Throughout the Bush years, funding for programs that refused to teach contraception in lieu of telling kids to wait until marriage--known as abstinence-only programs--ballooned, putting a lot of schools in a situation where the only real access to sex education funding they had was federal abstinence-only money. The programs were wildly unsuccessful at their supposed goals of reducing STI and teen pregnancy rates, and President Obama vowed to end federal abstinence-only funding. In 2010, he did, and the issue slipped out of the public discourse, so you’d be forgiven if you thought abstinence-only programs had disappeared forever.
But as we learned recently in one of the most headline-grabbing ways possible, abstinence-only still rules the sex education--if you can call it education--offered by all sorts of rural and red-state schools across the country. A high school in Crane, Texas was discovered to have 20 known cases of chlamydia, in a school with only 300 students. That’s a rate of 1 in 15 students. But when the district’s superintendent was confronted with the fact that his school’s sex education appears to be no more than telling kids sex is dirty and gross and not to do it, he was recalcitrant. “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease,” the superintendent told My San Antonio. Of course, kids are having sex in the non-hypothetical world, as evidenced by the non-hypothetical cases of chlamydia, but apparently abstinence-only proponents prefer to live in the Land of If.
Reporters discovered that the text recommended for use in Crane’s sex education program was one of the many Bush-era abstinence-only texts that have been discredited, in no small part because they discourage the use of condoms. Abstinence-only proponents have long believed that if they tell kids condoms don’t work, kids won’t have sex. In reality, this just convinces kids to skip the condoms. Condoms do work, by the way, but only if people use them.)
Crane is, sadly, not anomalous. While Obama did do his part to end the biggest abstinence-only programs of the Bush era, abstinence-only continues to be a plague upon our country. The right isn’t known for being impressed by things like “facts” and “evidence,” particularly when they get in the way of harrumphing about how the world is going to hell and kids these days are out of control and other such nonsense.
And so, despite the unpopularity of abstinence-only--and the fact that nearly all Americans have premarital sex--conservatives have tried to find ways to keep it around. One way has been rebranding, calling it “abstinence-focused” education. The idea is to lull parents and voters into thinking that the program is covering the basics but just asking kids to wait until they’re out of high school to have sex. In reality, as medical historian Alice Dreger found when she sat in on her son’s “abstinence-focused” class, it’s the same old abstinence-only program from the Bush era: Lots of talk about how sex makes you dirty, trying to convince kids contraception doesn’t work, treating sex like it’s a drug and people who have it are addicts, and holding out “waiting for marriage” as a realistic choice in a room where, statistically speaking, 95-100% of students will have sex before marriage. But they toss in a reluctant sentence about how, if you must have sex, okay, fine, use a condom. So that somehow makes it “comprehensive,” even though they spend most of the class trying to convince kids that condoms won’t work anyway.
Scary, really, to think parents might be sending their kids to what they believe are sex education classes, only to find out that condoms are being demonized to the point where kids might not bother using them when they do, inevitably, have sex.
Red states aren’t even bothering with the pretense. Texas is diverting $3 million from HIV programs that actually help people into programs telling people to wait until marriage to have sex. State representative Stuart Spitzer defended the move by saying he waited until he was 29 years old to have sex, with his wife on their wedding night, and claimed that decision is why he became a surgeon and a state representative.
It’s understandable that someone who started having sex a full decade after most people start getting good at it might come up with some stories to tell himself that makes it all for the best. But it’s worth remembering that 95 percent of Americans have had premarital sex. Spitzer is trying to convince us that only 5% of Americans are capable of having successful careers. Granted, there hasn’t been a rigid sociological study on this, but common sense should suggest his math isn’t adding up.
But this story is perfect, because it really sums up the illogic of abstinence-only in a nutshell: Because one man spent nearly two decades after puberty waiting to have sex, we should build public policy around that guy instead of 300 million of us whose idea of a good wedding night doesn’t involve fumbling around trying to figure out what hole to stick it in. Not that there’s anything wrong with waiting until marriage, but using public funds to impose one particular sexual philosophy on the rest of us is not something we, as a nation, should be supporting.