How best to teach American Muslim youth about sexuality?

Umm Reem, the author of the article “The Reality of Sex Education in Public Schools,” contends that Muslim parents should be wary of the sex education curriculum in the American public school system, and claims that it is not merely biology lessons, but rather, a value-laden program correlated with an increase in promiscuity, teen pregnancies and STIs, and homosexuality in society. She contends that sex-ed curricula in the US are based on three organizations: Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, and Planned Parenthood.
This claim in and of itself is inaccurate, as there is no standard of sex education curricula in the US, leading to hundreds of sex education programs throughout America, ranging from inaccurate, biology-limited curriculum to abstinence only curriculum, to comprehensive sex curriculum. As a public health professional, I maintain that the empirical data does not support Umm Reem’s claims, and in fact, she is gravely mistaken. Her unfounded claims and the platform they are given are doing a serious disservice to the rising generation of American Muslim youth in America.

First, the research shows the opposite of Umm Reem’s claims: there is no evidence that increased access to sex education leads to increased promiscuity or earlier initiation of sexual intercourse. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute:

“strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people both withstand the pressures to have sex too soon, and to have healthy, responsible, mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active…. Two-thirds of the forty-eight comprehensive programs that supported both abstinence and use of contraceptives for sexually active teens had positive behavioral effects… Many either delayed or reduced sexual activity, reduced the number of sexual partners, or increased use of contraceptives.”

In other words, youth who receive comprehensive sex education actually prove to be more responsible than their peers who receive limited/no sex education.

Second, let us address the high pregnancy and STI rates in the U.S., and Umm Reem’s assumed reason for this increase in “promiscuity.” While STI rates and the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. are still some of the highest in the developed world, teen pregnancies have actually been steadily declining, with many researchers attributing this to increased access to comprehensive, accurate sexual education. In 2009, the teen pregnancy rate reached a historic low, at 39.1 births per 1000 women ages 15-19. Furthermore, Umm Reem carelessly proclaims that American public school sexual education programs are responsible for the high STI rate, claiming the “sex-ed industry is dedicated to promot[ing] radical, social ideologies that value unconditional sexual freedom above any health, science, or parental authority. The aim is to encourage promiscuity experimentation and unrestricted sexual behavior.” As a public health professional trained to appreciate the importance of empirical data, I ask Umm Reem for any evidence supporting such an outrageous claim. The very purpose of sexual education is to prevent disease and keep youth safe and responsible, and to ultimately reduce STIs and teen pregnancies – not encourage them.

Ironically, STI and teen pregnancy rates have increased due to teens’ lack of information or belief in wrong information, stemming from abstinence-only sex education, or even no sex education at all. The 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth reveals that as many as 46% of sexually experienced males and 33% of sexually experienced females did not receive formal instruction about contraception before they first had sex . A 2009 study conducted by the National Campaign to End Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that among teens aged 18-19, 41% report that they know little or nothing about condoms and 75% say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill.

I certainly will not deny that there is an abundance of sexuality in our society. Yet empirical research and anecdotal evidence prove that this prevalence is not a consequence of youth having more access to information; rather, it is the consequence of a hyper-sexualized media, combined with low self-worth and body image. Our youth are bombarded with thousands of sexual imagery and messaging every day, through ads, magazines, music, music videos, social media, and the internet. Not surprisingly, a 2008 longitudinal study in Pediatrics is one of many studies that reveal compelling results: exposure to high levels of sexual content on television has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of initiating sexual activity, as well as a greater likelihood of involvement in teen pregnancy. Adolescents going through puberty are experiencing physical and emotional changes, and also becoming pre-occupied with one’s appearance and self conscious around others. The pressing need to fit in is a natural part of adolescence. Unfortunately, the media exploits this need to fit in, through a clear emphasis on unattainable beauty, sexuality, and power. The media thrives on feeding people’s insecurities – whether they are physical, emotional, sexual, or academic. No matter what the product, the idea portrayed is that one becomes a better person once buying that product. Most of the time, regardless of the product, sexual innuendo is used to ultimately market the product.

So when our kids don’t receive formal sex education, they learn what they can wherever they can – from the media, from similarly uninformed peers, from the Internet. As I continue to speak with educators and administrators for my work with HEART Women and Girls, I am repeatedly told that students in private Islamic schools, where sexual health education is limited to biology and the legalities of cleanliness, are still partaking in sexual activity, including experimentation with oral sex and homosexuality – only without any protection or knowledge of consequences of their actions.

Is it reasonable to expect traditional Muslim families to take on this responsibility and have such discussions at home? I don’t deny that parental involvement and communication about sexuality is important, but the truth of the matter is, it is not being done often enough. Because of our religious emphasis on modesty and on sexual matters being private, many Muslims are uncomfortable speaking of sexual matters and their role in healthy relationships. Additionally, as illustrated so effectively by Umm Reem, many Muslims fear that open discussion on sexuality inevitable leads to promiscuity. The lack of open discussion and access to sex education has two serious consequences:

  1. The spread of misinformation and unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sex: The absence of reliable sources of information leads young people to search out information in pornographic magazines, Internet sites, and erotic visual programs, or to rely on information picked up on the street, from peers at school or work, or from obscene jokes. However, these sources of information are plagued with myths, misinformation, and misunderstandings, as well as unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality. In fact, more than half of 7th-12th graders look up information on the Internet; of 177 sexual health web sites examined in a recent study, 46% of those addressing contraception were inaccurate.
  2. Lack of understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship: Young women and men who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated about what constitutes a healthy relationship will remain unequipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help. A study examining Muslim Iranian women questioned whether increased information about sexuality would have positive effects; the results showed that many believed that it would improve “the woman’s ability to avoid health compromising situations or behaviors once they were aware of them.

As stated in my previous article on sexual abuse:

“Young women who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated on what constitutes as a healthy relationship, remain ill equipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help.”

The solution to reducing teen pregnancy and STIs is not removing your child from sex education. It is clear that experimentation, curiosity, and peer pressure get the best of many young people and sexual activity will take place. The key to reducing early sex, teen pregnancy and STIs is actually standardizing sexual health education so that every young person has access to accurate, comprehensive sexual health information. Young people also need to be equipped with decision-making skills, in combination with strong parent-child communication. Creating an emotionally safe environment for our youth is crucial; research shows that when emotional safety is not established, the need to fit in generally trumps the authentic voice . Emotional safety is created through strong parent-child communication, open dialogue, and mutual trust and respect.

On the surface, Umm Reem’s arguments may seem easy to believe; yet upon further inspection, the lack of empirical data and unsupported claims undermine its argument.
Nadiah Mohajir is co-founder and director of programs for the HEART Women & Girls Project. She recently earned her Masters in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. in the past she has been a consultant for the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working on a variety of different projects focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, American Indian/Alaska Native Health, and improving the health of Chicago. Prior to her work at the OWH, she worked on a research project focusing on improving the pregnancy outcomes of low-income Chicago women. She earned her bachelor degree in Public Policy Studies from University of Chicago and lives in Chicago with her two children and husband.

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