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Letters to the Editor

Abstinence Education Inaccurate, Ineffective, and Incomplete

A U.S. House of Representatives report studied thirteen federally-funded sexual education programs which promote abstinence as the preferred method of avoiding STIs and pregnancy. This report found that eleven of the thirteen contained inaccurate information, including erroneous claims about contraceptive effectiveness and destructive gender stereotypes treated as fact. Perhaps abstinence education is falling by the wayside for no reason more sinister than the fact that programs advocating it are seriously flawed.

According to the report, “None of the curricula provides information on how to select a birth control method and use it effectively.” Worse yet, programs provide inaccurate information on condoms (one states a pregnancy occurs for one-seventh of condom uses). Misled by these incorrect “statistics,” a teen who chooses to be sexually active may decide to forgo birth control. If it’s as unreliable as they are “taught” to believe it is, why bother?

Abstinence curricula also misrepresent condoms’ role in preventing STDs. While the programs claim that STDs are essentially inevitable, regardless of condom use, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and other organizations all refute these claims. An NEJM study showed that, among 15,000 acts of intercourse with consistent condom use, HIV was never transferred from an HIV-positive individual. While one abstinence program argues that chlamydia rates have gone up with condom usage, and thus condoms are ineffective, the CDC attributes that increase to better screening and reporting rather than an actual increase in the number of cases. In fact, “both CDC and independent experts have found that condoms can reduce the risk of chlamydia infection.” Given these errors, it is clear that abstinence “education” programs do not educate; they leave teenagers ignorant and attempt to indoctrinate youth with one narrow-minded view of “morality.”

These narrow-minded views are also prevalent in abstinence curricula. The gender stereotypes many take to be factual range from overly general to downright insulting. “Why kNOw,” a federally-funded program, states that “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” Such assertions discourage women academically and could even tacitly encourage them to have sex; taught that a “normal” woman places a higher priority on her relationships than her true accomplishments, young women may be more likely to work hard at investing in “serious,” and likely sexual, relationships at an early age. Meanwhile, their male counterparts are being brought up to be sexist egomaniacs. Men are taught that they need “domestic support,” while women require “financial support,” and that it is typical — and therefore acceptable, rather than shallow — for them to value “physical attractiveness” over “affection,” which is portrayed as a “woman’s need.” These programs assume that only men “need sexual fulfillment,” the clear implication being that premarital sex is excusable in men, who cannot help it, while women who do the same have no such excuse and merely lack strength of character.

Teens are also taught that men “need to feel a woman’s admiration. To admire a man is to regard him with wonder, delight, and approval.” There is no discussion of men admiring women in return; women are portrayed as fangirls rather than equals. Feeding teens these stereotypes creates men who feel superior to, and entitled to the “admiration” of women who are being taught that it is natural and even healthy for them to swoon over men rather than forging careers and identities. This stereotpye lays the groundwork for unhealthy and premature marriages.

Though the supporters of these destructive claims look to an even more sexist history for validation of their views, making it clear why the precedent which society has historically set for men’s and women’s sexual roles and behaviors should not be used to set future attitudes, some still attempt to use data from these eras to promote double-standards today.

“Abstinence was the norm for unmarried teenage girls in America until at least 1982.” (Bill Jacobs’ 10/03/06 Letter to the Tech)

And unmarried teenage men? How many of the girls surveyed were already married, and how many of them ended up divorced or unhappy from rushing into marriage? These statistics are suspiciously absent from Jacobs’ letter, leading one to believe that abstinence was not as prevalent among all American teens as he is attempting to argue. As such a study must be based on self-reporting, the societal stigma associated with sexually active women that is not present for sexually active men must be accounted for: there is no common male equivalent for “slut.” Mens’ sexuality is assigned a positive connotation, while womens’ is viewed as negative. Given this, it is entirely reasonable to conjecture that misogynistic double-standards shamed women into answering dishonestly.

