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"Just say no' won't work for sex education

Re: Bush wants to fund chastity education,

March 10.

I teach sexuality education at more than 20 youth-serving agencies in Pinellas County, and I stay informed on research and evaluations of sexuality education programs. Abstinence-only education of the type Gov. Jeb Bush wants to promote has never been shown to be effective. However, comprehensive education that provides information on contraception as well as helping youth to learn refusal skills and to understand the value abstinence may have to them is very effective.

There are some extremely clear statistics on this matter. For instance, the United States has by far the highest teen-pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation. Why?? The answer is: Countries with low teen-birth rates provide comprehensive sexuality education for teens, plus they make contraception available to teens. As an example, seven out of 1,000 teens in the Netherlands give birth per year, and in the United States more than 50 out of 1,000 teens give birth each year. Furthermore, teens in the Netherlands wait on average more than a year longer than teens in the United States before engaging in sexual intercourse, even though they start learning about methods of contraception in middle school and contraception is easily available to teens. The average age for sexual debut in the Netherlands is 17.7 years while in the United States it is 16.3.

Perhaps even more dangerous than lack of contraception education for teens is that abstinence-only education, as defined and funded by the federal government, also forbids discussion of the use of condoms for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease prevention. When teens believe that condoms don't work, they don't stop having sex; they just stop using condoms. I know this from talking to thousands of teens over the past several years and listening to what they have to say.

Another point that the promoters of abstinence-only education miss is that telling teens that sex outside of marriage is wrong is often a slap in the face to their parents, as many parents are not and were never married to their children's other parent. Marriage is important if it is part of your belief system. It is not part of everyone's belief system. It is mostly a religious belief, and we are supposed to have separation of church and state. That should also mean public school curriculum is not based on religious beliefs. People can have sex outside of marriage without taking unreasonable risks if they are well-educated about risks and prevention and have reached a level of maturity.

Teens generally believe that sex can be a wonderful part of life. They have been bombarded with provocative messages about sex from TV, movies and music. What they often don't realize is that sex can ruin their lives if they become a teen parent or get a sexually transmitted infection. They need detailed information on the risks and guidance on how to grow to be a sexually healthy adult.

"Just say no" didn't work for drugs; it won't work for sex. With help, teens are quite capable of understanding complex messages about sexuality and its risks. We need to be honest with our teens and give them the respect they deserve.

Jane Maxwell, Clearwater

Abstinence education works

Re: Bush wants to fund chastity education.

As director of Family Health Services, I feel compelled to share with you that our abstinence education programs are a critical component of our departmental mission to "promote health and prevent disease." Our youth must be informed that abstinence from sexual activity is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems. We will continue our overall efforts to assure access to health care services for all Floridians while promoting primary prevention programs that promote good health outcomes.

At both the state and national level, comprehensive evaluation of abstinence education programs is ongoing. Initial findings show promise for these programs. In Miami-Dade County, Clarence Jones, region director for the county's public schools, says in reference to their "Recapturing the Vision" program that "records maintained by the School Board have documented this program's continuous success." He sites improvements in indicators such as increased grade point average, increased school attendance, decreases in in-school and out-of school suspensions and reduction in teen pregnancy.

Tom Smith, Ph.D., of the Florida State University school of social work, is directing the state's evaluation activities. He says, "Preliminary analyses of the before and after measures administered by several Florida providers suggest that their programs are making a positive difference on adolescents' self-reported attitudes and beliefs about sexual activity." The second phase of Florida's evaluation will document incidence of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases through a non-intrusive research design, which can validate self-reported abstinence.

Finally, as national evaluations continue, we also see promising findings. The Journal of Adolescent Health (Vol. 26, 2000) reports that abstinence education programs show evidence of postponing sexual involvement to teens who are sexually inexperienced. Other research consistently shows that adolescents who initiate sexual activity early are more likely to engage in additional risk-taking behaviors that can be a serious detriment to their overall health outcomes.

Therefore, we at the Department of Health, in keeping with our mission, are committed to empowering Florida's youth to make healthy decisions that will positively impact their future.

Annie R. Neasman, R.N., director, Family Health Services,

Florida Department of Health, Tallahassee

Building virtue on ignorance

Gov. Jeb Bush wants to spend $1-million on grants for "abstinence-only" programs. The term "abstinence only" means that to get the money, the counselors would not be allowed to mention birth control at all. The money will be taken from family planning at health clinics, which will prevent 10,000 poor women from getting Pap smears, breast cancer screening, HIV tests and birth-control counseling. The state's money will go to pay religious groups for doing what most of them are doing already.

Suppose a teenager mentions condoms. What should the counselor say next? See me after class. See Charley after class, because he is not the one designated as a counselor. I cannot talk about that in this church building, but talk to me outside. Here's my phone number, give me a call. Don't bring up such a naughty subject.

Jeb's chastity program is based on the unspoken assumption that if a young person actually knows about birth control methods, he or she will not remain a virgin until marriage, that virtue can best be erected on the foundation of ignorance. It's chastity through censorship. Marvelous!

Mitchell Modisett, Zephyrhills

A heart-warming story of love

I was intrigued by the March 13 letters complaining about the Floridian article concerning Cathy Conner and Alice Perry's civil union ceremony in Vermont (Thriving on a new tradition, March 6). But I'm always intrigued by those who vehemently denounce as "promotional" the simple presentation of facts or events they find offensive and to which they seem to feel no one else should have access because of their own personal distaste or opposition. I, for one, was pleased and happy to see the Times' sensitive and practical treatment of the subject.

One letter writer complained that the headline was an "affront" to heterosexual couples in traditional marriages. That person certainly didn't speak for me: I've been happily, traditionally and heterosexually married for nearly 21 years, and I didn't feel affronted.

All three letter writers complained about the "bedroom photograph" of Perry and Connor sitting next to each other on a bed. One of the writers maintained, "We don't see pictures of heterosexual couples on a bed." I beg to differ. Did these individuals also feel offended by the "bedroom photograph" of the obviously heterosexual, elderly couple laying together in a bed in another recent Floridian article? Was that "sleaze"? Of course not! Love is love.

A third writer complained that "our children don't need exposure to this" and that the story violated the sanctity of the "family section" of the paper. Well, I read the article with my 11- and 12-year-old daughters to help reinforce values important to our family, principally the values of respecting one another's inherent worth and dignity and honoring everyone's responsible search for truth and meaning in their lives. This letter writer also took issue with the paper granting "normalcy" to this subject. Given that we and many others have relatives and friends who are gay and whom we love dearly, I am very glad the paper recognized the normalcy of love between two people.

There are few things more beautiful than two people deeply in love who are prepared to openly and publicly declare that love and their willingness to stand by one another for all time. And it's encouraging and heart-warming to see that in times when anger and violence so often dominate the news, that love and commitment are newsworthy, too.

If there are those who continue to be offended by something so traditional and fundamental as love, then I certainly wish, as one of the letter writers so adamantly demands of others, that they would "keep it to themselves."

T. Willingham, Tampa

There are many types of families

Re: Civil unions.

How sad. In the 21st century, narrow-minded people still think their way, their views are the only ones that matter. There are many types of families, and children should realize that early on.

Thank you for your touching article about the St. Petersburg gay couple that went to Vermont to publicly proclaim their love for one another by entering into a civil union.

It is a shame people's minds are so twisted that they extrapolate a harmless photograph to one of lewdness. We all have the right to love whomever our hearts are drawn to.

Karen L. Heidenreich, St. Petersburg

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