Can poor black teen-agers abstain sexually? Why not?

Gregory P. Kane

March 05, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

AT THE tender age of 16, I was in love with an 18-year-old named Mona. Or rather, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I imagined I was in love with her, while she probably did the imagining for me.

At any rate, our mutual affection frequently led to passionate sessions of kissing and necking. One night we almost went beyond mere kissing and necking and were perilously close to engaging in sexual intercourse. Before things got too serious, she stopped and pleaded with me not to go any further.

"I'm pretty sure I'll get pregnant," she said, "and I'm not ready to have a baby now."

So as abruptly as we'd started, we stopped. We had turned it on, and we simply turned it off. We had thought with our heads, not our genitalia. Abstain from sex to avoid pregnancy? It sounded like damned good logic to me.

That logic does not prevail today. In the recent controversy over whether the contraceptive Norplant should be administered in Baltimore public schools, I took the apparently absurd position that teen-agers should be abstaining from sex.

Abstinence, I contended, is the safest and most effective means of birth control available. As an added benefit, abstinence teaches teens self-control and self-discipline, qualities that will not do them any harm.

I used this line of reasoning on Dan Rodricks' call-in show on WBAL radio. Judging from the reaction of some, you would have thought I had suggested the Three Stooges developed the theory of relativity.

The most common charge leveled against me was that I was not lTC being "realistic," which left me somewhat perplexed. Dribbling a bowling ball is not realistic. Scratching your left elbow with your left hand is not realistic. Preventing pregnancy by abstaining from sexual intercourse is an indisputable biological fact. There is nothing "unrealistic" about it.

The notion of teen sexual abstinence being unrealistic has a disturbing ring with at least three expectations:

* 1. Teen-agers are incapable of sexual abstinence.

* 2. Black teen-agers are incapable of sexual abstinence.

* 3. Poor black teen-agers are particularly incapable of sexual abstinence.

I'm not comfortable with any of the three. I'm no right-wing, fundamentalist Christian, no raving lunatic from the talk-show circuit. I'm as close to being a secular humanist as one can be. My politics tend to be left of center. But even I can see how imperative it is that we hammer into teens the idea that sexual activity for them is unacceptable until they reach 18. The reasons should be obvious. Stating all of them here would require a book, not an op-ed column. But some of the more prominent ones are:

* 1. Teens are not adults. They are in a very vulnerable stage of life that links childhood to adulthood. We had a sexual revolution in this country, but I don't remember anyone inviting teens.

* 2. Teens, contrary to what they believe, are not emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibilities of sexual activity. It's our collective duty as adults to tell teens that they don't know everything.

* 3. If we accept teen sexual activity as a fait accompli, exactly where do we draw the line -- at 16, 14, 13? My wife knows of one woman who had her 12-year-old daughter implanted with

Norplant. The mother reportedly took her action after discovering the girl was already having sex.

In short, the adult caved in to the demands of a child. When 12-year-olds feel they have the right and the need to engage in sexual activity, we adults have failed.

discussion of Norplant would be complete without mentioning the troubling, nettlesome "black underclass." The term is one I don't particularly like. It has a nasty, racist undertone to it. If there's a black underclass, there is certainly a white one, but the white one is never mentioned. By contrast, at least one author has already blamed nearly every social ill on the black underclass.

But since the entire Norplant controversy is inspired, in part, by the need to curb the birth rate of a particular class of undesirables, I'm compelled to bring up the subject of the "black underclass." The underclass, whatever its color, will never become part of the mainstream society as long as its members are consistently given the message that they will be held to a lower standard of behavior than the rest of us.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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