Abstinence-Only Sex Education
When Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, he included a stern word of caution to his readers: “as long as sex is dealt with in the current confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, suppression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indecency that lead neither to intellectual honesty nor human dignity.” In the 60 years following Kinsey’s groundbreaking study, the decision-making establishment of the U.S. has consistently ignored his rebuke, preferring to pursue harmful policies that further their own reactionary agendas.
One of these policies is abstinence-only sex education, which teaches that remaining abstinent until marriage is the only safe and acceptable option for adolescents and teens. These courses avoid all discussion of contraceptives and their use or only emphasize the alleged failure rate of common devices like condoms and the birth control pill. Since 1982, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion subsidizing abstinence-only programs which, according to the Guttmacher Institute, are used in over one-third of public school districts in the United States. Annual funding for abstinence-only now stands at nearly $175 million, more than double the amount spent at the beginning of the Bush presidency.
The prevalence of abstinence-only programs in the education system illustrates the severe democratic deficit in the United States. For decades, the American population has overwhelmingly opposed abstinence-only sex education, and for good reason: the programs are medically inaccurate, misrepresent the evidence on which they claim to be based, and are rooted in sexist and fundamentalist attitudes. However, despite widespread popular disapproval, those in positions of power, including President Bush, have not only allowed abstinence-only curricula to flourish in American schools, but have worked tirelessly to ensure their proliferation both at home and abroad at the expense of comprehensive sex education.
In a book review for the journal Critical Sociology, Lesley Shore writes that public opinion polls taken as early as the 1960s “revealed widespread support for comprehensive sex education” among Americans. Little has changed since then. A 2004 survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), found that over 90 percent of parents felt it was “very or somewhat important” to have comprehensive sex education in public schools. In addition, two-thirds of American voters expressed support for comprehensive sex education and 67 percent of the adult population favored “comprehensive sex education programs that included information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.” These findings were confirmed earlier this year, at the state level, when the University of Minnesota published a report detailing how nearly nine out of ten Minnesota parents support comprehensive sex education programs that “[include] information about abstinence and prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” The study also found that Minnesota’s “overwhelming” support for comprehensive sex education cut across gender, age, race, class, and political lines. Minnesota is not unique in this regard as opposition to abstinence-only is so widespread that nearly 20 states, including Minnesota, have rejected Title V sex education funding because of the federal government’s stipulation that it be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs.
Teenagers and young adults, like their parents, extensively support comprehensive sex education as well. According to one survey by Tina Hoff (KFF), 82 percent of teens ages 15-17 and three-quarters of young adults ages 18-24 favored sex education curricula that included information on “how to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS and other STDs,” “the different types of birth control that are available,” and “how to bring up sexual health issues such as STDs and birth control with a partner.” Reflecting the attitudes of American parents and teens, a number of influential professional groups have also issued statements opposing abstinence-only sex education, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the National Education Association, and the American School Health Association.
Contrary to impressions, support for abstinence-only sex education is limited even among Christians in the United States, who traditionally are expected to take strong conservative positions on issues of sexuality. According to one survey cited by Susan Rose the journal Social Forces, eight in ten people who identify as conservative Christian support comprehensive sex education in high schools, and seven in ten support it in middle schools. Another study, carried out by NPR and the Kennedy School of Government, found similar results: nearly nine in ten people who describe themselves as “conservative Evangelical” or “born-again Christians” favor the teaching of human sexuality in schools. (No significant evidence exists on the attitudes of American Jews and Muslims regarding sex education, although some of them—such as those belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism—have publicly spoken out against abstinence-only programs.)
The American public opposes abstinence-only sex education for a number of sensible reasons. First, the programs are remarkably and consistently inaccurate. The most comprehensive analysis of the medical accuracy of abstinence-only courses was carried out, incidentally, by a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 2004. This widely-cited review, often referred to as the Waxman report, discovered that over 80 percent of federally funded abstinence-only curricula contained “false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.” The courses were found to teach, among other things, that pregnancy occurs once out of every seven times a couple has intercourse using a condom, that 10 percent of abortions result in sterility, that HIV can be transmitted through sweat and tears, and that a human being has 48 chromosomes. Abstinence-only programs are also known to teach that touching another person’s genitals can “result in pregnancy,” that a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person,” and that half of the gay male teens in America are infected with the AIDS virus. Some members of Congress, namely the Republicans who endorsed the 2002 Personal Responsibility, Work and Family Protection Bill, have attempted to deflect such criticism, arguing that “it would be impossible to agree on what information is medically accurate.”
