Challenging Dogma


...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Compelling Argument Against Abstinence Only Sex Education Programs –Matthew Katz

‘Abstinence Only’ is the major sex education program being taught across the country today. In recent years, comprehensive sex education programs have become relatively scarce. Starting in 1999, the federal government granted $80 million to abstinence only sex education programs. In 2005 Congress allocated $167 million dollars to abstinence only programs. The stipulations being that education programs were required to discuss abstinence only. Eligible programs also must be geared towards encouraging youth not to engage in sexual intercourse until marriage. However, scientific data gathered since its inception has proven this program to be a failure. This failure, I argue, is a result of three essential shortcomings of the campaign; firstly, this message doesn’t resonate in our sexually exploitative culture; second, the individuals orchestrating this shift in curriculum have themselves lost the moral high-ground; and finally, children are too resourceful to be kept ignorant of certain facts that would likely preclude any adherence to abstinence.
Firstly, let us examine normative values of the American public as illustrated through various statistics. Studies have found that the average age of women who first had sex is 17, whereas the average age that women marry in America is 25 [1]. In 2005, 63.1% of seniors in high school engaged in sexual intercourse at least once [2]. Overall, about 95% of Americans become sexually active before marriage. Beyond these statistics, America’s tacit preoccupation with premarital, consequence-free sex can be seen through any media outlet. Several mainstream rappers have contracts to write music for, and often star in full length adult videos [3]. Even outside these arrangements, the line between mainstream entertainment and all-out pornography has become increasingly blurred in recent years. Posters of artists such as Fergie and Christina Aguilera, whose music videos could be mistaken for adult video trailers, can be found lining most teens’ lockers these days.
The pervasive exploitation of youth and sexuality of the entertainment industry has itself become a cause célèbre. Recent parodies, including a Saturday Night Live video entitled “My Dick in a Box” and Mad T.V.’s Christina Aguilera spoof “Virginal (to see if it will pay)”, serve to illustrate this point. Entertainment is a private industry and executives know better than to push something that doesn’t sell. For better or worse, premarital sex is clearly woven into the fabric of our society. Simply telling adolescents not to engage is an apparent national pastime seems unrealistic and impractical, even for our current administration.
In examining the failing of this new curriculum we must also address the context in which it’s implemented; within the classroom. School is where children learn facts, formulas, history and critical thinking skills. This curriculum aims to instill something very different in children and adolescents; values. Ironically, the very same political group pushing this educational agenda into our public schools is known for its belief that values are instilled through family and learned at home. Many maintain that “little if any credible research exists to substantiate the claims that abstinence-only programming leads to positive behavior change among youth” [4]. If nobody believes such values are are or can be learned in schools, why then is there such controversy over the curriculum?
It seems likely that the Abstinence Only campaign is more about what isn’t being taught than what is- it’s simply a means of controlling and censoring information. Preventing children from learning the facts about safe-sex practices may have been deemed an integral part of a successful Abstinence campaign. To this effect, Congress has stipulated that if public schools mentioned safe sex practices, it could only be done so in the context of their failure1. The Federal Government, in fact, has clearly made a tremendous investment into this concept of controlling information. In a December 2004, Representative Henry Waxman and the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform released a report analyzing the abstinence-only education program owing to the fact that the federal government doesn’t review the curriculum from these programs. Waxman and his staff found that over 80% of abstinence-only curriculum from the largest funded programs was false, misleading or distorted. Often these programs cite research that the science community and health officials have discredited. Adolescents were being taught that “no controlled scientific study supports the value of condoms in helping to protect against sexually transmitted diseases including HIV” and that a pregnancy occurs 1 out of 7 times when a condom is used. One curriculum instructs students:
“Think on a microscopic level. Sperm cells, STI organisms, and HIV
cannot be seen with the naked eye — you need a microscope. Any
imperfections in the contraceptive not visible to the eye, could allow
sperm, STI, or HIV to pass through. . . . The size difference between a
sperm cell and the HIV virus can be roughly related to the difference
between the size of a football field and a football.” [5]
