NC Family president John Rustin talks with Valerie Huber, president of Ascend (formerly the National Abstinence Education Association) about a new CDC study that shows a remarkable decline in teen sexual activity in recent years.
INTRODUCTION: Valerie Huber is president of Ascend, a national pro-abstinence education group formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association or NAEA. Ascend represents organizations and individuals who support a priority of risk avoidance through abstinence education. Valerie Huber is with us to talk about two recent studies that confirm the importance of providing consistent and common sense messages to youth about delaying sexual activity until marriage.
JOHN RUSTIN: Valerie, I know the last time we had you on the program a few months ago, we talked about the decline in teen sexual activity that we’ve been seeing in recent years. But a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, shows an even steeper decline. Tell us about the CDC’s latest findings regarding teen sexual activity and what makes these findings so significant?
VALERIE HUBER: Well, the last time we chatted, we looked at the same data from 1991 through 2013, and at that time there’d been about a 16 percent drop in the percentage of teens who had ever had sex, which is really a great improvement. Just a two years difference now looking at 1991 thru 2015, there is now a 28 percent change. That means, from 1991 when things were just beginning to be a culture where it was normalizing teen sex, to now where everything it seems is promoting casual sex at younger and younger ages, we’re seeing fewer teens actually having sex. Astounding, but very good news.
JOHN RUSTIN: One of the things that you pointed out about this new CDC study is that you expect a result to be a “public acknowledgement of the relevance and effectiveness of the Sexual Risk Avoidance message in both the press and in policy.” First of all, for those who don’t really know what Sexual Risk Avoidance means, describe that for us, and isn’t this pretty much what we used to refer to as Abstinence Education?
VALERIE HUBER: Yes, it is. But Sexual Risk Avoidance, or what we call SRA for short, is really a lot more descriptive of a term that shows how waiting for sex, hopefully until marriage, is really a health choice, and the term Sexual Risk Avoidance is taken from public health entities like the CDC. So, it’s a choice to avoid all the risks associated with sex, particularly as a teen because that’s the age group that we work with. But the research is pretty compelling among all age groups, but more specifically, and much more strongly, among teens.
JOHN RUSTIN: Just to follow up on that, what kind of reaction have we seen so far to the new CDC data on teen sexual activity and this great reduction? Do you think we could see a renewed emphasis on programs that teach teens how to delay sex until marriage, or do you think we’re going to continue to see kind of this battle between Sexual Risk Avoidance, and what we refer to as more comprehensive sex education that often promotes condoms, contraceptives, and other activities and devices of that nature?
VALERIE HUBER: Well, in terms of what kind of reaction we’ve seen so far—among those who are promoting that “sex normalization” kind of message, or the “have sex but just make sure you use contraception approach,” they are befuddled and kind of beside themselves that teens are not having sex at the same rate that they were a few years ago. It kind of undercuts their message that “Well, teens are going to have sex anyway, so of course they need an array of contraception available to them. It’s unrealistic to think that in this day and age that waiting for a sex is a realistic or relevant message to them.” Well, that was their messaging for far too many years, and teens are showing that their message really in truth is not relevant. So, they’re coming up with all sorts of reasons why teens aren’t having sex, and some of them are almost laughable. In terms of your second question, could we see a renewed emphasis in these sorts of programs? I certainly hope so, and we’re starting to see some positive signs. We’ll go into a little more detail later, but Senator Blunt in the Senate, who is chair of the Labor and Health and Human Services Subcommittee of Appropriations, recently championed Sexual Risk Avoidance education, where we saw an increase in funding by 50 percent in the Senate bill. The House bill, lead by Chairman Tom Cole, is going to be released, we think, after the July 4 congressional recess, and we’re hopeful that we’ll see something approaching parity between Comprehensive Sex-Ed., and SRA education. And despite the fact that most of the money is going towards the President’s pro-teen sex program, we’re seeing more and more communities choosing Sexual Risk Avoidance instead. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute recently released a report where they were hoping to be able to log all of the advancements in sex education because of the President’s big push on his explicit program, but instead their study showed that fewer and fewer communities are interested in teaching that kind of sex-ed.; instead they want to teach SRA education. That was also very encouraging to us.
JOHN RUSTIN: That really is great news. Now, some commentators have suggested that the social media use by teens may be driving this trend in teens not having sex. But you have disputed that notion. What do you believe the impact of social media use is in relation to teen sexual activity, or are there other factors that are driving this decline?
