Recently, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a bill that would end federal funding for abstinence-only sex education programs. If passed, the bill would mean more funding for the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which funds sex education programs that teach about abstinence, contraception, and STDs. Human Rights Campaign has more information about the bill here, as does a press release available at Sen. Lautenberg's website.
I wish this bill success. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not only less effective in preventing early intercourse and teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex education programs, but they promote views about sexuality that are unrealistic, stereotypical, and unhealthy. The American Academy of Pediatrics has denounced abstinence-only programs as ineffective and potentially misinformative, advocating instead for comprehensive sex education programs that include information on abstinence AND medically sound information on STDs and pregnancy prevention.
To boot, abstinence-only programs ignore the existence of the LGBT population and contribute to heteronormative worldviews, with heartbreaking consequences. In its 2007 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN found that LGBT students in schools with abstinence-only sex education programs reported higher levels of harassment and assault and fewer supportive educators than students in schools without abstinence-only curricula.
The elephant in the room, of course, is fundamentalist Christianity. Many so-called "pro-family" Christian groups encourage abstinence-only sex education, since it reflects the rigid sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes central to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. If progressives are concerned about the Religious Right, they need to be concerned about sex education in U.S. schools.
For progressives and educators seeking information on the weaknesses of abstinence-only programs, there is a wealth of research available. SIECUS explores the limitations of abstinence-only sex education in its 2009 report, Sex Education in the Sunshine State: How Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Are Keeping Florida's Youth in the Dark. According to the report, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula used in many Florida school districts were found to promote heterosexual marriage, foster gender stereotypes, provide outdated information on HIV and STDs, and encourage feelings of fear and shame regarding sexuality.To boot, SIECUS also found that Manatee County School District's sex education curricula included a presentation by a local crisis pregnancy center. So-called "crisis pregnancy centers" have been criticized for promoting anti-abortion propaganda and misinformation about reproductive care.
Another 2010 report from SIECUS, Raising Expectations in the Rockies: Colorado's Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Industry and the Imperative for Real Sex Education, found similar problems in abstinence-only programs in Colorado schools. Colorado abstinence-only programs were found to promote misinformation about pregnancy options, rigid gender stereotypes, and heterosexual marriage as the norm to which teens should aspire.
Texas Freedom Network also conducted an in-depth study of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in Texas, entitled Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools. The report contained several disturbing findings about sex education in Texas schools. For example, most Texas students receive no human sexuality instruction apart from the promotion of abstinence. Texas Freedom Network also found that abstinence-only sex education curricula in Texas contained lies and misinformation about STDs and contraceptives, promoted insulting gender stereotypes, relied on shame and fear-based instruction, and sometimes mixed religious instruction and Bible study into sex education programs.
For the sake of our young people, this country needs to end abstinence-only sex education in favor of comprehensive sex education. Sex education needs to discuss not only STDs and contraception, but also LGBT issues, healthy relationships, and the importance of mutuality and consent in sexual encounters. Instead of fundamentalist messages about sexual shame, gender stereotypes, and heterosexual marriage as the only model for relationships, teenagers deserve non-biased instruction about sex, gender, and healthy intimacy. Instead of misinformation and propaganda, young people deserve medically accurate information.
The U.S. clearly needs to maximize delivery of comprehensive sex education, preferably before students reach high school. A CDC study released this September, Educating Teenagers about Sex in the United States, showed good percentages of students learning about HIV and STDs. However, it also indicated that 47% of female respondents and 38% of males first received instruction about birth control methods in high school. To boot, the report showed that a larger percentage of teenage respondents received education on saying no to sex than on birth control. Clearly, sex education delivery can be improved. The first important step, however, is to bring comprehensive sex education to the forefront and eliminate funding for abstinence-only programs.
Let's keep an eye on the Lautenberg and Lee bill. Better yet, let your lawmakers know why the bill is so important.
Below are links to more articles on abstinence-only sex education:
Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy
The Failure of Abstinence-Only Education: Minors Have the Right to Honest Talk about Sex
Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs
Abstinence-Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education: What Are the Arguments? What is the Evidence?
RH Reality Check offers commentary on why the tide may be changing for sex education:
RH Reality Check: Is the Tide Changing on Comprehensive Sex Ed?
Finally, From Mormon to Atheist posted commentary on an abstinence message she received as a young woman.
From Mormon to Atheist: Guilt Sandwiches