Ab-ed moves ahead

A sexist, anti-gay abstinence-only program quietly gets the Obama administration's stamp of approval. Why?

Topics: Sex Education, Abstinence,

Ab-ed moves ahead (Credit: iStockphoto/Spauln)

Just yesterday I wrote of how the war on sex has gotten worse in recent years and, what do you know, now comes news that an abstinence-only program has been added to the government’s list of gold-starred, “evidence-based” programs for pregnancy prevention.

The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t bother to issue a press release about the problematic addition, but a handful of tireless sexual health advocates — Debra Hauser, Monica Rodriguez, Elizabeth Schroeder and Danene Sorace — noticed the change on the department’s website and today took to RH Reality Check to spread the word. Previously, the only approved abstinence programs on the list were after-school programs.

The program, Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education, “contains little or no information about puberty, anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, or sexual behavior,” they write, nor does it “include information about the health benefits of contraception or condoms.” Worse still, it relies on inaccurate, fear-based classroom exercises, promotes heterosexual marriage as the only happy and healthy life path, harps on the potential harm of premarital relationships, promotes hoary gender roles and stereotypes and entirely ignores the existence of LGBT people.

Oh, also? The evidence of the program’s effectiveness is highly questionable. A report ordered by Congress concluded that Heritage Keepers “had little or no impact on sexual abstinence or activity.”

Several years ago, the Sexuality Information & Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), where two of the RH Reality authors are employed, conducted an in-depth review of the Heritage Keepers’ curriculum and found it “relies on messages of fear and shame” and that even topics “frequently discussed in detail in other abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, such as condoms and STDs, receive very little mention.” The review offers up many disturbing examples of the fear-based messaging, most memorable of which is the following exercise:



Each student rolls a six-side die; the number that comes up corresponds to a particular consequence. Students who roll a one have contracted HIV, a two contracted herpes, a three HPV, a four untimely pregnancy, a five infertility, and a six emotional pain.

I believe that’s what you call a loaded die. All of the potential outcomes are crap; there is no chance in this “educational” exercise for emotional intimacy or pleasure. The game is designed to end with a simplistic takeaway: “Having sex outside of marriage is gambling with your future.”

It isn’t the only instance where the program presents marriage as an infallible guard against all potential negative consequences of sex. Consider this excerpt from the program’s student manual: “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous.” Right, because it’s never dangerous within marriage. A signed piece of paper from the justice of the peace magically eliminates risk of STIs, sexual violence, infidelity — you name it!

Seriously, though, I’m not being hyperbolic — the program actually presents marriage as a rape prevention tool. The program claims, “According to the data, 9 percent of married women are forced by their spouse to perform sexual acts, however 46 percent of women report that someone they were … ‘in love with’ forced them to have sex against their will, and 22 percent of women report being forced to do so by someone they ‘knew well.’”

First, as SIECUS beautifully points out, those figures come from a survey of women who had been forced to perform a sexual act — not of women in general. In other words, the correct factoid is that, at least within a small sample of women who had experienced sexual assault, 9 percent were assaulted by their marriage partner. Second, “even if married women as a whole face fewer incidences of sexual assault, for women in abusive relationships, marriage provides no protection,” says the SIECUS report. (Also, correlation ain’t causation.)

According to the Heritage Foundation, in addition to putting you at risk for being raped, premarital relationships may destroy your ability to bond. (I’m having Eric Keroack flashbacks! What is this, 2006?) “[It] may be that when people bond closely through sexual activity, then break up and bond with someone else, and then someone else, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain a lasting bond.” It may be that it may be? That’s considered evidence-based education?

It’s no surprise that the program calls on students to abstain from sex until marriage – not to think about whether that’s a choice that they want to make, just to do it, teacher’s orders: “Now is the time for you to make the commitment for the very best for yourself, to wait for the commitment of marriage to have sex.” The teacher is instructed to then hand out “commitment cards.”

None of that is to mention the sexual double standard in the curriculum. It invokes the ol’ saw about males being visual creatures and explains, “This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” The familiar message is that girls are the sexual gatekeepers (there’s also an undercurrent of “don’t ask for it”).

It follows, of course, that the curriculum would ignore same-sex partnerships: It “operates under the assumption that all students in the class, or all people in the world for that matter, are heterosexual,” says the SIECUS review. “All references to sexual activity, arousal, and relationships are specific to male-female couples.” As the RH Reality piece argues, “The stigmatization of LGBT youth throughout the program reinforces the cultural invisibility and bias these students already face in many schools and communities. The curriculum’s focus on marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual behavior further ostracizes LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents who still cannot legally marry in most states.”

No wonder HHS didn’t issue a press release. It’s hard to put a positive spin on the Obama administration giving its stamp of approval to a sexist, anti-gay, fear-based education program.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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