The world of social engineering for teens just took one tiny step forward with the announcement that Democratic leaders will not renew funding for abstinence-only programs. Last month, a report from Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found that these presumed laboratories of conservative values are not only ineffective in reducing teen pregnancies but propagate medically inaccurate information.
According to the Associated Press, the $50 million grant is expected to die a quick death on June 30, thereby freeing up the money for more comprehensive sex education. Already, many states -- California, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and, last week, even Kansas -- have abandoned programs or declined to take funds in the first place, but putting a federal kibosh on the program makes more sense. (It also will be a lot easier than having the ALCU and other such groups fighting the battle for reality-based sex ed before our reality-challenged Supreme Court.) But it's unlikely that folks at the National Abstinence Education Association will take this lying down (so to speak). NAEA executive director Valerie Huber told the AP that the decision to stop funding the programs would only spur them to work harder to find other funding sources.
Of course, conservative groups have every right to continue to push their puritanical notions of sex and their distorted understanding of sexually transmitted diseases. But surely, even they must wonder what they're doing wrong. I personally wouldn't expect such programs to spawn armies of chaste teens, but the sheer ineffectiveness of the programs actually surprised me. It's not that they don't produce intended results -- it's as if they don't exist at all. The study found that the average age of first sexual encounter both in the abstinence-only group and in the control group was 14.9; that 23 percent of each group had sex and always used a condom; that about 55 percent of both groups remained abstinent no matter what; and that 17 percent had sex and sometimes used a condom and 4 percent had sex and never used a condom.
What cracks me up about these programs is how weirdly ambitious they were. In many cases, they were taking "high-risk" kids -- three out of the four programs studied targeted inner-city African-American children and teens growing up in single-parent households -- and trying to teach them that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage was the expected standard of sexual activity" and that "bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences." In many cases this might have been equivalent to disparaging the sexual choices of nearly every intimate adult in their life. And in a culture where many families are formed without marriage vows and divorce is prevalent, abstinence out of wedlock might reasonably be interpreted as a lifelong vow of chastity. Who wants to commit to that when your hormones are pumping and your nuptial prospects are about as imminent as peace in the Middle East?