facilitate the acquisition of birth control by young women. What would Margaret Sanger say about this? She argues in her paper "Morality and Birth Control," published in 1918, that birth control education and access has been "tenaciously withheld from...working women," who have not been able to share in the "greater happiness, greater freedom, greater prosperity and...harmony" that upper class women using birth control methods had found. Clearly, birth control has not been equally accessible to everyone since the invention of the pessary, the first form of birth control for women.

So with birth control hard to learn about and even harder to gain access to, what's a girl to do? Planned Parenthood estimates that 34% of teenagers in the US become pregnant by the age of twenty. Currently, 34 states require a minor to have the involvement and permission of at least one parent before that minor can receive an abortion. This can dissuade girls from seeking an abortion, or a legal one, due to the fear of what their parents will do when they find out. Legislature like this does nothing to protect teenage girls who may be better off receiving an abortion without their parents' knowledge. In the most extreme case, should a child who was raped by her father then be forced to ask him whether or not she can abort the fetus? A study by Planned Parenthood suggests that, while most teens do in fact involve their parents in the decision, those that don't come from families with histories of violence. These teens fear their parents' violent reactions were they to learn of an unplanned pregnancy. Other teens worry they'll be kicked out of the house. Teenagers choosing not to involve their parents in the process are not, however, forced to make the decision all on their own. Most of them spoke about it with their boyfriends, a trusted adult, or a "professional," assumably a counselor or social worker.

In Missouri, no matter the patient's age, a twenty four hour waiting period is required between a doctor's consultation with the patient and the procedure. This time is supposedly used to ensure that the patient is making an informed consent before going through with the abortion. If the doctor does not follow guidelines set down by the government, he can be fined, or even serve jail time. The problem with this is that the guidelines for ensuring informed consent of the patient are so vague that many doctors do not understand them and could break the law without even realizing it. Missouri approved this piece of legislature using precedence from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which approved the 24 hour waiting period for women in Pennsylvania back in 1992. Some would argue legislature like this is not a threat to women's autonomy, because it merely delays the abortion by one day. However, the fact that the government can now dictate when a woman can have an abortion is a small step towards many anti-choice lobbyists' goal of illegalizing abortion.

Even more worrisome than the idea of a 24 hour waiting period is the idea that perhaps men should have a say in whether or not their sexual partners can receive abortions. Many websites such as talk of men being unsatisfied with their partner's decision about abortion. Most cases suggest that these men wish they could convince their partners to have an abortion so that the man will not get stuck paying eighteen years of child support on a child they never wanted to begin with. However, a few men wish they could prevent their partners from having an abortion such a battle happened in Pennsylvania in 2002, when a father-to-be got an injunction against his girlfriend's abortion. The injunction was lifted days later under the precedence of Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, a 1976 case that led to the invalidation of a Missouri law that required a woman to have written spousal consent before she could have an abortion (Lithwick, 1). Men in this situation seem to have forgotten that there is more to being pregnant than just becoming a mother. The nine month gestation period is something that, quite simply, some women do not want to go through just because their partners say so. You cannot "legally force women to bear children against their will (Lithwick, 2)," just as you cannot legally force them to have an abortion because you don't feel like paying child support.

So, there are many difficulties when it comes to sex in the US. It is difficult to find birth control and learn how to use it. It is difficult to receive an abortion, and may become even more so. The one thing that seems not so difficult is getting pregnant when you weren't planning on it. And why all this trouble? Inadequate sex education practices for young people. As Jocelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General, says, "Vows of abstinence break more easily than latex condoms." So why is the Bush administration trying to push through this $500 million plan that will essentially deny teenagers access to information needed to make responsible decisions about sex? Perhaps it is their Puritan concern with the overall level of national morality. But on that note, Margaret Sanger argues, "knowledge of birth control is essentially moral."

Sources Used

Elders, Jocelyn. Interview by Priscilla Pardini in 2002 for Rethinking Schools.

Lithwick, Dahlia. "Dad's Sad, Mad: Too Bad." Slate 7 August 2002: 1-3. Accessed 19 November 2005 .

New York University. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. 2005. [internet] accessed 19 November 2005: .

Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 2005 [internet] accessed 19 November 2005: .

Rescorla, Leslie. Introduction to Psychology. Lecture heard November 2005, Bryn Mawr College.

Singer, Alan. "Preaching Ain't Teaching: Sex Education and America's New Puritans."
Rethinking Schools Online 2003: 1-3. Accessed 10 November 2005 .

Sternberg, Steve. "Sex Education Stirs Controversy." USA Today July 10 2002: 1-3. Accessed 10 November 2005 .

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