Why Are We Still Fighting Against Abstinence-Only Education?

Many of you who read this probably don’t agree with “abstinence-only” sex education, but would you consider it a human rights violation? Emily Dawson, an 18-year-old Canadian high school student claims it is.

Dawson is a student in the Edmonton Public School District, which uses a mandatory Christian-based abstinence education program called CALM: Career and Life Management. The Alberta Human Rights Act requires parents to be notified if their children are going to be learning about contentious issues like sexuality, and Emily’s mother, Kathy, signed the permission slip for the course. Kathy is agnostic and supports sex education, but was “shocked” when her daughter informed her that the sex-ed class was taught by an “anti-abortion activist from the American-based Pregnancy Care Centre.” According to Emily, the teacher “did a lot of slut-shaming to the women, and pointed out the guys as horn-dogs. She really ridiculed single-parent families…” Emily also spoke about the teacher’s response when a student asked about same-sex relationships, “All those questions were shut down right away. She just said, ‘We’re not here to discuss that.’ ”

But what got Kathy Dawson particularly upset? The arguments for chastity until marriage or against abortion are, according to this program, “rooted in Christian doctrine.” The teacher knowingly presented false information, claiming that 60 percent of boys carry the HPV infection under their fingernails, gonorrhea can kill you in three days, and girls should dress moderately to avoid enticing boys. Kathy says, “It’s values-based sex-ed, and all the values are evangelical values. It’s not even mainstream Christianity. I’m not against abstinence, but I think the message is diminished when it’s surrounded by misinformation and fear.” School officials are currently looking into the allegations.

But that’s just Canada, right? It must be different in the United States, a country that values the separation of church and even has that as the first amendment. Right?

Interestingly, Christian abstinence-only sex education has a long history within the public school system. SIECUS, the acronym for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, gives a comprehensive history of federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs, which explains how AOUM came to be the dominant sex education program taught in public schools. Spoiler alert: your tax dollars have been paying for AOUM programs instead of comprehensive sex education since 1981.

Let’s start at the beginning: In 2001, Julian Carter of Stanford University published Birds, Bees, and Veneral Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education, which explains why public schools began teaching sex-ed in the first place. According to Carter, demand for sex-ed courses began in the second decade of the 20th century when people started believing education was the answer to “many social ills” which consisted of the declining birth rate among the middle-class, native-born Anglo-Americans who “claimed the right to represent the core of national identity and well-being,” New Immigrants and their offspring, a growing divorce rate, and most importantly, venereal diseases on the rise. During this time period, conversations surrounding the American family were of utmost importance and seeing the “disintegration” of this ideal, viewed as the “political and spiritual foundation of the Republic”, citizens put their faith in sex education to fix it. They believed that, once given the knowledge, people would act “morally,” which would protect them from diseases and protect the American family.

Protecting the family, however, translates into being married in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship–thus, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Under the Reagan administration, the federal government has consistently funded AOUM programs, despite massive amounts of research proving they are ineffective. Funding for these programs grew exponentially under the George W. Bush administration; between 1996 and 2010, Congress spent over one-and-a-half billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs. On a positive note, we now have a more effective president with regards to comprehensive sex education; there were originally three streams of federal funding towards AOUM programs, but as of 2010, Congress and the Obama Administration effectively cut two of those streams. They were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. The only program currently funded is the Title V AOUM program which will receive $250 million over the course of five years (2010-2014 fiscal years).

To date, there are several non-profit organizations still claiming that abstinence-only is effective, despite wide-spread agreement among the medical and scientific communities labeling them as ineffective. The fear among religious folks now seems to be: educate children about sex and they will have it, which is morally wrong. Research, however, has shown that this is inaccurate; in fact, it’s the other way around. Evaluations of comprehensive sex education/HIV prevention programs shows that they “do not increase rates of sexual initiation, do not lower the age at which youth initiate sex, and do not increase the frequency of sex or the number of sex partners among sexually active youth.” Analysis of the federally funded programs discussed above discovered “false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health,” similarly to Emily Dawson’s story; students were given false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, false information about the risks of abortion, religious beliefs as scientific fact, stereotypes about boys and girls as scientific fact, and medical and scientific errors of fact. Scaring children with false or distorted information is not the way to keep them sexually –safe—only secular, comprehensive sex education will do that.

A public opinion survey on sex education showed that 82 percent of respondents supported programs teaching students about both abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancy/STDs, whereas abstinence-only education programs received the lowest level of support at 36 percent. Unfortunately, state laws govern sex education in public schools and according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of July 1, 2014: “Twenty-two states and DC require public schools teach sex education (twenty of which mandate sex education and HIV education); thirty-three states and DC require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS; and 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. State definitions of ‘medically accurate’ vary, from requiring that the department of health review curriculum for accuracy, to mandating that curriculum be based on information from ‘published authorities on which medical professionals rely.’ ”

This reveals to me that there are a lot of states in need of comprehensive sex education reform. Just twelve years ago, America had the highest teen birth rate in the developed world, no doubt due to AOUM programs. Although the overall U.S. teen pregnancy rate is declining rapidly, a survey conducted in 2008 showed the states with the highest teen pregnancies were New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Comparatively, the states with the lowest teen pregnancy were New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Maine.

Obviously, this issue has been politicized to an alarming degree, but students need a secular comprehensive sex education, and research proves it. Evangelical Christianity has weaved its way into the debate, but America needs sex education to be the focus of a nationally legitimate conversation. States lagging behind with no laws governing their sex education courses are putting their youth at a disadvantage, which hurts the country as a whole. We can’t do much to help Emily Dawson in Canada, but Americans can and should begin to carefully consider their own human rights in this country.

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