VALERIE HUBER: We really don’t know exactly what factors are contributing to this decline. It’s possible that social media may play a part, but the fact of the matter is, John, that these numbers were already decreasing before social media was such a thing. You look around, and when you look at middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, if they have a phone, they’re staring at the phone instead of human faces, so we know that they’re involved in that. Whether that is the reason they’re not having sex, I really think that’s a simplification. We know one thing, and that is when we partnered with Barna Research to ask older teens why they weren’t having sex, the two top reasons that they gave, and actually these two reasons were tied for first place, one was because they were waiting to have sex for a committed relationship. Now, we don’t know exactly how they defined that, but that was number one. The second was they’re waiting because of their values. Social media was not in there. So this is actually very encouraging to us, and it’s showing that perhaps they’re waiting for the right reasons.
JOHN RUSTIN: Now Valerie, I want to ask you about another recent study that strengthens arguments for Sexual Risk Avoidance and positive messages about resisting engagement in those risky activities. This study looked at school condom distribution programs and the teen birth rate, as well as sexually transmitted diseases. What did this study by Notre Dame researchers find, and why are these findings so important to the debate over sex education across our nation?
VALERIE HUBER: Well, it is a very interesting study, and they looked at schools with and without condom distribution, and those that had condom distribution with no counseling attached to it, and those that had counseling attached to it. And they found that those that gave out condoms without any kind of counseling attached to it had an increase in teen pregnancy, and I think it was about a 10 percent increase. But, this study is a little tricky, and that’s for a couple of reasons. First of all, the results may be more historical than a commentary on today because they were looking at behavior from about a decade ago. As we know, the state of sex-ed. today differs from 10-15 years ago. So the study does tell us this: giving teens a bowl of condoms in the school nurses’ office is really selling them short. They deserve a lot more than that, and this study does show that minimalistic attempt at sex education really only adds to the problem.
JOHN RUSTIN: Valerie, on that note, and for the benefit of our listeners, how can parents, educators, pastors and youth workers reinforce the good choices that teens are making about sex, and help them continue to make similar choices, as you just said, as they enter into early adulthood prior to marriage?
VALERIE HUBER: That is such a good question. We really have to ask ourselves whether we who are parents, youth workers, teachers, any of those categories that you mentioned, what is it that we are saying, and are we saying anything to teens about this issue? Secondly, if we are talking about sex, are we reinforcing that the healthiest choice is to wait for sex hopefully until marriage? Or are we giving into the cultural narrative that kind of expects teens to have sex? What is the message that we’re giving to that teen who has already had sex? Are we offering condemnation, or are we offering hope for healthier choices in the future? And I’m not suggesting that we would even knowingly do the former, but we need to be intentional in doing the latter. The truth is that what we say matters, and it’s also important for us to be good role models as well, because the words that are coming out of our mouths have to match the life that we’re living as well.
JOHN RUSTIN: Valerie, before we go, could you give us a brief update on what is happening in Congress with respect to federal funding for sex education. I know you mentioned a couple of bills, but what do you anticipate will happen with those? I know it’s tough without a crystal ball to foretell the future, especially as it pertains to Congress, but what do you see as the status of this funding right now, and what are some things that our listeners might do to help with the great efforts that you all are making?
VALERIE HUBER: Well, we made some very good gains in the last year of Congress, and right now we’re looking at a very short season left because of the upcoming election. And Congress has a lot of work to do, and one of them is to pass a spending bill for this next year. As I mentioned earlier, the July 4 recess is kind of going to be the turning point, and we’re expecting the release of the House Bill for Sex-Ed. Funding. We need to watch and see what it looks like and if it’s favorable, as we’re hoping that it will be, your listeners could call their members of Congress, encourage support for that bill. In addition, we have the Healthy Relationships Act, both in the House and the Senate, and as this session wanes, it’s really important for as many members of Congress to sign on as co-sponsors for that bill. Not because we’re expecting it to be voted on this year, but because it sets a good precedent for the beginning of next year’s session.
JOHN RUSTIN: Before we go Valerie, I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can get more information about Ascend. We certainly will be tracking very closely these activities, and the status of this legislation in Congress, but I’m sure many of our listeners would like to develop a personal relationship with Ascend. If you would provide your website for our listeners. And also, I believe that you have an event coming up in Greensboro, North Carolina, shortly and would like to give you an opportunity to mention that as well.
VALERIE HUBER: We are actually working to launch our new website which is weascend.org. And right there in North Carolina, as you said, July 26 and 27, we’ve going to be spending time in Greensboro, training those who want to either advocate for or teach Sexual Risk Avoidance education in their school, in their church, or want to know how to confidently promote this best message in their communities. Contact Ascend if anyone would like to attend. We’re going to be taking registrations up until the day before that training, which is unprecedented, typically we do not do that. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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