Jewels Morris-Davis is a no-nonsense kind of girl. When the high school sophomore turned 16 recently, she didn't celebrate with any My Super Sweet 16 foolishness. Nor did she rush to get her driver's license and race around the back roads in this rural northwest corner of South Carolina. But Jewels did quietly revel in one achievement. "I am," she says a few weeks later, a proud smile spreading across her face, "the first person in my family to reach 16 without getting pregnant--or getting somebody pregnant."
Five years ago, Jewels was firmly on track to continue the family tradition of early parenthood. Her mother is a drug addict, and the grandmother who raised her had just died of cancer. Shifted to a foster home, Jewels turned to sex to find the love and attention her absent family couldn't provide. "I was lost," she says simply. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
South Carolina is the only state in the country that mandates a certain number of hours that schools must devote to sexuality education. In 2004, Jewels' school district in Anderson County decided to do even more. The district partnered with a local teen-pregnancy-prevention organization to implement an innovative relationship and sex-education curriculum that runs through all three years of middle school and into high school, as well as an after-school program for at-risk kids. And that's when the life of Jewels Morris-Davis began to turn around.
Later this spring, Congress will dive once more into the war over sex education when it decides whether to eliminate $176 million in federal funding for so-called abstinence-only programs, which instruct kids to delay sex until marriage. Advocates will debate at top volume the merits of abstinence-only efforts vs. more comprehensive programs that also teach about birth control and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
These arguments miss the point. We now have a pretty good sense of which sex-education approaches work. Substantial research--including a 2007 Bush Administration report--has concluded that comprehensive programs are most effective at changing teen sexual behaviors. They are also largely uncontroversial outside Washington. Vast majorities of parents favor teaching comprehensive sex education.
What we haven't seen is the political will and community investment necessary to educate kids about sexuality and healthy relationships in a truly responsible and honest way. The program that helped Jewels provided her with information about birth control and encouraged her to try abstinence. But more important, it didn't end after two weeks, giving her and other students a safe space to return to for answers and advice. It is a model of what can happen when a community decides that it's crazy to spend more time teaching kids about decimals and fractions than about dating and sex. (Read "A Brief History Of: Abstinence.")
Teen-pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. continue to look like an epidemic compared with those in other Western countries. In 2006 there were 41.9 births for every 1,000 U.S. teens ages 15 to 19, a rate more than three times that of Canada (13.3 per 1,000). But the U.S. numbers have dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. Over the past 15 years, teenagers have had less sex than previous generations had, and they have been more likely to use protection when they have had sex. Activists on both the right and the left have happily stepped forward to claim credit for the developments. Conservatives see lower rates of sexual activity as a direct result of abstinence education. Meanwhile, liberals attribute greater use of birth control to better education about and access to contraceptives. (In fact, researchers think fear of STIs--especially HIV--and a natural correction from high rates of sexual activity during the sexual revolution explain much of the change.)
South Carolina has reflected the overall trend of falling teen-sex statistics: birthrates in the state fell 27% from 1991 to 2006. But it still lags behind, with teen birthrates almost 12 points above the national average. Those numbers alarmed a group of women at the local United Way in Anderson County, a semirural, conservative community that is home to 175,000 people. So in 2004 they contacted Impact, a teen-pregnancy-prevention organization in the area, to find out what they could do to help. "They had a curriculum," remembers Carol Burdette, executive director of United Way of Anderson County. "They told us, 'We know this works, but we can't get into the schools.'"