Sex education is sometimes set up as a fight between the "safe sex message" and the "abstinence message". The Singapore government has been stepping up its campaign to publicise "safe sex" - the use of condoms to prevent disease and pregnancy. In a letter to CN, John Ooi points out that the safe sex is not really that safe. I reply that his use of statistics is unfair, and that perhaps both messages can be allowed in schools. Catholics should remember that the church does not condone premarital sex and that abstinence is the only way to practice "safe sex".
I am writing in reply to John Ooi’s letter ‘“Safe” sex is not really safe’ (CN, 25th Dec 2005). In it, John argues that condoms are neither effective in preventing pregnancies nor sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and that abstinence is more effective than practicing “safe sex”. I agree wholeheartedly that the abstinence message is not “out-of-touch with reality” and should be propagated. However, there are certain misrepresentations that need to be addressed, lest we come away with a skewed perspective regarding the “safe sex” message, and be accused in the end of being “out-of-touch with reality”.
First, John states that “studies show that the user-effectiveness rate of the condom against pregnancy is 86 percent”. While this statistic is correct, it is from a study of couples that use condoms as a birth control method. It turns out that most of these condom failures are caused by errors in use, "most notably the failure of couples to use condoms during every act of sexual intercourse." Its true effectiveness in preventing pregnancy is probably much closer to the estimated 97 percent if ‘used perfectly’. In fact, if calculated on a per condom basis, its effectiveness is closer to 99.96 %.
Next, John extrapolates from this 14 percent first-year failure rate, to a 26 percent failure rate over two years. While this is correct, it needs to be put in perspective in that an estimated 85 percent of women using no method of birth control will become pregnant in the first year. Using the same reasoning, 97 percent, or 970 out of 1000 teens will become pregnant in two years if they do not use birth control. But this would not be a fair representation of the statistics. We should also not use such extrapolations and large sample sizes to make the numbers support our argument; we should present the facts as fairly as possible.
In truth, these statistics about failure rates are actually not relevant to the question of how effective the “safe sex” message is. The relevant statistics should be “how many teens get pregnant after being taught only the ‘safe sex’ message” versus “how many teens get pregnant after being taught only the abstinence message”. It is not at all clear in this regard that the abstinence only message is more effective.
John also refers to how condoms are not actually effective in preventing a number of common STDs. This is true. He then adds that it is logical to conclude that condoms are not any more effective in preventing the transmission of AIDS then in preventing pregnancy. There is an unfortunate impression that condoms are not at all effective in preventing AIDS. As a clarification, while latex condoms provide almost no protection against HPV (human papillomavirus), the cause of genital warts and cervical cancer, lab studies show that using a latex condom to prevent transmission of HIV is more than 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
Here, if we are arguing about effectiveness, the relevant question is whether more teens will catch HIV if they are taught the only “safe sex” message, as opposed to if they were taught abstinence only. Again, it is questionable that the abstinence only message is more effective. If even one straying teen could be prevented from catching HIV by the proper use of a condom, it is arguable that teaching “safe sex” is justifiable just to save that one life. In my opinion, we should not be opposed to the teaching of the “safe sex” message as long as abstinence is taught correctly and as the primary message.
I thank John for educating us about the fact that condoms are not really as effective as commonly thought, but his use of statistics and talk about effectiveness is skewed and misguided. Individuals such as John and organisations such as the Family Life Society should be honest and responsible in propagating the truth about Catholic teachings. Feeding us such figures while ranting against the popular perception of the “safe sex” message only invites people to blindly believe in the abstinence only message. This is actually why we are being accused of being “out-of-touch with reality”, and prevents the message from being more widely accepted.
Most of my information was gotten from this website: The Truth About Condoms (2002),
While a good article to read about sexual education in Singapore is What should be taught in sex education?
 R. A. Hatcher, et al., Contraceptive Technology, 17th revised edition (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.328.
 CDC Update, Questions and Answers on Condom Effectiveness, January 1997.
 R. A. Hatcher, et al., 1998, p. 328.
 Ibid, p. 329.
 Ibid., p. 216.