Second, in addition to containing “false, misleading or distorted” sexual health information, abstinence-only programs misrepresent the evidence on which they are based. One of the most instructive examples is found in AC Green’s Game Plan, a federally funded abstinence-until-marriage program produced by the Illinois-based Project Reality. Early in the student workbook, it quotes a 2001 survey conducted by the National Campaign to End Teen Pregnancy as saying that American teens desire a “strong message…that they should abstain from sex” until marriage. This is inaccurate. The quotation, which is found on the second page of the survey, actually reads that American teens desire a “strong message…that they should abstain from sex until they are at least out of high school,” a sentiment that is at variance with the abstinence-only ethic. In fact, that same paragraph, and indeed the rest of the survey, goes on to report that both parents and teens strongly desire a “greater emphasis on contraception” in sex education courses, findings conveniently—and likely consciously—omitted from the student workbook. Such misrepresentations are much too common in abstinence-only programs, and should trouble those who believe that adolescents and teens deserve honest sexuality education.
Third, many Americans strongly object to the sexist and fundamentalist attitudes expressed by abstinence-only sex education programs. According to the previously cited Waxman report, several courses “present [gender] stereotypes as scientific fact,” especially those related to women and girls. One popular curriculum, Why kNOw, teaches that “men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments,” while women “gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships.” Another program, WAIT Training, lists “financial support” as one of the “five major needs” of women, while listing “domestic support” as one of the major needs of men. Choosing the Best, the most popular federally funded abstinence education program, regales students with a tale of a knight who rescues a princess from a dragon. The dragon soon returns to seek revenge, but the princess advises the knight to slay the dragon with a noose and poison. The tactic works, but the knight believes he fought dishonorably and feels “ashamed.” In the end, the knight does not marry the princess, but rather a village maiden—and “only after making sure she knew nothing about nooses or poison.” The “moral of the story,” it concludes, is that “occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or may even turn him away from his princess.”
Further stereotypes abound. Many abstinence-only programs teach students that “men are always ready for sex,” while women “often need hours of emotional and mental preparation.” In a talk delivered on the Google campus, sex educator Violet Blue quotes the Why kNOw curriculum as saying that “girls are responsible for boys’ inability to control their sexual urges,” a statement which implies that girls are at fault if they are harassed, sexually assaulted, or even raped. Glencoe Health, a secular abstinence-only health textbook produced by education giant McGraw-Hill, discourages premarital sex by teaching that sexually active teens, presumably girls, “risk developing a reputation among peers as someone who is ‘sexually easy’”—a sanitized way of telling young women that if they have sex, their classmates are expected to call them a “slut”—just as they did publicly to Harvard student and sex blogger Lena Chen earlier this year after participating in a debate at her school.
Patricia Miller, a journalist and reproductive policy analyst, explains that the federal government’s earliest abstinence-only policies had religious motivations, beginning with President Reagan’s Adolescent Life and Family Act which “frequently promoted specific religious values” until successfully challenged by the ACLU in 1993, following a ten-year court battle. The religious right recovered soon after, though, when Democrat Bill Clinton supported a funding provision for abstinence-only programs in his 1996 welfare reform bill. The measure, which allotted $50 million a year in subsidies to abstinence education curricula, was not drafted by medical professionals or educators, but by “representatives from the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, and other conservative groups,” who in turn cooperated with Heritage Foundation policy analyst and abstinence-only champion Robert Rector.
Although many abstinence-only courses do not explicitly reveal their Christian foundations, there are a number that do. In an official newsletter accompanying the widely-used Why kNOw curriculum, for example, the author laments contemporary social mores, writing that “no longer were we valued as spiritual beings made by a loving Creator.” The author closes the letter by signing “In His Service.” True Love Waits, a popular program produced by LifeWay Ministries, aims to “[teach] students the Biblical standards for purity,” and desires to create a generation of teens that will “[live] for the glory of God with sails raised for revival” and be “prepared for Biblical, lifetime marriages.” Sex Respect, which reaches students in over 20 countries and bills itself as “the world’s leading abstinence education program,” informs visitors to their website that their abstinence courses are consonant with Catholic doctrine.
The Democratic Deficit
The federal government’s shaping of sex education funding programs, its appointment of extreme reactionaries to high positions of sexual policy planning, and the feeble opposition to abstinence-only waged by congressional Democrats vividly illustrate the fact that the United States is little more than a formal democracy where opportunities for public participation are limited to selecting leaders from a pool of virtually indistinguishable candidates, with identical financial backers and only marginally different interests.
