Abstinence-only education isn't
Abstinence only education is insidious. It does not teach students the things they need to know but instead attempts to indoctrinate them to a religious standard through the clever use of misinformation and outright lies. Curtis Porter, writing for the Administration for Children & Families (ACF), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, laid out the guidelines for abstinence only education. These guidelines for “educating” students are an affront to progressive thinkers everywhere and abstinence-only curricula distorts the truth, bending it as far as it can without breaking it and, in some situations, snaps it completely.
Abstinence-only curriculum, according to ACF, must teach that a person’s life will turn out better if he or she waits until marriage to have sex. However, researchers Else-Quest, Hyde, and DeLamater, writing for The Journal of Sex Research, found that any attempt to form a causal relationship between premarital sex and negative life outcomes to be “unwarranted” (2005).
The curriculum must define marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife” (p. 1), effectively sentencing homosexual teens to a lifetime of celibacy, along with any who do not believe in traditional marriage. The “one man and one woman” definition of marriage is one of a religious sentiment and one that the Iowa courts, among others, have deemed unconstitutional.
The curricula “must teach the psychological and physical benefits of sexual abstinence-until-marriage” (p. 1), yet the National Association of School Psychologists “believes comprehensive sexuality education is essential to promote the mental, physical, academic and emotional health of our children” (2003) and Lawrence Finer, writing for Public Health Reports, has found that 95 percent of the populace has had premarital sex by the time they are forty-four years of age (2007, p. 1).
The curriculum, and its teachers, are restricted on how much information than can provide to their students. The ACF states that “[i]nformation on contraceptives, if included, must be…presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented. Curriculum must not promote or endorse, distribute or demonstrate the use of contraception or instruct students in contraceptive usage” (p. 1) (emphasis mine). The reason for the omission of comprehensive contraceptive education is explained by abstinence-only supporter, Linda Klepacki, who says that teaching children about condoms and abstinence, sends them a mixed message. She says, “In other areas of health education as well as abstinence, the highest health standard is communicated (i.e. alcohol, drugs, cigarette use, weapon carrying, etc.) The healthiest choice for school-age youth is to remain sexually abstinent.” However, this logic falls apart when applied to other activities. There are risks to playing football or riding in a car and yet we do not teach our children to abstain from those activities. Instead, he or she is taught the proper way to wear his or her protective equipment and a passenger is taught to wear his or her seat belt. In the same manner, so should students be taught the proper way to use sexual protection. In addition, they should also be taught the “rules” of the game. They need training in making good choices, choosing quality friends, developing and maintaining healthy relationships, sexual and not.
The ACF also states that the curriculum must contain material consistent with eight principles.
A. It is essential that the abstinence education curriculum has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity (p. 2).
Abstinence-only supporters claim there are benefits to abstaining and yet Alan Farnham (Is Sex Necessary?), reports that regular sexual intercourse has many mental and health benefits, ranging from decreased depression to a reduced risk of heart disease (2003).
B. It is critical that the abstinence education curriculum teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-aged children (p. 2).
During an evaluation of five years of abstinence-only education in Arizona, “eighty percent of students reported that they were likely to become sexually active by the time they were 20 years old” (Hauser. 2004). Why is abstinence until marriage the expected standard? It certainly is not based in reality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 70 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys report having had sex before they turn twenty (2009, p. 7). The expectation of abstinence until marriage is an expectation based on the morality of the religious and is, quite frankly, a ridiculous one. Time would be much better spent teaching students how to have sex in as safe a manner as possible once they choose to become sexually active; physically safe and psychologically safe as well.
C. Abstinence education curriculum must teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems (pp. 2,3).
Subthemes to “C” are to give students the statistics and rates of failure for condoms and other contraceptives. Representative Henry Waxman found that “abstinence-only curricula contain false and misleading information about the effectiveness of contraceptives.” Several of the curricula cite a 1993 study (which was rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services), which states that condoms only reduce HIV infections by 69 percent. One curriculum states: “[T]he popular claim that ‘condoms help prevent the spread of STDs,’ is not supported by the data” (quoted in Waxman. 2004, pp. 8-10).
Uganda’s fight against the spread of HIV would suggest otherwise. Professor W. Phillips Shively summarizes Uganda’s success in Power and Choice. In 1991, the AIDS infection rate had reached about 15 percent. By 2005, it had dropped to 7 percent. President Musevini achieved this successful reduction when he began promoting the usage of condoms with his simple, straightforward plan. Titled ABC (Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condoms), his program was able to promote condom usage while embracing and encouraging the traditional values of abstinence until marriage and monogamy. Without the addition of increased condom usage, Uganda would not have seen the 50 percent reduction in HIV infection they’ve been able to achieve. (2008. pp 93, 94) Obviously, condoms work.
D. It is required that the abstinence education curriculum teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity (p. 3).