 R. F. Carey, et al., "Effectiveness of Latex Condoms As a Barrier to Human Immunodeficiency Virus-sized Particles under the Conditions of Simulated Use," Sexually Transmitted Diseases, July/August 1992, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 230.
“Safe sex” is not really safe
Letter from John Ooi (Published in an edited form in CN, Dec 25)
Practise safe sex - use the condom, and you’re be protected against pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD)! This is what articles about sexually active teenagers that appear regularly in the secular press push for. And in discussing sex education, these articles may make the Church’s teachings on chastity (which means abstinence for the unmarried) appear out-of-touch with modern day reality.
It is agreed that there is a problem, which is that a portion of our youth are sexually active. There are generally two options to solve any problem. Option 1 (the safe sex message) is to go for a quick fix that its proponents hope would be adequate. Option 2 (the abstinence message) is more difficult but more effective as it identifies and addresses the root causes.
How valid is the safe sex assumption that the condom would address the problem of teenage pregnancy and of teenagers contracting STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital herpes, HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which leads to AIDS)?
The user effectiveness rate of the condom is of the order of 86% (1). This means that of 1000 women and their partners who are using the condom, 140 would be pregnant after one year. Now if the remaining 860 women continue using the condom for a second year, another 14% of this group (or 120 women) would possibly be pregnant by the end of the second year, that is, there is a 26% chance of an unintended pregnancy after 2 years. The probability of an unintended pregnancy would increase with length of use – this is a statistical fact.
As for the effectiveness of the condom in preventing STD transmission, what is the scientific evidence? This was the question that brought together a number of public health agencies in the United States at the start of this millennium. The scientists involved reviewed and discussed the data from many published studies. As indicated in the table below, they were unable to conclude that the condom can effectively prevent the transmission of a number of common STDs. One reason for this could be that these STDs infect the entire genital area and are spread by skin-to-skin contact. Also, if one compares the factors involved in achieving pregnancy versus AIDS transmission, it would be logical to conclude that the condom cannot be more effective in preventing AIDS than in preventing pregnancy. Should one promote an airline that has a crash rate per year of 14% or higher?
Condom Effectiveness for STD Prevention (2)
Chlamydia No proof of effectiveness
Gonorrhoea Men: Some risk reduction; Women: No proof of effectiveness
Syphilis No proof of effectiveness
Genital Herpes No proof of effectiveness
HPV No proof of effectiveness
HIV / AIDS Significant risk reduction (but not elimination of risk)
An effective approach must first understand why people get sexually active. Our youth, indeed all of us, search for love and happiness. Unfortunately, some mistakenly believe that they will find this love and happiness in sex or through sex. Abstinence education helps our youth to understand that, while we are all sexual beings, we are more than just being physically male or female. Our sexuality includes, in addition to the physical, all the mental, emotional and spiritual characteristics associated with being male or female. The way we think, feel, behave, react - these are all affected by our being male or female. One interacts with and builds up relationships with other persons as a complete and whole sexual person.
Abstinence education suggests to our youth that, before marriage, it is best to develop a relationship by focussing on these other aspects of sexuality first (that is, to learn to relate to each other mentally, emotionally and spiritually). Only after a couple have developed a great relationship and sealed their commitment to each other in marriage will sexual intercourse (which is the intimate language of the body in marriage) be an appropriate way to express, strengthen and deepen that love further. This contrasts with unmarried teenage couples involved in a sexual relationship where the focus on sex makes it difficult for their relationship to progress beyond a shallow, physical level. The common experience is that most of these relationships break up eventually after the initial attraction has died away.
Beyond the physical, the condom provides our youth with no protection against emotional hurts from relationships that have gone wrong, nor does it help to develop their self-mastery. Compared with the safe sex message which is based on erroneous beliefs, abstinence education is more consistent with the aim of education to develop our youth holistically, for it does not pander to desires but strengthens the will, develops self-mastery and enhances self-esteem.
(1) Robert A. Hatcher, et. al. Contraceptive Technology (17th Revised Edition). New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 1998. Table 31-1, p. 800.
(2) From the Summary Report on Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention prepared by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Dept of Health and Human Services, USA, July 20, 2001.