Category Archives: policy

Dec ’09 Milestone: Abstinence-Only Education

December 2009 was a landmark month in the US for the public health and harm reduction field. I wanted to highlighted one coup: End of years of abstinence only education.

pretty clever though

Obama allocated no money (zero) towards abstinence-only programs in his FY2010 budget request. No money. Nada. Zero. The history of federally-sponsored abstinence-only education is quite long, spanning as back as 1981. This is a dramatic and important move for the Obama Administration. In 2008 & 2009, the Bush Administration put almost a whopping $340million towards various abstinence-only-until-marriage educational programs and initiatives. Given the heaps and heaps and heaps and *even more heaps of evidence demonstrating that comprehensive education (including those that integrate abstinence into their curriculum) is more effective in decreasing unwanted pregnancy, STI, and HIV/AIDS rates among youth than abstinence only programs, this is quite a coup for public health and the future of healthy sex and sexuality education for youth.
*=pdf document

Many abstinence-only programs have not sufficiently tracked or compiled reliable and verifiable data since the 1980s about the usefulness of their interventions. This administration appears to be leaning more heavily towards science informing their policy decisions, so the suggestion for anti-comprehensive-sex-ed organizations would be: demonstrate that your position is effective in the short and longterm and it’ll be funded as well as in the past.

I’d be interested to read the reports.

Personally I am not opposed to abstinence being integrated into comprehensive sex ed. I’m impressed by people who do not engage in sexual activity either indefinitely or until marriage. Not because I believe that abstaining from sex is a virtue or especially more healthy than not engaging, but it is difficult to define yourself against what you’re being told to be. Sex is alluring and controversial, it is difficult to avoid it if one is tapped into any form of media or social interaction. It must be difficult to find acceptance and community as someone who either have no desire or interest in having sex or are actively resisting the temptation to have sex either indefinitely or until marriage. These interests and difficulties should be discussed in sex education curricula, to both create a safety net for the few who consistently choose not to engage but also to prevent the fairly high STI diagnoses among adolescents who take virginity pledges among the many for whom virginity pledges are a short term or a coerced commitment. Additionally, marriage is not the beginning and end of sexuality: people experience unintended pregnancies, unexpected STIs, and non-monogamy (either consensually or non).

In elementary school I decided to not have sex until marriage. I believed in this very seriously and believed my decision was sanctioned by God. Unfortunately, my decision was guided by how I defined sex, and my definition was limited exclusively to the knowledge I had access to. As I went to a privately-funded abstinence-only school, how sex was had and how babies are produced was a pretty vague concept to me, but I knew somehow nakedness was involved. My goal then became not to have a child out of wedlock. Technically, by my 10 year old standards, I have not violated this pledge as I am mostly likely infertile and still celebrate God, however I doubt I expected nearly two decades later to be teaching ‘so-called’ comprehensive sex-education to America’s children.

I am tempted to put America’s Children in italics. Let’s try it:

America’s Children!

More seriously, as a sex educator, my goals and the goals of many who receive family planning funding or work independently as sexuality activists and educators mirror that of ParentsForTruth, a major abstinence-only lobbying organization, who define abstinence-only education as:

  • Avoiding or getting out of dangerous, unhealthy, or abusive relationships
  • Developing skills to make good decisions
  • Setting goals for the future and taking realistic steps to reach them
  • Understanding and avoiding STDs
  • Information about contraceptives and their effectiveness against pregnancy and STDs

No brainer, these goals are admirable and difficult to argue against. I would add reducing the stigma of STDS/STIs and providing accessible treatment and support for those diagnosed or affected, but hey, close enough.

What is the difference between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education then? The goals of comprehensive sex education is to provide the youth with an opportunity towards health through updated and reliable research. It seeks to give those seeking out sex education the answers to their questions and concerns as thoroughly as possible. Additionally, many who teach sex ed want to know what youth want to know and most youth want a broad range of information. Many youth bypass adultist barriers to information and teach comprehensive sex ed to their own peers.

Abstinence-only education does not allow this. My personal experience of abstinence-only education does not allow this. It instilled a terror of my own body, the bodies of others, and that my own moral and spiritual integrity was irreversibly linked to any type of sexual curiosity – and that any result that deviated from abstinence would lead to [insert various horrible things]. How is this healthy? Or effective?

Obama’s move is an awesome milestone in public health history.

Unfortunately, this big leap forward has not been met without resistance. A team of 10 senators, led by Orrin Hatch (R-UT),  included an amendment to the (now passed) Baucas health care reform bill that supports abstinence-only education (aka Title V funding). We’ll see how this pans out, I’m remaining blindly idealistic. Three tentative cheers: hip hip…. hip hip… hip-hip?

if I had a cartoon with Orrin Hatch it would be here!

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