The Issue of Agency and “Just Say No”: How the System Fails Today’s Teens

It’s not a secret that I’m no fan of abstinence-only sex education-~-I’ve posted about comprehensive sex ed and even sex-positive sex ed on this blog before.  But I want to go back for a moment now to talk about “Just Say No” and the reasons why it’s a failed philosophy.

First and foremost, studies have shown that individuals who subscribe to “just say no” are more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. Why?  Because when they do say yes, they’re unprepared to deal with it-~-they aren’t on birth control, they may not have a condom or know how to use one correctly.  They never took those preparatory steps, because they weren’t planning on saying anything but no.  This is a problem, because it means that teens are sent into the world ill-equipped to make responsible decisions.

You already knew that, most likely, but I figured I’d say it just in case.  The SECOND reason why “just say know” can’t work is the one I want to talk about today, and it deals with female sexual agency.  The following is an excerpt from my own research, as presented in Whose Fault is it Anyway? The Framing of Teen Pregnancy in the United States in Public Discourse and Popular Media (2012):

As sex is currently discussed in the United States, taboos on female sexuality create a “good girl” paradigm wherein “good girls are still supposed to ‘just say no’” (Tolman 1999:133).  This, too, represents a structural issue wherein female sexuality is simultaneously frowned upon and commodified such that young women are unable to identify with their own sexual agency; Fine (1988) argues that adolescent female sexuality is framed in terms of danger, victimization, and individual morality such that girls are not meant to be able to positively identify with sexual experience.  By making the principal sources of conversation about sex and sexuality more sex-positive, young women can be empowered to make choices, and therefore make healthier choices, regarding their sexual behavior. Additionally, sex-positive sex education has the potential to address other issues, such as what constitutes consent and how to build healthy relationships.  These issues are fundamental to reducing problems such as unwanted sexual contact, which is has also been linked to adolescent pregnancy, as well as a lack of dialogue between partners that is fundamental to the development of healthy sexual relationships.

The agency issue speaks to a greater problem with the underlying assumptions in behavioral interventions—that is, behavioral interventions presume that subjects can be made to select “healthier” options.  This premise comes from the theory of reasoned action, which postulates that behavioral intentions, which function as antecedents to behavior, are informed by salient information or beliefs (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980), and thus if one can provide salient information in favor of a particular option or alter beliefs regarding health behaviors, one can influence an individual’s intentions such that they will pursue healthier behaviors.  This theory has manifested itself in behavioral interventions such as pushes for condom usage and the practice of sex education, especially abstinence-only sex education.  These interventions necessarily try to change either the body of information available or the attitudes associated with sex in order to guide adolescents towards less risky behaviors, primarily abstinence or at least the use of protection such as condoms or birth control.

Unfortunately, this approach rests on the assumption that individuals are able to carry out these behaviors, or that they feel able to carry out these behaviors.  The theory of planned behavior includes perception of behavioral control in the analysis of individuals’ decision-making processes (Azjen 1985).  An individual’s perception of his or her own ability to successfully pursue any given option influences the likelihood of said individual to try pursuing said option.  For example, if a young woman feels she can successfully communicate with her boyfriend about using a condom, she is more likely to do, but if she perceives the likelihood of success of such an endeavor to be low, she is unlikely to insist that he use a condom.  Similarly, if a young woman does not feel that she can successfully undertake contraceptive measures she is less likely to pursue them.  This is part of the reason for the knowledge/behavior gap often seen in sexual and reproductive health: individuals know about protection, but due to other barriers feel unable to implement the measures that they are aware of.  Moreover, if young women do not feel that they have the right or the ability to refuse sex if their partners desire it, even campaigns such as “just say no” are unlikely to succeed.  This is one of the reasons that alterations to current interventions—for example, making sex education more sex-positive to empower young women to access their sexual agency—are necessary in order to increase the perceived ability of individuals to engage in safer sex practices.

I know, that was a lot of sociology in a very small space, and not everyone reading this blog is a sociologist.  But I think we can all understand the issue here: if young women don’t feel they have a right to say no to their boyfriends if their boyfriends want sex, or if young women don’t feel that they can expect success if they ask their boyfriends to use a condom, then these programs are going to fail.  Young women need to feel that they have a SAY in what happens to them sexually, and that they have a RIGHT to make decisions about their own bodies and their own sexual experiences, if we want to promote safe sex or even just abstinence.

“Just Say No” isn’t working, but if we even want it to have a shot, then we need to start empowering young girls to SAY no when they mean no, instead of just saying yes because they think they have to.

~ by Randi Saunders on April 24, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Issue of Agency and “Just Say No”: How the System Fails Today’s Teens”

  1. […] of contraception, so that they can have a legitimate Plan A.  We need a much bigger dialogue about consent and female sexual empowerment, so that girls are able to say no when they mean no, and can make good decisions when they choose […]

  2. […] access to resources, including resources for sexual and reproductive healthcare.  I’ve been saying this all along: women need to actually be empowered to say no or to make good decisions for themselves when they […]

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