A week or so ago, a report on abstinence education that originally appeared in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine made headlines. Its authors, Drs. John and Loretta Sweet Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania, had written about the results of their research in the Philadelphia public schools, in which they found that abstinence education reduces sexual activity of teens and “tweens.” The Jemmotts also found that such a curriculum also upped the use of condoms among students who were determined to have adolescent intercourse.
A layperson’s summary, in the form of an interview with Loretta Sweet Jemmott, PhD, appears on the website of the Black AIDS Institute. I encourage you to read Dr. Jemmott’s sensible and accessible comments, which describe a program for kids that neither attempts to scare or shame them nor patronizes them nor treats them like miniature adults (which, come to think of it, is pretty patronizing too). Dr. Loretta Jemmott sounds like a very wise woman indeed.
What made me think about the Jemmotts’ study, and take the time to track it down, was when a friend asked me why I hadn’t written anything about Phoebe Prince, the fifteen-year-old who hanged herself to escape relentless torment from a wolf pack of hormone-fueled girls and boys. Phoebe lived with her family in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and she attended South Hadley High School. The family had recently emigrated from Ireland, and Phoebe had all of three months’ exposure to US-style public schools, their unwritten rules and their impenetrable cliques before her suicide in late January. Phoebe Prince is back in the news this week because the members of the wolf pack have been charged in Juvenile Court with an assortment of crimes. If you are not familiar with Phoebe’s sad story, you can read about in many sources, but here is the Boston Globe‘s initial story; it gives a reasonable account and, like all others, describes Phoebe’s torment as “bullying” and her tormentors as “bullies.” If you are interested enough to read examples of their actual indictments, you can find them here, here, and here.
So what do abstinence education and teenage bullying have to do with one another? In Miss Prince’s case, it turns out, quite a bit. Although the news accounts of what the bullies actually said to Phoebe are hard to come by, one gleans that most if not all of the taunts were sexual in nature. She was called names that would make the mildest feminists cringe in anger and despair. She was invited to perform acts that would gross out all but the hypersexual, hypointelligent teens who suggested them.
What did Miss Prince do to deserve her fate? Nothing she did warranted the targeted, organized campaign of hate that was aimed at her. So why did it happen? Because she was pretty and the girls who went after her were jealous? Probably this was part of the story. Because she was just-off-the-boat Irish and ignorant of the rigid rules the define behavior for American teens? Yes, this probably also had something to do with it. These two factors alone might’ve earned her a few cold shoulders, and a chilly reception when she tried out for cheerleader, but they wouldn’t have led to the unrelenting assaults she endured.
Phoebe the freshman made her first mistake by accepting a date from an “older man,” a football captain who was evidently on hiatus from his usual girlfriend, the alpha female in the wolf pack. Had the “date” been a walk from school to the parking lot for a couple of smooches and a few gropes, chances are Phoebe would have been subject to a few insults and some dirty looks in the hall, but eventually would have ceased to be prey for the pack. But apparently there was more to the relationship between the freshman and the football captain. And apparently the football captain—no gentleman he—blabbed about his conquest. From then on, it was an oft-told tale of all-out war: a strange female wanders to alien land and seeks to join the pack by conjugating with the alpha male. Alpha female gathers her troops and retaliates to the death to rid the pack and its territory of the interloper. Phoebe Prince never had a chance.
If only. If only our society didn’t wink at teenagers having sex. If only our society attached more value to the development of reason and intellect than to the development of curves and muscles. If only we didn’t shrug our shoulders and simply let all those hormones rage because, hey, we can’t stop ‘em and besides we remember what it’s like to be sixteen.
If there were ever a morality tale that illustrates why high school kids should not have sex, it is the terrible story of Phoebe Prince, the girl who is presumed to have had sex with the football captain and paid for it with her life. The big-tough-guy captain himself who was so insecure about his prowess that he felt the need to broadcast his most intimate moments to an audience of his adoring fans. And the alpha female, who like many of her kind, confused copulating with something other than the exchange of bodily fluids, and whose hormone-drenched brain cells were washed clean of all but her most primal, basest instincts.
Until I read about Phoebe Prince and her attackers, I never really understood why teens ought to go the abstinence route. If I thought about teenage sex at all, it was only to cluck with disapproval now and then about teenagers having babies they could not, or would not, support. But if a couple of teens wanted to get it on, I figured that’s their business. I was wrong. The lethal consequences of letting kids do what they want, when they want are just too high a price to pay. More power to the Drs. Jemmott.