Monday, July 27, 2009

Abstinence Only

The Onion mocks abstinence-only education

There can be little doubt that abstinence-only education is socially irresponsible. The moral component is slightly more interesting, and the incentive component is also interesting because of what it reveals about assumptions.

Briefly, abstinence-only education is socially irresponsible because it doesn't work. Children in schools employing abstinence-only education have the same amount of sex, get pregnant more often and use protection much less often. Given that teens having sex is generally considered a bad thing (teen pregnancy is much more likely to be bad for the child and the mother, and STDs spread through promiscuity - and teens aren't known for the ability to maintain healthy, monogamous relationships), that means abstinence-only is irresponsible.

The moral component is slightly more interesting. The morality and logic of the right are reasonably clear here: children having sex is immoral and teaching them how to do it safely encourages them to do it, so the most moral thing to do is to teach them to not have sex.

The morality of the left is much more nuanced. Much of it involves empowerment; children should be equipped with the information to make good decisions. But for this argument to be true requires the circumstance of a child having sex to be a morally neutral event. One (somewhat absurd) way to show this is through the following: We don't teach children how to commit murders without hurting innocent bystanders. Murder, like sex, is something that isn't easy to prevent through legislation, because it is inherently taboo to begin with, so legislation is redundant. Hurting innocent bystanders, like STDs or teen pregnancy, is a side effect of a legislatively-unstoppable pattern of behavior. However, we don't teach children how to fire a gun without hurting someone behind the victim. We functionally practice "abstinence-only" murder education.

Nobody objects to this, because to teach "safe" murder is to institutionally condone murder - even if teaching high school students not to murder probably isn't going to do much, because propensity to murder (I assume) is tied to a value system imparted by parents and environment at an age much younger than middle or high school. This is conjecture, but I'd imagine that a major reason the left's arguments against abstinence-only education have failed to convince the right is that they hold pregnancy and STDs to be bad, but don't acknowledge the morally questionable nature of teenage sex itself. Teaching safer sex thus becomes a much harder option for people in an abstinence-only town, because even if they KNOW safer sex education reduces pregnancies and STDs among teens, it represents an institutional endorsement.

Look here. The site (not the only site of its kind that I've seen, but an excellent example) emphasizes a number of very true statistics, and to someone who doesn't see sex as an inherently bad thing, it's perfectly logical. But there are undertones of ridicule - "purity-pushers" are considered to be idiots, instead of people with a different value system. I'd argue that anybody fighting abstinence-only needs to engage in a way that's more respectful of the moral views of the abstinence-only crowd.

I oppose abstinence-only not because I believe students have the right to information, but because I weigh the morality of allowing an irresponsible kid to contract life-altering STDs and the morality of allowing an irresponsible and unready kid to bring new life into the world versus the morality of allowing a child to engage in an act for which he or she is fundamentally unprepared and can be unhealthy even outside of its most severe side effects (look at the psychological literature about people who start having sex early). To create a ridiculous mathematical equation,

Morality*Change in Frequency of STDs + Morality*Change in Frequency of Teen Pregnancy is greater than or less than Morality*Change in Frequency of Teen Sex.

I can't quantify any of them, but given the change-in-frequencies (reasonably well documented as big for STDs and Pregnancy and small in overall sex), I know instinctively which side of the equation I believe in - I personally hold that the STDs and Pregnancy side are bigger, and thus, abstinence-only education is irresponsible. However, to consider people who have a nonzero morality value on teen sex to be stupid is counterproductive, and fighting potentially morally rational abstinence-only supporters with statistics in a morality-neutral context can't work. The left must acknowledge the value system of the right to halt abstinence-only education.

Also interesting, I think, is what the debate can tell us about the importance of frameworks when studying incentives. Hypothetically, teaching children about safer sex is removing a pretty big uncertainty disincentive to having sex: children now know what will happen. Four (of many) potential effects of safer sex education:

Some risk-averse children who wouldn't have had sex because of the uncertainty may now have sex. Effect: sex rate up.

Some risk-loving children (risk-aversion isn't easy to assume in teens, some of whom frequently take astronomical risk for thrills) who would have had sex because it's uncertain and taboo and they've been told not to, now don't. Effect: sex rate down.

Some kids who would have had sex because they underestimated the potential risks now don't have sex, because they understand what's at stake.
Effect: sex rate down

Some kids who wouldn't have had sex because they overestimated the potential risks now have sex, because they understand what's at stake.
Effect: sex rate up

Under assumptions of widespread risk aversion (a standard assumption in many areas), safer sex education removes an uncertainty incentive and should result in more sex, holding all else constant. This isn't observed in literature, leaving the other options open.

This means that certain assumptions need to be questioned. Either the teenage population as a whole is not risk-averse, or they do not act rationally at the moment they decide to have sex, or they don't demonstrate normal discounting of future events and hyperbolically emphasize short-term fun over long-term utility. None of these are shocking assumptions about teenagers, but any argument about safer-sex education (or institutional endorsement of safer sex) incentivizing sex relies on these assumptions.

In fact, it's amazing how much policy relies on good logic based on bad assumptions. A shocking amount of international aid policy relies on the assumption of a lack of corruption, a frequent assumption in policy models. Models of savings and interest rates often assume linear discounting or a far-looking consumer, which often don't happen. Pricing theory often assumes that consumers look at quality independent of price, when consumers in reality often use price as an indicator of quality. Asset pricing often relies on an efficient market for the asset (often doesn't happen) or a clear picture of the distribution of outcomes (also rare, and the reason for the current financial crisis). One of the most damaging of these examples is tax policy, where politicians (on both sides, but especially on the left) often assume that taxable incomes don't change with changes in tax rates, leaving them with significant budget shortfalls when fully employed people well above the poverty line work less hours in response to higher taxes.

In the words of my brother, "making assumptions makes an ass out of you and umptions." These assumptions are easy to analyze when you're looking at just one theory, but when you channel someone else's theory as part of your argument, then it's quite easy to miss the assumptions. Abstinence-only education is a perfect example of a very logical belief based on an incorrect assumption about the behavior of teens. This is why I tend to think everyone needs a solid background in statistics and systemic thinking (second and third order effects). The lessons can be applied to foreign policy, drug policy, economic policy and many other roles of government.

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