This is a response to an editorial in the Memphis Newspaper Commercial Appeal entitled “Teens Are Listening” which appeared December 5th, 2012. You can find that article here: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2012/dec/05/editorial-teens-are-listening/
The recent editorial entitled “Teens Are Listening” celebrated the fact that unprotected sex is on the decline among students at MCS. The article implicated “it will be hard for some to see the good in that finding” because there are many, such as myself, who would prefer see a greater emphasis on abstinence during events like “Healthy Choices Week” at MCS. This creates an ethical question about whether we should promote abstinence or simply ask that if students do have sex that it be protected. I believe that, in spite of the editor’s opinion, abstinence is the only “healthy choice” that we must promote.
While I agree that protected sex is healthier for a teenager than unprotected sex, I am afraid we are settling for a lesser evil in the area of teen sexual activity. Calling protected sex a ‘healthy choice’ is a bit of a misnomer. And, assuming “teens will experiment” with sex as the article does may actually create an environment where teens make decidedly unhealthy choices without fully understanding the side effects.
In 2008, two OBGYNs released a book called “Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children” (McIlhaney and McKissic, 2008). In the book, Drs. McIlhaney and McKissic explain how findings in neuroscience demonstrate the impact of casual sex on children like those attending Memphis City Schools. Their findings overwhelmingly establish on good research that even protected sex is harmful to teens and that abstinence is clearly the healthy choice.
Neuroscience has uncovered many findings about sexual activity in general. Sexual activity releases chemicals in the brain called dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine rewards us for taking risks. Risk-taking is not always a bad thing in human behavior. For example, it may be a risk to take a new job, but that may be a good decision for me. Dopamine does not make decisions about the rightness or wrongness of an action; the executive functioning part of my brain (prefrontal cortex) does that. Oxytocin, particularly in females, is also released during sexual activity that creates emotional and relational bonds. When having sex, both dopamine and oxytocin are present. So, we are rewarded for sexual activity and then feel emotionally bonded to the partner.
When that bond created by oxytocin is broken it can lead to feelings of depression in the partners. One major side effect is that it becomes increasingly more difficult to create those bonds with someone else in the future. Yet, the brain still desires dopamine. So, while a person may no longer be with their sexual partner, they have an increasing desire for dopamine that rewards risky behavior. The only healthy expression of the dopamine release is found in context of a traditional marriage relationship (Hooked, p. 35) because the bond created by oxytocin is not broken.
Adolescents, such as those who attending the Jr. and Sr. Highs of Memphis, are still developing neurologically; that is their brains are still maturing and will continue to do so beyond their attendance at MCS. Because the executive functioning of their brains (prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed, it is harder for them to make wise relationship decisions. As they engage in casual sexual activity (which includes more than intercourse and can also include pornography), they are rewarded by the release of dopamine. As they experience this release, they will desire more of it. What is more, they will feel bonded to their partners, and experience depression when that bond is broken.
By choosing to have sexual activity, regardless of whether it is protected or not, with a person who will likely not be their life-long mate, teens are setting themselves up for having broken emotional bonds after the release of oxytocin while desiring greater levels of dopamine. McIlhaney and McKissic state that “for this reason, young people particularly are vulnerable to falling into a cycle of dopamine reward for unwise sexual behavior – they can get hooked to it“ (Hooked, p. 35).
Teens learn to become addicted to a behavior about which they do not yet have the faculties to make a wise decision. And, in so doing, they are actually harming their brain development. Further, a teen’s casual approach to sex may hinder him or her from having healthy sexual experiences in marriage later on.
I am thankful for things like Healthy Choices Week at MCS and am also glad that “risky sexual behavior is on the decline among MCS students.” While protected sex is certainly healthier than unprotected sex, scientific findings show that the truly healthy choice for the neurological development of the students at MCS is that of abstinence. So, if we want our teens “to get accurate answers to their questions about sex” we need to show them how both protected and unprotected sex is harmful. Only then will they have the facts they need to make a healthy choice.
Subjects like these are of huge importance due to the moral and religious dimensions they introduce. I am a Christian, and I believe in the Bible for many reasons. Yet, I do not do so as an arbitrary imposition of rules on human’s otherwise “good time,” but firmly believe that obedience to God and His Word will result in the greatest outcome for human beings. Findings such as these support that fact.