Tuesday, February 2

Go Self-Report Yourself

Rob Stein, "Abstinence-only programs might work, study says". February 2

NICE timing, by the way. Was there some desperate call made to Douthat Friday afternoon? "Ross, listen, we had the big roll-out planned for Monday, and goddammit, Guttmacher is fucking us! Guttmacher. G-u-t-t-m-a-c-h-e-r. Yeah, I know you've never heard of it. When's that stopped you? They used to be part of Planned Parenthood, Ross. Yeah, baby killers. Listen, try to remember not to say it that way.

"We sunk $4 mil in this thing, Ross. Now Couric's doing one of her touchy-feely routines. Says the numbers prove kids also need to hear about condoms. Yeah, Liberal baby-killers, Ross. Whaddid I just say?

"Anyway, remember when we decided you'd try an' get your copy in for Monday? When everyone's too busy reliving the weekend to bother with it? Well, it's down to you to get the talking points out there before Tuesday. You know, 'Liberals hate Bush', 'Bloggers go apoplectic', 'States rights'; the usual. I'm emailing you the list. If we can find him we'll get Brooks to do the science for you. We know you won't let us down, Ross. Graded on a curve, I mean. You never do."
Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Only about a third of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active.

The findings are the first clear evidence that an abstinence program could work.

Let's be clear here. I believe the goal of public education is education. And judging purely from the near-universal inability of anyone connected to the mass-market Press to figure out a simple study, place it in context, roughly judge its face-value reliability, catch its limitations, and report those accurately instead of hammering them into the most convenient news narrative, I'd say our problems are too profound for us to be pretending we can effect behavioral modification with waterboarding, let alone without.

No, Mr. Stein; researchers did not "find" that fewer students in an abstinece-focused program began having sex compared to other groups. That's what the students told them, and though I admit this is ethically preferable to a full pathology exam after euthanizing them, it still must be admitted it falls somewhat short of empirical certainty. I'm surprised this escaped your notice in over twenty years on the science/medicine beat, Mr. Stein.

[Now might also be a good time to point out that when these same three researchers did an almost identical Federally-funded study in 1998 they concluded that "Both abstinence and safer-sex interventions can reduce HIV sexual risk behaviors, but safer-sex interventions may be especially effective with sexually experienced adolescents and may have longer-lasting effects." That, by the way, was the 16th google entry for "Jemmott Fong abstinence studies", and twelve of the fifteen ahead of it were reports of yesterday's announcement. Took 0.30 seconds, and about two minutes to work my way down to it.]
Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.

Now, here's an odd thing, to me at least: the abstract listed five groups, none of which could exactly be described as a "control", which would have entailed giving half the group sugar pills and telling them they could have as much sex as they wanted without fear of pregnancy or disease. Perhaps we can stipulate that sex is popular. But when it comes time to report the results it's "abstinence" vs. "everybody else". Hmmm. Did the condom group enjoy sex more? Were the bunch taught Healthy Life Styles 33% more likely to use vegetables, or did they come down with botrytis half again as often?

The point there--okay, the point was cucumber jokes, but besides that--is that we appear to have $4 million worth of Bush-era study designed to test whether Politically-correct workarounds to objections about abstinence education could demonstrate efficaciousness. Not only are the results self-reported (see Hawthorne Effect), but by trying to skirt/overcome the squabbles of domestic politics ("The intervention does not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or employ a moralistic tone. It is not designed to affect condom use." Guaranteed slam dunk with the religious right, in other words) it manages to provide a 72 point Abstinence Works! headline while shifting the actual ground of the debate about half a zucchini length.

Look, I'm not saying anybody fudged the data (though I am saying it's curious when your work doesn't expand upon the almost identical test you ran a decade earlier, but rephrases the question instead). I'm saying it would be easy to run this program in a way designed to get the responses you wanted, which should be reason enough for a reporter with 20 years on the science beat to hold off the suspension of disbelief. I'm married to a public school teacher, not that that's required to understand the scope of the problem. But let's talk about getting the question right. It isn't about facing the music; it's about who's calling the tune. Problem: sexually-transmitted diseases. Solutions: Don't have sex. Have zero-risk sex. Use a condom: 80-95% efficient. (Problem: understanding fractions.) Problem: pregnancy. Solutions: Don't have sex. Have zero-risk sex. Use contraception. Use emergency contraception. Terminate pregnancy. Read Doctor Hibbert's So You've Ruined Your Life pamphlet.

Science! Education! Information! Who do you suppose opposes that approach. Doc Jemmott?
"There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms. This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer."

Y'know, Doc, if being part of the mix was the problem you'd be $4 million poorer. The Abstinence Now, Abstinence Tommorow, Abstinence Forever! people aren't reading your study and saying, "Yes, we need to make sure our programs don't contain misinformation, portray sex in a negative light, or take a moral tone. Then they'll be effective!" They're saying, "See! Abstinence is scientifically proven to work!" Took all of seven Stein paragraphs before that one popped up. Now it's back to ramming their ideas through every school board in flyover country.