To begin, the programs that fund sex education in the United States are structured in such a way that they support only abstinence-until-marriage curricula at the expense of comprehensive sex education courses. According to Section 510 of the Social Security Act, which was authorized during the Clinton administration, sex education programs in the United States are eligible for Title V federal funding only if their “exclusive purpose” is to “[teach] the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.” Sex education courses receiving federal funding must also preach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Furthermore, abstinence-only programs receiving federal funding are not reviewed by the federal government for factual or medical accuracy, which explains why the Waxman report discovered “serious and pervasive problems with the accuracy of abstinence-only curricula” that permeate the American education system.
With a little investigation, it is easy to learn why sex education funding programs, like many other public health policies in the United States, are so morally draconian: key decision-making positions regarding sexual policy are held by extreme conservative reactionaries who are selected based on ideological conformity rather than professional qualification. There are several examples of these officials who currently sit in high positions of sexual authority or have done so in the recent past. Thomas A. Coburn, now a junior senator from Oklahoma, served as co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, where he pledged to “challenge the national focus on condom use for preventing the spread of [HIV]” and lamented what he called the “gay agenda” that has “infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country” and “wield extreme power.” Robert George, a member of the eminent President’s Council on Bioethics, wants laws passed to outlaw masturbation, and the former chair of the Council, Leon Kass, has spoken out against sexual indecencies like the licking of ice cream cones in public, since “eating in the street is for dogs.” Susan Orr, who recently resigned from her position as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs, was a senior director at the archconservative Family Research Council and advocates “abstinence over making contraceptives more available.” She also has called birth control providers “collaborators with the culture of death.”
Orr’s successor has not yet been named (at the time of writing), but the nature of Washington’s previous appointees does not bode well for the future. Dr. Eric Keroack, Orr’s immediate predecessor, is a prominent abstinence advocate who sits on the Medical Advisory Council for the Abstinence Clearinghouse. He is a staunch opponent of abortion who has stated that contraceptives are “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality, and adverse to human health and happiness.” Dr. Alma Golden, who held the Deputy Assistant Secretary position before Keroack, characterized contraceptive education and distribution programs as merely offering teens “free condoms for their weekend party” and worked to put “more emphasis on ‘abstinence-only’” in the family planning programs she helped administer.
Although many staunch abstinence-only advocates hold high office in the United States government, there are state officials that are opposed to such programs. Unfortunately, these dissenters have put forth a dubious effort in trying to curb abstinence-until-marriage sex education courses and have even consciously contributed to expanding it to make political gains elsewhere. The Waxman report, for instance, which represents the federal government’s harshest and most notable internal critique to date, contained no policy recommendations or suggestions whatsoever. Another report, published by the Government Accountability Office in 2006, was similarly weak—its strongest suggestion was that federally funded abstinence-only programs should be made to “sign written assurances in grant applications that the materials they use are accurate.” Neither of the government reports called for the abolition of abstinence education programs.
Congressional Democrats, who typically oppose abstinence-only programs, signed on to a bill last June that increased funding for abstinence-only by $27 million, just weeks after issuing a misleading promise to “end abstinence-only funding.” The reason for this maneuver, according to Democratic officials, was to gain “leverage—namely Republican allies in Congress—in fights to come with Bush over domestic spending,” demonstrating clearly their committed opposition to abstinence-only sex education while being conciliatory during a recent congressional hearing on abstinence-only where the discussion “rarely moved beyond championing the value of pre-marital abstinence,” according to Bob Roehr of Pride Source Media Group, and ended in the mild suggestion that block grants be created for states to spend on comprehensive sex education, if they so choose.
The continued expansion of abstinence-only sex education programs, coupled with the unfailing pragmatism of the alleged opposition party, illustrates the severe democratic deficit in the United States. As with many other public policy issues—including healthcare, domestic spending, and the war in Iraq—public opinion is held in extremely low regard and often dismissed as “politically unrealistic.” Those who oppose abstinence-only sex education cannot and should not rely on their elected officials to effect positive social change. The need for popular mass action in support of comprehensive, candid, and inclusive sex-education programs has never been greater, and there are many opportunities for action. Students and teachers can participate in noncooperation, refusing to take part in or teach from curricula that preach only abstinence-until-marriage. Members of the community, including health professionals, educators, and concerned families can organize neighborhood sex education seminars that provide adolescents with the reproductive health information they desperately want and need. As long as abstinence-only sex education is allowed to flourish unchallenged, young people in the United States will suffer a form of indoctrination that leads “neither to intellectual honesty nor human dignity.”