This analysis weakens the argument that teens should not be taught about sex because we can expect them to stay abstinent; no data about the male abstinence rate was given, and there are several reasons why the female rate was likely over-reported. With the knowledge that teenagers will likely have premarital sex, it is irresponsible to leave them ignorant of how to protect themselves. Abstinence-only programs leave teens ignorant. Countries such as Denmark, which provide teenagers with thorough sexual education, have considerably lower abortion and high school dropout rates than the U.S., and it would be wise for us to follow in their footsteps.

Theresa F. Eugenio ’07

Welcoming Portugal to the MIT Community

Last Wednesday saw MIT sign a five year deal with Portugal to foster collaboration in a few academic areas. Why is this program relevant to the MIT community and what can we expect from it?

Portugal is much more than Port wine (the authentic one!), world heritage sites, good food, and excellent beaches. It is among the oldest European countries (self-declared independence in 1128, recognized in 1143) and one with a rich history. In the 15th century Portugal was the leader of the seas, “giving worlds to the world.” It’s more recent history was marked by a dictatorship which crippled the country; this regime was abolished 32 years ago through a peaceful revolution one morning in April of 1974.

Since then, Portugal has been waking up to its social and technical potential. Huge reforms have taken place and investments, aided by the European Union, are starting to show their results. Portugal was one of the first countries in the world to have an integrated ATM network and a fast-track toll-collection system. It was also a global hub for cell phone growth. Because of this recent progress, the government has fostered technical and educational betterment. A large investment was made in 2003 to equip all universities with Wi-Fi technology and grant access to scientific publications, similar to the system at the MIT Libraries. On a larger scale, the current government has put in place a “Technology Plan” targeting different sectors of education, technology and innovation through several programs.

The MIT-Portugal program is one of the most important of these programs. For a country that recently showed up near the bottom of European development rankings to enter into a program with MIT shows its growth. As we all know, MIT is committed to working in a global context but has limited resources and thus carefully selects its partners.

By selecting Portugal, MIT is publicly recognizing the potential of the country and is inviting Portugal to deliver at a world-class level. At the same time, many eyes will now be set on the work conducted in Portugal, as a venture with MIT significantly reduces the tolerance for sub-par results. This pressure will force Portuguese universities to network — something that historically has been hard to accomplish.

This program will call for more Portuguese exchange students and professors. MIT’s culture of excellence, innovation, entrepreneurship and above all, hard work will be absorbed by those who come to visit us. In turn, they will carry those traits back to Portugal and their universities. In the meantime, MIT faculty will have the opportunity to visit Portugal and make an impact on its community.

These interactions will also foster research collaborations. The MIT-Portugal program represents just a tiny piece of the Portuguese academic community. The current program will have work in Engineering Design and Advanced Manufacturing, Bio-Engineering, Transportation and Energy Systems, plus a Sloan supervised educational program in management. These are some of the areas in which the country can turn itself into a center for MIT research.

Having grown up in Portugal, we know what the country is capable of and how well a program like this can benefit it. The sea challenges in the 1400’s are historical proof of the capabilities of the Portuguese. All bridges that cross the river Douro from Porto to Gaia were engineering feats of their time, breaking boundaries of what civil engineering thought possible. The ATM and automatic toll booths are two more examples. One of the most recent examples was the introduction of the world’s first fully contact-less ticketing system for public transport in Porto in 2002, integrated with full inter modality. All of these examples were circumstantial necessities and prove the capabilities of the Portuguese. However, Portugal lacks the entrepreneurial motivation which abounds at MIT; they do not have that constant desire to take a step forward.

This program will allow the Portuguese to test their ideas with the rigor of a modern scientific culture. It will modernize the Portuguese academic community, industry, and overall society; however, it is not the goal in itself but just a beginning. We hope that the MIT community, in just the way it has embraced both of us here, will rally around the visiting Portuguese students and faculty and welcome them to MIT with open arms.

Marcus Dahlem G and Joao Castro G

Dahlem and Castro are president and vice president of the Portuguese Student Association, respectively.