Religion plays a large role in the lives of many American teens. As it works to shape values, beliefs, and actions, it also conveys the importance of responsible and safe choices. So what happens if one of those safe choices is wearing a condom?
Recent data from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention shows that Chlamydia rates in the United States are at a record high. As sex education programs continue to enforce abstinence only education, students do not receive the contraceptive knowledge necessary to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Other realms of influence and social support must get involved in order to promote more comprehensive programs, one of these realms being religion and faith.
Jim Paczynski, former Catholic school principal and doctoral student at the University of South Carolina, College of Education, has seen the outcomes of both abstinence-only and comprehensive programs. Growing up in upstate New York, he received comprehensive instruction from his Catholic school, and over-saw comprehensive programs as a principal at South Tier Catholic School. These programs not only included information about abstinence, but also gave students information about STIs, healthy relationships, contraceptive methods, and safe sex. Later as his five children attended Catholic schools in New York and in Aiken, South Carolina, he noticed similar patterns and experiences.
“I would say it was a positive experience for all my kids, although they heard about abstinence, they heard that if you were to have sex, there were different types of contraceptives and that certain ones could work to prevent STIs. And starting in elementary school, they got to learn about privacy, agency over your own body, and relationships- and I always thought that was pretty cool.”
So when did Jim start noticing the effects of abstinence only education? Not until he left private Catholic schools and became a professor at the University of South Carolina. As a women and gender studies specialist, Jim gets the unique opportunity to interact with young women on pertinent health topics.
“The Catholic system in a very ironic way has a very comprehensive sex program. It always astonishes me when I’m teaching a room full of 50 women who don’t know about their bodies and don’t know how contraception works and information about STIs. I didn’t know SC was such a pro abstinence-only state, I was shocked that there was that kind of gap that people were having in regards to knowledge about their own bodies.”
Jim believes that comprehensive sex education programs are essential in preventing unwanted pregnancy. He believes that it allows women the right to plan their family’s and control their own bodies. Comprehensive programs could begin to diminish rates of domestic violence and intimate partner violence through healthy relationship guidance. Men could also learn that they do not need to be “hyper masculine,” and can begin to develop healthy sexualities and behaviors. Through Catholic schools, Jim has learned these lessons, and has embraced religious integration within these topics.
“Religion is a vehicle of knowledge. If you can have your congregation learn about comprehensive sex, then your couples will leave your congregation able to communicate, able to plan their families and there will be less violence in their relationship based off of unrealistic sexual expectations.”
If we grow up and aren’t exposed to various aspects of our society like sex and relationships, and we don’t have healthy models of those, then we are doomed as a people to repeat unhealthy behaviors. Through comprehensive programs, we experience important information about life. Through religion, we are able to understand that these programs convey the importance of responsible and safe choices.