And here's the thing: anti-abortion types protest Roe for forty years, but pretty much stay mum on contraception. Don Wildmon boycotts NYPD Blue, Saturday Night Live, and Madonna, but he doesn't have much to say about soap operas. "Scientific creationism" becomes "Intelligent design, a really, really scientific theory that has nothing to do with Western monotheism, honest". These people know all about working the margains, and not overstepping in public. They know there's no problem teaching children about abstinence. They know the problem is teaching only abstinence, and with claiming that "works". They'll get away with whatever they can get away with, and steal the rest when no one's looking. Yes, a lot of these people are against telling children about condoms. And a lot are against dancing, biology, and showing female skin above the eyebrows or below the cheekbones. What else is new? The goal of permanent sexual infantilism, the one kink with God's Seal of Approval, does not and will not vary. They've got every opportunity to fund the mentoring of 662 minority students, or every last one of 'em, if they're so concerned, and to work for social and economic justice, health care, and decent educational opportunities to help solve the underlying problem. And if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get out of the way before that stampede hits.


jaytingle said...

Typical advocacy of Ignorance Only education for today's youth. It would be gratifying to know that, in his waning years, Rob Stein will be cared for by graduates of Regent Medical School of Virginia Beach.

Kordo said...

Ahh, thank you, sensei. The last few days have been shit, and I needed a laugh. Odd, but I was at a friend's house today, and he had Fox News on (don't ask; he's a good guy, as long as he's not left unsupervised with matches). They had almost the exact same spin as the above mentioned article. The spokesmodel had some "expert" come on and try to make the "3/5ths of 50% is a Majority" argument. Her (the spokesmodel; is it just me, or do all the women on Fox seem Too Beautiful For Nature? Seriously, The GOP has achieved a thing I'd never thought possible: found visually enticing, fully articulated human females that arouse no sexual desire in me whatsoever. Perino, Palin, the Fox crew, it's getting to be a theme. I'm being crass and boorish, for which I apologize, but this makes me mad. I'd always considered it a point of male pride that no matter how silly or repugnant I found a woman's political opinions, I could put my objections aside if I thought I had a shot at seeing her naked. Now I can't say that anymore, and it makes me feel like a piece of my youth is gone. But I digress..)
Her, as I said, first question was (and this is a paraphrase): "Does this study mean that abstinence-only education is something that President Obama should seek funding and support for?"
A few things- a) Since the Spunky Spock Smackdown at the Republican Retreat, Bad Ailes's crew has started using the full title more often, I think. Whether this is a case of the bully finally showing some respect 'cause you rubbed his face in the dirt, or simply that I don't watch enough Fox to know if "Obama" is just for the Opinion Hours, I dunno.
b) Really? All the vast power of The Most Trusted Name In News, and you've gotta devote 20 minutes of airtime to making sure that Rev. Cletus in West Bumfuck, Alabama gets his Faith-Based Initiative check this year? Wouldn't a snarling "Hitler loved condoms, too" aside from Hannity have accomplished the same thing? Efficiency, people! It doesn't seem important now, but when this psycho whirlygig you've birthed flies apart on or about the evening of November 2, 2010, and the ad dollars start drying up, you'll appreciate the practice.
c) and d)->

"Intelligent design, a really, really scientific theory that has nothing to do with Western monotheism, honest"


"The goal of permanent sexual infantilism, the one kink with God's Seal of Approval, does not and will not vary. They've got every opportunity to fund the mentoring of 662 minority students, or every last one of 'em, if they're so concerned, and to work for social and economic justice, health care, and decent educational opportunities to help solve the underlying problem. And if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get out of the way before that stampede hits."

Fer fuck's sake, Riley. There's other writers out here trying to come up with pointed, intelligent, high-impact prose. If yer gonna be a hog about it, I'm gonna have to start telling fewer people about your blog. Greedy bastard. But still, thanks for the work. You made my sucky day suck less. Also, since this comment has suffered some reasonably intelligible bloat, I'm gonna post it at my blog, and shamelessly pimp it on yours. So there.

KWillow said...

So, *some* abstinence programs work for maybe a year or two, but HA-ha! non-abstinence programs don't stop teens from boinking. And that proves abstinence works. Or something.

JMC said...

You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But lets talk about it
Wouldn't it be nice...

...If you talk about sex to kids, or, conversely if you talk about no sex, kids hear one thing, and that's, well, sex. Also when you talk about, I dunno, flannel.

Sator Arepo said...

Yeah, flannel, or fennel, whatever, some non-hormonal non-erogenous regular old Thing like a chair or a mini-vacuum cleaner. Not s physical and psychological drive.

What about guns? Perhaps we could frame the abstinence vs. safe training debate in the context of firearm ownership and use.

Marion in Savannah said...

"If we can find him we'll get Brooks to do the science for you."

That's got to be the funniest line I've read in the last 3 months. Thanks!