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Abstaining from Comprehension

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“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!”
— Coach Carr, from the 2004 film Mean Girls

As ridiculous as this movie quote seems, it echoes the sentiments of abstinence-only sex education programs being taught in high schools all over America. Even though most health professionals consider abstinence-only to be inferior to a more comprehensive curriculum, funding for abstinence-only courses increased significantly under the Bush administration.

This issue is a hotbed of controversy among parents, students, school boards, and communities. It’s a polarizing issue, much like abortion and gay marriage, because it deals with morals which are deeply rooted in religion. Unfortunately for proponents of abstinence, religion has almost no place in education; information and knowledge do. Despite extensive debate, and even acknowledging that abstinence is the only way to completely prevent pregnancy and STDs, abstinence-only curricula are out-of-date and dysfunctional, while comprehensive sex education is the correct option for public schools in America.

Abstinence-only sex education, according to its Wikipedia entry, is “a form of sex education that emphasizes abstinence from sex” and excludes “all other types of sexual and reproductive health education, particularly regarding birth control and safe sex.” According to the article “Changes in Formal Sex Education: 1995-2002” in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the percentage of teachers who utilize this method has grown from only 2% in 1988 to about 35% currently. This seems to be going backward; as our country becomes increasingly modernized and sexualized, why are our youth in old-fashioned, unrealistic programs?

The surge in abstinence-only education was brought about by the “family values” movement which started in the 1980s and found new life through the administration of President George W. Bush, whose strong religious faith greatly influenced the enormous increase in federal funding for abstinence-only education. Federal and matching state funding rose from about $10 million in fiscal year 1997 to $167 million in fiscal year 2005. These programs are required by law to teach that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” and that “a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”

In an even more obvious attack on information, this money is also allocated to fund anti-sexuality programs, “chastity” programs sponsored by public schools, and even censorship of textbooks, as is the case in Franklin County, North Carolina, where the school board ordered three chapters “literally sliced” from a freshman health textbook because they did not adhere to the state law mandating abstinence-only curricula. Such increases in government funding would seem to suggest that these programs are widely supported by citizens and health professionals, and that they have been proven effective.

Existing evidence is actually quite to the contrary, though: there is no substantial scientific support for these programs, and an NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll conducted in 2004 shows that only 15% of Americans believe that schools should teach only about abstinence. Clearly the swell in funding and federal support for abstinence-only education is untimely and outside of the country’s best interest.

There must be some reason for this purist viewpoint on sex education; otherwise it wouldn’t be forced upon so many impressionable young students. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., has a list of facts on its website which allegedly prove that abstinence-only education is the best choice for American schools. Fact #1 states that “sexual activity at an early age has multiple harmful consequences,” while Fact #3 says that sexually active teens are at a greater risk for depression and suicide.

It also lists statistics about what American parents want: 91% would prefer that their children learn that “the best choice is for sexual intercourse to be linked to love, intimacy, and commitment,” but there are no statistics on the website about how many parents support messages about safe sex or information about contraception. The site is clearly biased, to the point of withholding information which would undermine the Heritage Foundation’s agenda. What a parallel to many abstinence-only curricula.

What isn’t foolish about abstinence-only education is that, yes, abstinence is the only way to completely prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs, as well as a host of social problems that can come with engaging in sexual activities in high school. The problem with abstinence-only education has nothing to do with the effectiveness of actually abstaining from sexual intercourse; the problem is that these programs do not properly prepare the students who do choose to have sex.

Another issue with many abstinence-only programs is the blatant lies and misinformation they spread. A Planned Parenthood fact sheet about abstinence-only sex education exposes several instances of this problem. For example, a report by Henry Waxman in 2004 found that the program entitled Me, My World, My Future claimed that “tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions,” which is untrue according to obstetrics textbooks. Even more shockingly, WAIT Training states that HIV can be transmitted through sweat and tears, which even a person with a rudimentary knowledge of HIV/AIDS knows is completely incorrect.

In Belton, Missouri, a health teacher was suspended because a parent complained after she answered a student’s question about oral sex. These examples demonstrate that abstinence-only education not only leaves students unprepared to make decisions about safe sex, but blatantly lies to them in a series of scare tactics designed to frighten them away from having sex. This is a waste of resources and the federal government has much more important things on which to spend money.

The bottom line is that abstinence-only programs do not work. They spread lies, incorporate religion into public schools, and do not adequately prepare young people for choices regarding sex. Furthermore, there is little evidence that teens who participate in abstinence-only programs actually wait any longer to have sex than those who have a comprehensive program. Additionally, 88% of students who pledge virginity in middle or high school still engage in premarital sex, but are less likely to use contraception if they received an education advocating abstinence only. It is obvious that abstinence-only sex education is not the right choice for American public schools.

So what is the alternative to abstinence-only?

Comprehensive sex education is defined as “teaching that provides balanced and accurate information on both abstinence and birth control.” As if the glaring problems with abstinence-only programs weren’t enough, comprehensive programs have substantial evidence endorsing them as effective.

Planned Parenthood’s website claims that students who take comprehensive sex education classes do not necessarily participate in sexual activity earlier or more often, but do use contraception and practice safe sex more when they become sexually active. This demonstrates the need for more information in public schools about sexual issues. It seems understandable to me that no matter what teenagers are taught, no matter how rigorous their abstinence-only program is, there will still be some teens who choose to have sex.

