I write a monthly column for the Chapel Hill News, which is always fun and interesting. Here's the one that ran today.
The woman I'm married to knows a lot about sex. In fact, she's one of the nation's leading experts on how teenage sexual behavior is affected by the media. And she's worried.
According to a new study her research team conducted in Orange, Durham and Granville counties, young teens now spend more than five hours each day with media. Two-thirds of them have televisions in their bedrooms, and one-fifth have Internet access with virtually no parental monitoring. And to make matters worse, much of what teenagers see, read and hear in the media has sexual content -- with very little information about responsible sexual health.
The result is an unfolding public health disaster.
One out of five teens today has sexual intercourse before the age of 15. The United States has the highest rate of sexually transmitted disease of any industrialized nation. And sexually active youth account for half the new cases of STD infections each year.
This is all happening in an environment where most parents don't talk honestly with their teens about sex, even as North Carolina public schools are increasingly hostile to comprehensive sex education. Driven by a frenzy of fundamentalist zealotry, school systems are withholding facts about sexuality from teens, who then turn to television, music and the Internet to get the information they want.
This is where most of my hate-mail came from today . . . people whose religious fundamentalism denies the power of sexuality . . . and has little room for science either. They believe what they believe . . . no matter what the consequences.
But here's the kicker: The more time teens spend with media, the more likely they are to have sex earlier. And it doesn't really matter what specific content they're seeing and hearing. Content about dating is just as likely to influence teens to have sex as content showing nudity or sexual intercourse.
We all know teenagers are interested in sex. As their bodies mature, that interest grows and sexual content in the media becomes more relevant. Teens actively seek out that content -- and they pay more attention to it when they find it. What they see and hear influences their decisions about becoming sexually active -- especially when parents, schools and churches are too embarrassed to say anything other than "don't do it."
According to other recent studies, teens who have taken so-called "virginity pledges" are just as likely to have a sexually transmitted disease as those who don't take the pledges, and they are less likely to use a condom when they first have intercourse. By eliminating responsible sex education, public policy makers are condemning these young people to diseases that can cost them their lives.
It would be easy to prepare a report card on America's efforts to foster responsible sexual health among teens. Everyone involved would get an F. Parents, public schools, churches, policymakers and the media alike. We are all failing, and we are all complicit in the unfolding epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases among teens.
The wishful thinking of abstinence-only programs is just one part of a larger problem. But given the political climate in Washington and the ascendancy of a neoconservative theocracy, things will probably get worse before they get better.