ThinkProgress cites a study that points out that Evangelical kids have premarital sex in similar numbers to everybody else: 80% for Evangelicals, 88% for heathens.
Both ED Kain and Russell Saunders, along with TP itself, cite the study as a case against Abstinence-Only education (AOE). As a practical matter, I am not a big fan of AOE. My wife Clancy and I do not intend to go that route and if our local school does, we will fill in the gaps ourselves. The only real area of disagreement between us, really, is how in depth we want to get (do we stop at the mot proven methods, or do we go over everything?). The clinical stuff will be hers; the psychological stuff will be mine.
Having said all of this, I don’t see this report as necessarily being more than just a poke in the eye of the self-righteous. There is also the assumption among many that we can count on the religious folks to forgo contraception either due to (a) lack of sex-ed and (b) the religious implications. It’s an assumption that is not foreign to me. Putting my mind in that of a religious person (I am a half-lapsed Episcopalian, a weak version of weak sauce), I can easily imagine an aversion to bringing a condom along or taking contraception because that makes the sex worse than just sex, it makes it premeditated sex. It might be easier to ask God for forgiveness for the heat of the moment, but might be harder to explain to God why you were so prepared for it. Also, Catholics and contraception (though the more Catholics I get to know, the less I find that this is really an issue - even among the devout).
However, the data doesn’t necessarily support that conclusion. According to the Add Health Study, very religious teens are within 10% of being as likely as the irreligious when it comes to using contraception (58% to 65%). If we consider the 8% difference between those who have sex and do not have sex to be on the irrelevant side of things, we have to view the 7% differential on contraception in the same light. The difference between those who use contraception the first time is only 1% different.
Now, the Add Health numbers and the numbers in the original article are not exactly measuring the same thing. For one thing, Add Health is looking at religiosity more than what the brand of religion is. So a self-described Evangelical who only attends church once a week would count as irreligious but a Unitarian who attends every week would be considered very religious. From the perspective of what we’re looking at, though, neither source is much more valuable than the other. Anybody can call themselves an Evangelical. The numbers for self-described Evangelicals is not necessarily indicative of the devout ones that keep their children sheltered. The TNC numbers are also looking at young adults while the Add Health numbers are looking at teenagers. If the discussion is sex ed, I think the latter numbers (which show a 15% differential in sex among whites) are probably more valuable.
However, even if we assume that there is relative parity between the religious freaks and the heathens, whether sex has occurred is really only part of the story. When did it occur? With what frequency? It’s entirely possible (and reasonable to believe, given the two sets of numbers we’re looking at) that the religious folks are starting later. It’s also not necessarily unreasonable to believe that they might have fewer partners are fewer instances, which can have other benefits down the line.
Sex is not necessarily a switch that one turns on, inviting a torrent of potential negative repercussions all at once once flipped. Just as contraception reduces the risk of pregnancy, so do partner reduction and instance reduction. Now, maybe this reduction is not occurring at all. Maybe they’re just a bunch of hypocrites. But the TNC numbers do not shed might light on this. Instead, we (and my initial response was no different) look at the numbers and assume a sort of boolean variable with all other things being equal (except contraception, which we assume is not equal because we know how those religious freaks are about contraception).
None of this is to say that Abstinence-Only education is a good idea. I am rather skeptical of the notion that a middle-aged teacher putting a condom on a banana is going to make teenagers all hot and bothered (I actually question the degree to which kids would listen in any event, because they are much more savvy than we, the ones who “just don’t get it”). I do think that an opt-out is reasonable, and I think the resistance to Abstinence-Plus is based more on philosophical tribalism rather than real pragmatism.
One of the reasons I do think that AOE is a losing battle, though, is because whether sex is in the classroom or not, it’s virtually everywhere else in as public a spectacle as the FCC will allow. This is one of the reasons that devout Christians often try to pull a curtain to the rest of the world. When I lived in Mormonland, I sort of rolled my eyes at the cottage industry of avoid-secular-society movies and entertainment that they lined up for their kids. But really, that has as much to do with my religious inclinations than good parenting or bad. Evangelicals and Mormons have a sub-culture to retreat to. We don’t. If we did, it might not be all that unattractive an option.