Buss and Shackelford, authors of Susceptibility to Infidelity, found that about fifty percent of married people will not remain monogamous (1997, p. 194). Marty Friedman, author of Straight Talk for Men About Marriage, cites on his website that 41 percent of the population is not married and 24 percent have never been married (2009) and yet, according to Lawrence B. Finer, PhD, 80 percent of unmarried men and women will have had sex by the time they are 44 years old (2007. p. 74). Obviously, sexual activity regulated to within only a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage” is not the expected norm of human sexual activity and it is erroneous to prop up an unrealistic standard for youth and expect them to meet it when most adults to not.
E. It is essential that the abstinence education curriculum teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects (p. 4).
Representative Waxman found no scientific support for these statements. In fact, he writes that “one curriculum tells youth that a long list of personal problems – including isolation, jealousy, poverty, heartbreak, substance abuse, unstable longterm commitment, sexual violence, embarrassment, depression, personal disappointment, feelings of being used, loss of honesty, loneliness, and suicide – ‘can be eliminated by being abstinent until marriage’” (2004, pp. 20-21). Alan Farnham writes, “Having regular and enthusiastic sex…confers a host of measurable physiological advantages, be you male or female. (This assumes that you are engaging in sex without contracting a sexually transmitted disease.)” (2003). However, it is hard to engage in sex without contracting a sexually transmitted disease when one has had no education in how to go about protecting oneself. Abstinence-only education’s omission of education on correct condom usage is more likely to cause “harmful psychological and physical effects” than “regular and enthusiastic sex” practiced safely is.
F. It is critical that the abstinence education curriculum teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society (pp. 4-5).
Teaching a student about the harmful consequences of something but not providing him or her with the resources to avoid it – resources beyond abstinence – is worse than a pointless waste of time and money, it is negligence to the extreme.
G. Abstinence education curriculum must teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances (p. 5-6).
H. It is required that the abstinence education curriculum teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity (p. 6)
Some of the principles of abstinence-only education are commendable. Attaining a degree of self-sufficiency before becoming sexual active is a good goal to shoot for. However, like many goals, there may be bumps along the road that abstinence-only education does not prepare a teen to handle. Teaching teens how to avoid unwanted sexual advances is good. Teaching them that condoms are ineffective is wrong. Teaching kids about the cost of parenthood is good. Blaming mental health problems on premarital sex is bad.
While abstinence-only education may appear to be the answer to STDs and unwed teen parents, it is doing much more to exacerbate the problem than to solve it. Logical fallacies, misinformation, outright lies – these seem to be the standard for abstinence-only education. As such, abstinence-only education needs to be removed from our school curricula. It has no place there; certainly not funded through public funds. Teens need to have real information, real facts. In short, they need the truth and not a thinly veiled religious curriculum based on unrealistic expectations of morality and lies about the effects of sexual activity. Sadly, many adults are unwilling or unable to teach their children the lessons they truly need: how to choose friends; how to choose significant others, for marriage or not; how to make good life decisions; how to be themselves in a healthy and beneficial way. These lessons are not easy. They are not easy to learn nor are they easy to teach but we are definitely not going to find an answer by propagating misinformation, religious bias, and lies.
Buss, David M. and Shackelford, Todd K. (1997). Susceptibility to infidelity. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 193-221
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual and reproductive health of persons aged 10-24 years – United States, 2002—2007, Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report. July 17, 2009/58(SS06);1-58
Else-Quest, N. M.; Hyde, J. S.; DeLamater, J. D. (2005, May). Context counts: long-term sequelae of premarital intercourse or abstinence. Journal of Sex Research. Retrieved August 22, 2009, from Find Articles database, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2372/is_2_42/ai_n13822486/pg_8/
Farnham, Alan. (2003, August 10). Is sex necessary?. Forbes.com. Retrieved on August 23, 2009 from http://www.forbes.com/2003/10/08/cz_af_1008health.html
Finer, Lawrence B. PhD. (2007, January-February). Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954 —2003. Public Health Reports, 73-78
Friedman, Marty. (n.d.). Marriage and divorce statistics. Retrieved August 23, 2009, from http://www.meninmarriage.com/article05.htm
Klepacki, Linda. (n.d.). Abstinence Education: Myths and the Truth. Focus on the Family Issue Analysis. Retrieved August 23, 2009, from http://www.citizenlink.org/FOSI/abstinence/A000002153.cfm
National Association of School Psychologists. (2003, April 12). Position statement on sexuality education. Retrieved August 22, 2009, from http://nasponline.org/about_nasp/pospaper_sexed.aspx
Porter, Curtis (2006). Guidance regarding curriculum content. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children & Families, Family and Youth Bureau Retrieved August 23, 2009 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fysb/content/abstinence/cbaeguidance.htm
Shively, W. Phillips. (2008) Power and choice: An introduction to political science. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Waxman, Henry A. (2004, December). The content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs. The United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform – Minority Staff, Special Investigations Divisions