Additional support comes from the high rate of teen pregnancies and increasing incidence of teen HIV contraction in the United States. The teen pregnancy rate is at a historic low (76.4 pregnancies per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19), but it is still higher than in many developed nations such as Australia, England, Canada, and Germany (nations which have more comprehensive sex education than the United States), a fact for which experts cite lack of comprehensive sexuality education and contraception.

California has rejected federal funding for abstinence-only education in order to decrease pregnancy rates in a manner similar to many European countries. According to Planned Parenthood, by implementing programs which use medically accurate information, California has seen a 40% drop in teen pregnancy rates in the last decade. This proves that comprehensive sex education works. Additionally, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all support comprehensive sex education that encourages abstinence but also offers options and information as the best choice for American teens. It is hard to argue with expert opinions and strong demonstrative examples like that of California; it is even harder to argue with the actual view of the American people when it comes to such a relevant issue.

The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll found that 77% of parents think information about contraception makes it more likely that teens will practice safe sex now or in the future, and Planned Parenthood’s website reports that “approximately…75% of parents want their children to receive a variety of information on subjects including contraception and condom use, sexually transmitted infection, sexual orientation, safer sex practices, abortion, communications and coping skills, and the emotional aspects of sexual relationships.” This is a clear majority – a higher percentage than those who voted for Barack Obama in the last election. He is now president, yet abstinence-only programs are still taught in 35% of America’s public schools. This seems somewhat antidemocratic.

A more democratic option would be a compromise, which several schools around the country have tried to reach, through re-evaluations of programs and even lawsuits. An example of this took place in Sarasota County, Florida. One parent complained at a board meeting after finding out that Planned Parenthood representatives were teaching sex education, saying area parents were unaware that their children were being taught by an organization which distributes contraception and performs abortions. This created a controversy which ended in a compromise: schools would offer two classes, one that would include Planned Parenthood speakers and one that would not. Parents would have to give permission for their children to attend the class with Planned Parenthood speakers. The policy passed with unanimous support.

Sometimes school districts find themselves divided, as is the case in Beloit, Wisconsin, a town which has an elevated rate of STDs among teens. The board dropped sex education entirely in January 2005 after no consensus could be reached over an alternative to abstinence-only. Students now receive information about puberty and hygiene, but absolutely nothing about sex.

A University of Massachusetts professor, Janice Irvine, hit the nail on the head completely when she said, “It’s paradoxical that in a moment where the culture is more sexualized, we are eliminating any discussion of it in the classrooms.”

Despite setbacks, there is still proof that compromise can work: a Pourdre, Colorado school board curriculum focuses on abstinence but also provides information about pregnancy, STDs, and contraception. This is an example of what is called “abstinence-plus” education, a type of program that is more of a middle ground. It is important to meet the needs of all students, not just the ones who believe in abstinence.

The sex education debate is controversial because it involves morality. However, when it comes to education, science and information must prevail over morals. This is why biology classrooms teach the theory of evolution instead of just intelligent design, despite widely held religious beliefs about the origin of species. Clearly, abstinence-only sex education is inefficient and often plagued with lies, and comprehensive sex education provides the facts students need in order to be safe and take care of themselves. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we can turn around the trend of abstinence-only programs which clearly do not work, and equip and trust America’s youth to make smart decisions for themselves.

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About annikalarson

  • Jajjal6

    @Jordan – no college professor that I know of would consider Wikipedia sourcing as credible research, so I’d have to agree that that was a poor start. Sadly, there’s a lot of recycled arguments here against what I call abstinence until marriage ed. A good starting point for the author would be the Center For Relationship Education in Co. There are numerous sources there to begin a serious study of the issue. There is plenty of research that shows early onset of sexual activity leads to a host of negative outcomes, including risky cluster behavior, i.e., with the sex is often drinking, drugs, drunk driving, and so on. WAIT’s curricula is approved by the CDC which also helped them develop a Smart Tool to evaluate curricula. The Waxman report was quasi flawed and that is verifiable at this point. I hope this offers new thoughts to the young author.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Also, while I’m thinking of it John, in what way is Wikipedia’s definition of abstinence-only sexual education inaccurate? Or are you just committing a genetic fallacy in a weak attempt to discredit this entire article?

    You wouldn’t do that, would you?

  • Jordan Richardson

    John C., in what way does abstinence-only sexual education deliver a “health message” pertaining to “delayed gratification?” Maybe I’m not seeing how “delayed gratification” is a health issue, but perhaps you can explain.

    Studies have shown early sex to lead to poorer emotional, pyschological, relational, and financial health

    Really? Early sex contributes to poorer financial health? That explains quite a lot of my own predicament, but I digress. Perhaps instead of lambasting the article’s author with nonsense over her use of Wikipedia, you could provide some of your own sources to back your claims.

    we deliver this primary prevention message to other risk-behaviors

    And how is that working out? Are kids staying off of drugs and booze because their teachers and parents and pastors are telling them to?

  • John C

    Wow, your opinion is as credible as your definition of abstinence education you obtained from the highly scientific website Wikipedia. Question: have you ever really done some hard research on these programs and their effectiveness? This is called primary prevention education, and delivers an important public health message for young people on relationship education, risk avoidance, and delayed gratification. Abstinence education delivers the message that other sex education program do not: namely, that sex at a young age has more than just physical consequences. Studies have shown early sex to lead to poorer emotional, pyschological, relational, and financial health. There is clear purpose for teaching you people to wait to have sex – we deliver this primary prevention message to other risk-behaviors – why should it differ for sex education?