Sex, Drugs, and Teens


policies relating to things like sex, drugs, crime, and death are
often lumped together under the term “morality politics.”
To enter the realm of morality politics, an issue must touch on
controversial questions of basic principles and involve conflicts
over deeply-held beliefs about what is “right” and what
is “wrong.” Therefore, in the world of morality politics,
issues are always simple. Politicians love issues that appear clear
and simple, since that allows them to propose clear and simple “solutions.” 

problem is, life is not simple and that presents a problem when
attempting to make policy based on someone’s “morality.”
The fantasy that public policy can force everyone to make certain
simple choices based on a universal morality is not only dangerous,
but doomed to failure. The tragic failures of abstinence only sex
education and “Just Say No” drug education illustrate
how dangerous and misguided can be the attempts to legislate “morality.”
But it’s not enough to focus on why such policies do not and
cannot be successful on the terms upon which they have been sold
to the U.S. public. More important is to see on what terms they
can be predicted to be successful. 

Sex Education 


year 1981 saw the passage of a bill promoting a new approach to
teen pregnancy—one emphasizing “morality” and “family
involvement.” The bill was AFLA—the Adolescent Family
Life Act—and its stated purpose was “to promote self-discipline
and other prudent approaches to the problem of adolescent premarital
sexual relations.” It soon came to be known as

chastity bill.” 

1996 welfare “reform” act signed by President Clinton
also promoted the “chastity” idea by expanding the federal
government’s role in funding so-called abstinence only sex
education. The current Bush administration has framed the issue
in stark terms, saying, “The sexual revolution that began in
the 1960s has left two major problems in its wake. The first is…non-marital
births [and]…the second is the explosion of sexually transmitted
diseases that now pose a growing hazard to the Nation’s public
health…. To address these problems, the goal of Federal policy
should be to emphasize abstinence.” 

way the federal government “emphasizes” so-called abstinence
is through the funding of sex education programs. There are three
main programs that fund sex ed at the federal levels: (1) AFLA is
still around and Bush has proposed $26 million to fund it in the
coming budget; (2) Title V of the Social Security Act, which includes
an Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage initiative, is currently receiving
$50 million per year; and (3) the Special Projects of Regional and
National Significance program—the most restrictive of all the
programs—for which Bush has requested $186 million for fiscal
year 2005. Since 1996, federal funding for abstinence only sex education
has totaled nearly $1 billion. 

order to receive federal sex education dollars, school districts
must adhere to programs that meet very specific criteria spelled
out in federal law (specifically, Section 510 b of Title V of the
Social Security Act, PL 104-193). The law spells out clearly, among
other things, that “abstinence from sexual activity outside
marriage” will be the “expected standard for all school-age
children.” Yes, that’s right: all of them. 

truth is, whether we like it or not, children are sexual beings
and many of them can and do act on their sexual feelings. The majority
of people have their first experiences with sex during their teen
years, or earlier. Judith Levine, in her book

Harmful to Minors:
The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

says it plainly:
“Around the globe most people begin to engage in sexual intercourse
or its equivalent homosexual intimacies during their teen years.”
Various studies indicate that the United States is no different
from the rest of the planet in this regard.

dealing with this reality, people tend to fall into one of two groups.
One group believes that sexuality is a natural, normal, healthy
part of life, and that children need accurate information about
all aspects of sexuality in order to make decisions in line with
their individual values and the values of their family and community.
Surveys indicate that most people in the U.S.—perhaps 75 percent—are
in this group. 

other group believes that sexual expression outside of marriage
will have harmful social, psychological, and physical consequences,
that abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage is the only
acceptable behavior, and that only one set of values (often based
on a particular interpretation of the Christian bible) is morally
correct for all students. Perhaps 15 percent of people in the U.S.
fall into this group. These are the people who most ardently support
abstinence only sex education as spelled out in the law. 

in this second group attribute all behavior to an adherence to—or
a failure to adhere to—the single set of moral values that
they claim to “know” and stand for. These people are increasingly
in charge of writing the laws so, despite the fact that most people
in the country support a comprehensive approach to sex education
that helps young people make good decisions, the law calls for an
ever-greater share of public funding to go toward the restrictive
abstinence only approach. 

communities call for reductions in sexually-transmitted infections
(STIs), HIV/AIDS, and in the number of unintended pregnancies and
abortions among the country’s young people, a large number
of schools have implemented so-called abstinence only programs—programs
that follow the federal rules. Are such programs effective in protecting
our kids? It doesn’t look like it. Although it is hard to judge
conclusively, since teen sexuality is a difficult thing to study
(ask any parent), we do have quite a number of studies to go by,
and the results are just about unanimous: abstinence only sex ed
does not work, even on its own terms. 

of the studies of abstinence only sex ed programs come to similar
conclusions. A 2002 “meta-analysis” of numerous studies
concluded that such programs had “a very small overall effect
of the interventions in abstinent behavior.” The American Academy
of Pediatrics said in August 2001, “Abstinence-only programs
have not demonstrated successful outcomes with regard to delayed
initiation of sexual activity or use of safer sex practices.”

Journal of Public Health Policy

reported, “By 2002,
the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] had identified five ‘Programs
That Work,’ curricula that have shown their effectiveness in
reducing sexual risk behaviors. No abstinence only approach was
found on this list of effective programs.” There are many,
many more studies of this type. 

are numerous problems with the abstinence only approach, but part
of the problem with the approach as it has been carried out in this
country is that much of the “education” it presents is
wrong, perhaps distorted by an urge to “scare” young people
into following the rules. A recent report from the U.S. House of
Representatives found that “over 80 percent of the abstinence-only
curricula…contain false, misleading, or distorted information
about reproductive health.” 

addition to generalized hysteria about teen sexuality, right-wing
concerns about abortion and gender roles seem to contribute to the
distortions found in abstinence only sex ed. One curriculum states
that 5 to 10 percent of women who have legal abortions will become
sterile; that “[p]remature birth, a major cause of mental retardation,
is increased following the abortion of a first pregnancy”;
and that “[t]ubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following
abortions.” (In fact, these risks do not rise after the procedure
used in most abortions in the United States.) Another curriculum
teaches that women need “financial support,” while men
need “admiration.” Yet another instructs: “Women
gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships.
Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

there are sex education programs that have proven effective in preventing
unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections among
our youth, but none of them are of the abstinence only variety.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and others have found that
the sex education programs that work are comprehensive and “include
information about abstinence and contraception within the context
of sex education.” 

Teen Drug Education: Just Say Know 


are a number of abstinence-based drug education programs in use
in U.S. schools, but by far the most widely-studied program is the
program known as DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles School District
launched the DARE program in 1983. A sort of drug chastity effort,
the program took its inspiration, in part, from the campaign initiated
by Nancy Reagan that encouraged the nation’s youth to “Just
Say No” to drugs. DARE preaches an abstinence only message,
with program participants pledging to lead a “drug-free life.” 

elementary school DARE curriculum consists of 17 lessons taught
by DARE-trained uniformed police officers, with the stated purpose
of providing students with decision-making skills, showing them
how to resist peer pressure, and teaching alternatives to illicit
drug use and violence. DARE is administered in the fifth and sixth
grade and short courses at lower grade levels and supplementary
junior high school and high school programs are also available.

classifying any and all drug use as “abuse,” and by presenting
what some have called a “bizarre, brazenly exaggerated depiction
of drug use,” the DARE program follows the tradition of using
“scare tactics” to keep kids from trying drugs. 

Weil, in his groundbreaking 1972 book

The Natural Mind

, tells
us, “The use of drugs to alter consciousness is nothing new.
It has been a feature of human life in all places on the earth and
in all ages of history.” In the U.S., the most recent data
show that 44 percent of 8th graders have used drugs, a number that
grows to 77 percent by 12th grade. This includes alcohol, as should
any honest reference to “drugs.” If we limit it to so-called
“illegal” drugs, the experts say that 22 percent have
used them by 8th grade and 51 percent by 12th grade. 

the fact is that some kids use drugs. The question is, what do we
do about it? As with sex education, the responses fall into one
of two groups. 

group focuses on reducing the harm that often comes with drug abuse.
This approach is often called a harm-reduction, or safety first
approach. This group accepts that kids live “in a world in
which drugs of all sorts are…widely abundant, legal and illegal,
pharmaceutical as well as herbal,” and that they will make
decisions about whether or not to use drugs in that context. 

the other group, the idea that there may be “non-dangerous”
ways to use drugs is wrong. This group sees all drug use (except,
in many cases, for their own use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine,
etc.) as anti-social behavior that must be prevented. For people
in this group, the decision to use drugs is a personal matter of
“self-discipline” and a simple matter of personal “choice.”
Here we get back to the “just say no” idea, which implies
that the decision is a simple, either/or, yes/no decision to be
made by each individual child. This group appears to believe—and
to base its drug education policies on—four common myths: 

  1. that experimentation
    with drugs is not a common part of teenage culture  

  2. that drug use
    is the same as drug abuse 

  3. that marijuana
    is the gateway to drugs such as heroin and cocaine 

  4. that exaggerated
    risks (scare tactics) will deter young people from experimentation 

the fact that the ideology of abstinence only drug education is
myth-based, a lot of money is spent on it. It’s hard to tell
exactly how much money the U.S. spends on the DARE program specifically,
because there is no centralized accounting of the funds, expenditures,
and resources used to support the program. 

the best estimate comes from a 2001 paper called “The Economic
Costs of DARE” by Edward M. Shepard. Shepard says that the
U.S. spends roughly $1.04 to $1.34 billion per year on the program,
or $175-270 per student each year. And, as Shepard tellingly puts
it, “Some experts in drug education believe that DARE has negative
effects on school children. This suggests that there may be additional
costs associated with the DARE program which could not be considered
in this paper.” 

school-based drug prevention programs for adolescents, based on
scare tactics, zero tolerance, and “Just Say No” have
been in use since the 1960s, they have been studied extensively,
in many different communities and demographic groups. At this point
in history, it is safe to say that they—and specifically DARE,
by far the most widely-used program of this type—do not work.
That is, they do not reduce rates of drug abuse among our youth. 

the Drug Reform Coordination Network puts it, “Although many
evaluations have been done, no scientific study has discovered any
statistically significant difference in drug-usage rates between
students who had taken DARE and those who had not.” 

it comes to reducing the harm done to kids by drugs, there are programs
that work. They are the ones that go beyond “Just Say No”
to the more complex and respectful “Just Say Know” that
older kids need. What they need, in other words, is honest, accurate,
and realistic information about drugs, minus the moralizing and
fear-mongering that characterizes so much of what adults currently
pass off on kids. 

the documented failure of these abstinence only policies, political
leaders continue to push them, and they continue to appear to have
fairly broad support, or at least to be widely used. Why? 

are three ways in which these “failed” policies are seen
to be successful by their proponents: 

  1. They allow many
    voters to shift responsibility for social problems onto “others” 

  2. They act as
    powerful social controls 

  3. They reinforce
    a certain moral system 

dominant culture in the United States emphasizes an ideal of “freedom”
or “liberty” that is so extreme that it leaves out any
notion of responsibility, a concept that is essential if we don’t
want “freedom” to degenerate into unbounded license. In
the world of George W. Bush and other promoters of abstinence-based
“morality” policies, each individual is alone responsible
for his or her decisions. Whatever problems an individual has, in
this view, are the result of some sort of moral failing on the part
of the individual, whether it be “bad decisions” or “lack
of self-discipline” or “weakness” or something else. 

if an individual “fails” repeatedly, then it can be said
that the individual is “bad”—that is, essentially
bad, or evil—and there is no help for them. In this view, the
only responsibility that the larger community—family, school,
government—shoulders is the responsibility to tell people what
is right and wrong and then to reward them if they do “right”
and punish them if they do “wrong.” The fault and the
responsibility for the transgression lies with that individual and
that individual alone. 

Dana McGrath of George Washington University put it in a presentation
at the International Women’s Policy Research Conference in
June of 2003, “By constructing the problems that teen mothers,
for example, face as the result of ‘bad choices’ rather
than preexisting economic or cultural disparities, the government
and the larger public can escape any responsibility for creating
and perpetuating social inequalities.” 

the average citizen, and the average policy-maker, has an interest
in framing social problems as personal moral failings. Then they
can say, “It’s not my problem.” That’s an important
part of why some of these failed “morality policies” continue
to be popular. It’s easy for elected officials to create and
maintain policies that absolve their constituents of any responsibility
for social problems. 

Social Control 


the heart of right-wing ideology is the idea that morality is absolute
and that it can and should be articulated and enforced by some authority.
And who is the “authority?” This is not a simple question,
but let’s look at how it plays out in practice. In the case
of the anti-drug DARE program, the “facts” presented about
drugs are taught to children by uniformed police officers. The Family
Council on Drug Awareness (not a supporter of the DARE Program)
maintains that “DARE has a hidden agenda. DARE is more than
just a thinly-veiled public relations device for the police department.
It is a propaganda tool that indoctrinates children in the politics
of the Drug War, and a hidden lobbying strategy to increase police

might be right. Certainly there are powerful political constituencies
that support the idea of a militarized and repressive “war
on drugs” and the large military and police budgets that necessarily
go with that territory. It’s not uncommon, when looking at
the research about DARE, to see that the arguments in favor of continuing
the program are based more on how good it is for the police than
how good it is for the kids. 

good example is a major study done a few years back by the Minnesota
Prevention Resource Center (“Minnesota DARE Evaluated”).
The study “affirmed DARE’s remarkable popularity and support
in communities throughout the state.” But it found that support
for the program is “not grounded in people’s belief that
DARE is effective in preventing alcohol, tobacco, and other drug
use. Rather, support is based on the belief that the program’s
impact can be seen in improved student perceptions of police, better
police understanding of students and improved relationships between
police and the community.” 

for those “improved relationships” is a greater acceptance
of a heavy police presence in the schools (and most other places).
Consider, in this light, this point from an article posted on the
official DARE website: “When not in a classroom teaching, each
DARE officer is a roving, armed, uniformed, radio-equipped officer
in the school. Given that many school population’s number in
the thousands of students per school, schools are communities of
their own. DARE officers protect those communities.” Or, one
could say, they give certain influential people the feeling that

is being “protected” from somebody. 

Minnesota report tells us, “Some studies report that the symbolic
value of police and school working together is a powerful affirmation
of traditional values and an important aspect of the program.”
Perhaps support for such “traditional values” explains
the fact that “88 percent of…survey respondents agreed with
the statement, ‘Even if there is no scientific evidence that
DARE works, I would still support it.’” That’s a
remarkable finding, as it indicates that the country’s largest
“anti-drug” program may not be primarily about drugs at

the case of DARE, the program fails on the grounds of reduction
in drug abuse, yet it succeeds in reinforcing a particular form
of social control that is based in coercive enforcement of the values
of the largely white, largely christian population in this country,
whose values we are to understand are “traditional values.” 

tend to want to shape social policy in the service of getting certain
results that can be measured or seen, such as a decline in rates
of drug abuse, crime, or unwanted pregnancy. For right-wingers,
such measurable results may or may not be important, but one thing
that is important is that a policy reinforces their moral system. 

example, abstinence only sex education has not been shown to result
in more teens abstaining from sex. But what it does do is to send
a powerful message about what is “right” and what is “wrong”
when it comes to human sexuality. Socially “conservative”
educators, parents, and others insist that any expression of human
sexuality outside of the context of procreation within marriage
is wrong, and that discussion of anything else is “controversial.”
Therefore, teachers legitimately fear attack if they stray from
the preferred “morality.” Here is McGrath again, explaining
the result: “Sex education curriculum is often self-censored
in this way, and with the only federal model being upheld based
in a strict-abstinence-only message, even modest discussion of such
subjects [as sexual pleasure, masturbation, homosexuality or abortion]
may be rejected as extreme. [T]he result is that those messages
and behaviors objected to or marginalized by some members of the
larger society get omitted [from the sex ed curriculum]. The effect
is far from devoid of a message, however, as the official silence
on abortion, homosexuality and masturbation serves to reinforce
a codification of deviance and shame around these topics and the
students who have engaged in any of these practices, while at the
same time normalizing and naturalizing heterosexual, procreative
sexual practice.” 

the right-wing agenda spreads beyond sex, drugs, and crime into
all areas of life, what can be expected to be “normalized and
naturalized” will be the so-called “traditional values”
that just happen to be favored by those in power. It is thus not
surprising that so many “failed” policies continue to
survive and even to grow in influence. While they may not do what
they promise to do, they do allow most people to evade responsibility
for what are in large part social problems, while at the same time
reinforcing a system of social control that fits well with an authoritarian
moral system that is favored by those at the top of the power structure
in this country. 

A Progressive Alternative 


someone with a progressive worldview, the world—including the
world of teenagers—is a complicated place. Such a person sees
the roots of human behavior as a complex mix of factors, of which
morality is only one. The factors include the interior world of
psychology, spirituality, genetic makeup, mental processes, and
so forth, as well as the outer world of economics, religion, education,
nutrition, social supports, and much more. In this world, it is
assumed that human decision-making is complex and varied and that
the context in which an individual is raised and in which he/she
acts has a profound impact on the decisions that are made.

thinking separates the concepts of fault and responsibility, and
that’s important. An individual may be at fault for a transgression
and they should bear the consequences, but it is understood at the
same time that responsibility for the transgression extends far
beyond that individual. It is understood that all of us who have
together created or perpetuated the culture that forms the context
for the decision share in that responsibility, to the extent that
we understand it and can do something about it. 

example, if a person living in poverty engages in robbery, they
should be brought to justice. At the same time, if we know that
there is a correlation between poverty and robbery, then part of
the responsibility for that robbery falls upon all of us who allow,
or promote, policies that increase poverty. Society is not to “blame”
for the robbery, but all of us have some responsibility for changing
the conditions that lead to more robberies. One could substitute
“terrorism” for “robberies” and the same reasoning
would apply. 

article is subtitled “Fantasy Versus Reality” for a couple
of reasons. One reason is that the morality policies favored by
the president and many of his supporters have been sold on false
pretenses. They are not really expected to get the results—i.e.,
reductions in unwanted pregnancies, reductions in drug use—that
we have been told they are meant to get. In this sense, the official
arguments are fantasies and the reality is that a different agenda
motivates these initiatives. That’s one way in which fantasy
and reality butt heads in the realm of morality politics. But there
is another, more fundamental point to understand about fantasy and

policy based on total prevention of certain behaviors is a fantasy.
Consider Weil’s claim that drug use (and by this he means the
use of mood-altering chemicals) has been a part of human societies
since the dawn of history. If this is reality—and I think it
is—then any policy aimed at zero tolerance is a fantasy. To
the extent that such universal behavior is criminalized and suppressed,
it is a dangerous fantasy. 

about sex in human societies? That’s certainly universal, and
researchers say that sexual behavior starts in adolescence, or earlier,
for most people. If that is reality—and I think it is—then
an abstinence only approach to teen sex is also a fantasy. And,
to the extent that large numbers of kids are shamed and sanctioned
in service to this fantasy—because their sexual experiences
or sexual feelings are seen as “wrong”—then it, too,
is a dangerous and life-negating fantasy. 

all this to say that teen drug use or teen sex is without problems,
or that whatever kids do is okay? No, it is not. It is simply to
acknowledge that kids are people who make decisions, and that the
job of adults—acting as parents, or teachers, or political
leaders—is to help and guide our kids to make good decisions
in the context of their actual lives. That is different than the
behaviorist “reward and punishment” approach favored by
the proponents of an abstinence only world. 

is the essence of the difference between the right-wing approach
to educating teens and the left-wing, or progressive, approach.
Where the right-wing approach is based in “right and wrong,”
a progressive approach is based on “good decision-making.”
The progressive approach, unlike the right-wing one, understands
that teenagers make decisions in the context of their lives, so
big changes in teen behavior are not likely unless we do what we
can to change that context. That means acknowledging the importance
of such things as social inequalities, power relations, economic
opportunity, and on and on. In short, it means seeing that the solutions
to social problems must involve social change, not just individual

public policies on a progressive, socially-conscious ideology would
result in very different outcomes. Most fundamentally, the policies
would be positive, based as they are on the belief that people—teens
included—are bundles of goodness waiting to unfold, and the
job of society is to unleash that human potential. The right-wing
approach, in contrast, is based on the idea that people are bundles
of badness—sinners, if you will—and that the job of society
is to control and suppress that badness. One ideology is based in
this world, and affirms the beauty of human life. The other is based
in another world, and focuses on human shortcomings. 

and fantasy. The reality is that sometimes kids do things that adults
don’t like. The fantasy is that if we tell them not to, they
won’t. Our policies should be based in reality while supporting
and guiding our kids to make the best decisions they can.

Minneapolis freelance
writer and activist Jeff Nygaard publishes an email newsletter called

Nygaard Notes