Another shortcoming of the program is its backers themselves. Abstinence Only, not unlike Intelligent Design, has no official link to any religion, but is forwarded almost exclusively by Christians. With this in mind we should now put ourselves in the shoes of a sexually frustrated teenager and ask ourselves the obvious question, “do these people practice what they preach?” The answer, of course, can be found on the cover of virtually news source printed since 1990, save the National Catholic Reporter and FOX News. A Google search of the terms “clergy” and “sexual abuse” retrieves 1.1 million web pages. The American Catholic boasts that a mere 4,392 priests have been accused of sexual misconduct during the second half of the twentieth century, averaging under 90 incidents per year by a mere 4 percent of practicing priests [6]. While these figures may be impressive by NAMBLA’s standards, they further pale in the face of more recent statistics. From 2004 to 2006 there were 2,589 reports of sexual abuse by priests. This means one of two things; either clergy abuse has increased by nine hundred-eighty percent since The American Catholic released their 2002 report, or pedophilia has been both persistent and grossly underreported for at least the last half-century. The underlying point is this; teenagers with raging hormones are unlikely to hear the message of strict abstinence from the likes of Rev. Ted Haggard.
Finally, the Abstinence Only initiative overlooks the resourcefulness of teenagers. As previously stated, abstinence curriculums are upwards of 80% misleading or distorted. Certainly, adolescents and young adults cannot be kept from this fact throughout their teens and up until marriage. In all likelihood, most children will feel deceived by this fact and lose faith in their sexual education altogether. There’s evidence that teens coming from Abstinence Only programs initiate sexual activity at the same age as those coming from comprehensive sex education programs. However, the teens from the abstinence programs are more likely to engage in risky sexual activity for lack of knowledge about safe sex [7]. The danger is that teens may only learn part of the story from their resources. A young male may learn on the internet that, if he engages in unprotected sex with an HIV-positive individual, he only has a 1 in 1,000 chance of acquiring the disease. He may also learn about a 1993 study of heterosexual couples in which one partner has HIV found that of couples who always used condoms 2 out of 171 couples contracted the disease. In contrast of the couples who did not use condoms, 8 in 10 of the women contracted HIV [8]. Both reports are true, but the latter promotes a healthy sexual attitude while the former promotes risky behavior. In 2005, eighty-seven percent of teens had access to the internet and more than fifty percent used it daily [9]. Children are becoming increasingly resourceful and computer literate. All these facts underscore the danger in feeding them half-truths regarding sexual health. They’re likely to find the truths on their own. Comprehensive sex education helps lead them towards the positive truths so that they can create a healthy and safe attitude towards sex. Abstinence Only ignores the issue entirely.
We cannot simply say that Abstinence Only is a failure of policy, it’s a failure to an entire generation. How many young people with dreams of higher education and professional careers will find themselves dropping out of school early to take care of unwanted children? How many will have their lives cut short by debilitating or fatal STDs? We owe these children to provide a sound education that will provide them with the tools and structure they require to succeed in this world, to achieve their dreams. To this end, we must design a sexual education and reproductive health program that is realistic and appropriate for today’s world and offers due appreciation and respect for their intelligence.
REFERENCES
1 Rector, Robert. The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth. The Heritage Foundation. April 2002.
2 US Center for Disease Control, Teen Sexual Activity in the US, updated June 2006, retrieved April 2007
http://www.teenpregnancy.org/resources/data/pdf/TeenSexActivityOnePagerJune06.pdf
3Xpress Online, Sabrina Ford, Hip Hop and Women’s Sexuality, last updated October 2004, The Golden Gate [X]Press Online, retrieved April 2007 http://xpress.sfsu.edu/archives/editorials/001990.html
4 Collins C, Alagiri P, Summers T, Morin S. Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education: What are the arguments? What is the evidence?. AIDS Research Institute. Policy Monograph Series. March 2002.
5 Waxman H. The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs. Congressional staff analysis. December 2004. Online: http://www.democrats.reform.house.gov
6 AmericanCatholic.org, Atostino Bono, The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse by Priests, updated 2002, accessed April 2007
http://www.americancatholic.org/News/ClergySexAbuse/
7 Bleakley Amy, Hennessy Michael, Fishbein Martin. Public Opinion on Sex Education in US Schools. Arch PEdiatr Adolesc Med. 2006;1151-1156.3.
8 Planned Parenthood. The Condom. Online: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/birth-control-pregnancy/birth-control/condom.htm (retrieved April 2007).
9 Pew Internet and American Life Project, Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Paul Hitlin, Teens and Technology, updated July 2005, retrieved April 2007
http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Tech_July2005web.pdf

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