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FIRST-PERSON: Smoking & teen sex

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable,” observed G.K. Chesterton. The British social critic’s words have never been truer, especially when applied to the health and well being of America’s teenagers.

America’s cultural and educational elite vehemently condemn adolescent smoking as an inexcusable evil. At the same time, sex is treated as an inevitable behavior that teens are going to engage in.

The elite believe that nothing can be done to curb adolescent sex. Instead, they want to provide teens with comprehensive information so kids can make informed choices. Even the most casual observer would have to admit that our current dominant culture accepts teenage sex as a lesser evil than adolescent smoking.

Take the way smoking has been addressed in the United States in recent years.

In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on the ill effects of smoking. One year later, all cigarette packaging was required to carry a warning label that called attention to the dangers of smoking. And in 1971, smoking advertising was banned from television.

While the warning labels and advertising ban were aimed at the general public, they were also designed to have an effect on teenagers as well. The theory was that by stressing the danger of cigarettes and limiting exposure to positive images of smoking, adolescents could be convinced to not smoke.

In 1988, the cartoon character “Joe Camel” featured by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds in its print advertising was banned. Both Houses of Congress were convinced the cigarette puffing camel was persuading children to view smoking in a positive light. Hence, he was sent packing.

The campaign to curb smoking has been successful. Prior to the push to highlight the negatives of smoking, approximately 45 to 50 percent of Americans smoked. Now only about 23 percent light up. Among teens that figure is 28 percent.

Not only are fewer people smoking, but instances of characters lighting up in movies or on television are almost nonexistent, not to mention the number of smoke free environments that now exist.

Can you imagine if the same approach was taken toward teenagers and sex?

How about putting warning labels on condoms? Warning: This product does not provide 100 percent protection from pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Unmarried and promiscuous sexual intercourse can have negative psychological consequences, especially for teenagers.

A recent study discovered that teenagers who were exposed to television with a significant amount of sexual content were twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse. If you know anything about the media currently being marketed to teens, you know that it is saturated with sex.

What if music, movies and television aimed at adolescents could not contain depictions of sex or sexual innuendo? If Joe Camel can be put out to pasture, why not the overt and irresponsible sexuality in the media peddled to kids?

Interestingly enough, a recent study found that teenage sexual activity has declined. The National Center for Health Statistics said that for girls ages 15 to 17, the percentage who had ever had intercourse declined from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002.

For boys, the agency said the decline was 43 percent to 31 percent.

When I read the aforementioned statistics, what I found as significant as the decline was the year 1995. You see, it was in 1997 that the federal government began to provide funding for abstinence-based sex education.

In spite of the correlation between abstinence funding and the drop in teen sexual activity, the elite still does not get it. A recent CNN report commented that abstinence programs showed little change in teen sexual behavior since their start in 1997.

Teenage popular culture has changed little over the last seven years. Condoms are still readily available and adolescent-oriented media continue to depict unmarried and promiscuous sex.

The only aspect of teen culture that has changed in the last seven years is that more adolescents are being exposed to abstinence as a viable alternative.

Imagine if our culture approached teenage sex the same way we do adolescent smoking. The numbers of sexually active teens would diminish dramatically.

So long as teenage sex is an evil that is excused, it will continue to be a significant social problem.
Kelly Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press. He is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs