Inadequacies in Abstinence-Only Education

By Maddie McCracken

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Of all the content students learn during their school years, sex education is arguably the most important. Few people will need to know the date of Battle of Gettysburg or the Pythagorean theorem on a daily basis in their adult lives; however, knowledge about one's body and how to take care of it and protect it will prove essential day after day. For many, memories of sex education typically involve awkward discussions with one's school nurse or gym teacher and horribly corny videos of middle-aged men and women dressed like teenagers using what they think passes as current slang to discuss a topic no teenager really wants to talk about. However, aside from the slight awkwardness, sex education is a crucial part of every student's education as the information provided applies to everyone; it is an opportunity, and at times the only opportunity, that allows young adults to discuss their changing bodies, sex, and sexualities without fear of judgment or condemnation. Or rather, that is what sex education should be. In America, however, judgment, fear, and condemnation are cornerstones of government-funded abstinence-only (AO) education. Though not every state receives government funding for AO education, the vast majority of them do. In 2005 alone, the US government spent $168 million on AO programs. This would be a small price to pay for informing today's adolescents about their changing bodies and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies, and other matters if AO programs actually worked. Sadly, they do not. In fact, "teens in states that were prescribed more abstinence education were actually more likely to become pregnant" (Stanger-Hall 2). Not only are AO programs ineffective at prolonging the onset of sexual activity in teens (their main goal), they are also exceptionally dangerous as they withhold information from adolescents about safer sex practices and reproductive health. Government funded AO education in America is antiquated, dangerous, and based in politics and morality rather than fact.

Teaching teenagers to practice abstinence is not inherently bad. On the contrary, abstinence is the only method 100% effective at preventing teen pregnancy and all STD's. It is a valid option for many people but, like any form of birth control or preventative care, it only works when used properly, meaning that no sex of any kind occurs at any time. A recent study suggests that as many as 95 percent of Americans engage in premarital sex. Another study showed that 60 percent of teens that made a public pledge to remain abstinent until marriage broke that pledge within 6 years. So what changes? Why do so many teens take pledges of abstinence only to break those pledges less than 10 years later? Some may have simply changed their mind, as teenagers are known to do, but the more important question here is not "what changed?" but rather why did such a large portion of these teens feel the need to make abstinence pledges to begin with? The pressure teenagers feel to remain abstinent (or make it appear as though they are abstinent) is enormous. Most of the time, the 'choice' to remain abstinent until marriage is not the informed choice of the individual, but rather the choice imposed upon them by their teachers, families, or other adult figures. This imposed abstinence from parents as well as AO education programs is the reason abstinence pledges fail 95 percent of the time. Rather that providing adolescents with accurate, judgment-free information and allowing them to decide what is best for themselves and their own bodies, they are coerced into abstinence with misleading, false information and fear. In 2004, a report ordered by Democratic representative Henry A. Waxman found that "over 80% of the abstinence only curricula used by over two-thirds of the SPRANS [Special Projects of Regional and National Significance] grantees in 2003, contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health" (Gresle-Favier 716). Specifically, these programs were portraying false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, false information about the risks of abortion, and they portrayed stereotypes about boys and girls as scientific fact.

The notion that boys' only goal all of the time is to have sex and that they lack self control while girls lack a desire to have sex and must ward off the advances of boys are stereotypes that pervade western culture. In a study conducted by researchers Heather Hartley and Trisha Drew, it was concluded that as a culture we "reinforce a sexual double standard in which male erotic desire and sexual agency is legitimized whereas female erotic desire and sexual agency is minimized." We "convey a 'sex as danger' message regarding female sexuality, thus creating a social context conducive to the suppression of female sexual desire, pleasure and initiative" (Hartley and Drew 1). These gendered misconceptions about sexuality that pervade our culture show up in movies (the main focus of the Hartley study), media, and sex-ed programs. By presenting these notions as fact in what is supposed to be an academic-like course, AO programs are perpetuating harmful and inaccurate stereotypes in successive generations that greatly affect how we as gendered people approach sex in our lives.

These programs also contained blatant "scientific errors" (Gresle-Favier 716) in its content. Regardless of what is being taught in these programs, it is paramount that the information presented is at the very least accurate. If the basis of why adolescents are choosing to remain abstinent is based upon inaccurate information, they will not be very likely to stick with that decision when the choices become hard. But, if schools are not going to offer students accurate sex ed information, who will?

The notion that information about sex should be taught at home is a cornerstone argument for opponents of comprehensive sex education. Though it is important that there be an open dialogue between parents and children about sex, these discussions are often "deeply tainted by familial ideology" (Gresle-Favier 717). Much like AO programs, parents often withhold options and information from adolescents because it is not what they would or did choose for themselves or because they do not agree with it. However, an integral part of the maturing process for young adults is developing their own opinions, independent of their parents/guardians. When it comes to decisions about their sexuality, though, they are hindered from making these decisions because of this "mother knows best" mentality. It is impossible to make an informed decision about something that first, one doesn't know about because they've never been told or secondly, that has been presented to you in a biased, inaccurate fashion. For example, birth control and contraceptives are highly debated in the United Sates, especially their distribution to teenagers. Some people disagree with them for religious or moral reasons, while others believe that the distribution of contraceptives encourages premarital sex and think that they are dangerous. There are an infinite number of reasons why someone may find themselves disagreeing with the use of contraceptives but, regardless of their reasoning, should these people become parents, it is highly unlikely that they will discuss options for birth control with their children. Should their child be a girl, this is not only dangerous and a violation of basic human rights as established by the United Nations, it could be considered downright cruel.

As previously mentioned, there is a 95 percent chance that this hypothetical child will not be waiting until marriage to have sex and, without knowledge about proper preventative care, she will be depending completely upon her partner and, hopefully, a condom to keep herself from getting pregnant or contracting an STD. For this reason, lack of knowledge about birth control is obviously dangerous but it is very likely that she won't be using birth control as a contraceptive. In fact, "more than half of pill users, 58 percent, rely on the method at least in part for purposes other than pregnancy prevention. Thirty-one percent use it for cramps or menstrual pain, 28 percent for menstrual regulation, 14 percent for acne, 4 percent for endometriosis, and 11 percent for other unspecified reasons" (Jones, 3). Should this hypothetical child suffer from any combination of these ailments, she will be unable to access the care she needs as her parents have instilled in her the belief that birth control has only one purpose, preventing pregnancy, and that it is not a valid option for her. Though she may agree with her parents and decide that birth control or any other form of contraceptive is not right for her, the purposeful withholding of information about these options and the inaccurate portrayal of their effectiveness both at home and in AO programs is unacceptable and a violation of the basic international human rights to health and freedom of information as established by the United Nations (Gresle-Favier 718).

Though abstinence is a valid option for many adolescents, the 95 percent of people who do choose to have sex before marriage need to be informed of other safer sex practices which many government funded AO programs prevent from happening. Ignoring 95 percent of the population like this is dangerous and, quite frankly, reckless. Based upon the research available, the best method for sex education today is to have a baseline curriculum that is taught in all classrooms across the United States, regardless of location or teacher. In establishing this base curriculum, the large knowledge gap that exists between students when it comes to sex ed because of varying teachers and locations can be closed. Not only will this set a standard for education, hopefully it will standardize the language that we use to discuss sex and consent and possibly decrease the number of non-consensual sexual situations that occur out of miscommunication. This standardized program will present abstinence as a primary option, stressing why it is the safest route to take to protect one's self from unplanned pregnancies and STD's. However, just as abstinence is presented as an option (not the requirement), a comprehensive overview of preventative care and safe sex practices will be a part of the curriculum so that the 95 percent of people who do not choose abstinence until marriage will have their needs met by this curriculum as well. Ultimately, researchers argue that "comprehensive sex education that includes an abstinence (delay) component is the most effective form of sex education, especially when using teen pregnancy rates as a measurable outcome" (Stranger-Hall 8).

Another huge downfall in the current state of sex education in America is the disregard for LGBTQ+ students. It is estimated that "1 in 10 adolescents struggle with issues regarding sexual identity" (Santelli 78) and current sex ed curriculums do nothing to help these students. Unlike heterosexual students who have grown up being told who they are and encouraged to pursue heterosexual relationships from birth, LGBTQ+ students have never had their relationships normalized. When a baby boy is born, he is automatically referred to as a "little ladies man" or a baby girl is born and adults say, "The boys better watch out, she's going to be a heartbreaker!" In this way, their relationships are normalized. This acceptance and normalization does not exist for non-heterosexual students yet but by placing issues of sexuality and gender in sex ed curriculums, a huge step towards normalization could be taken.

Ideally, schools would serve as an unbiased source of information for students that would teach them the pros and cons of all their options ranging from complete abstinence until marriage to safe practices for sexually active teens. Perhaps the best example of this can be illustrated in discussions of sexuality outside the heteronormative script. In a study by Renee DePalma and Elizabeth Atkinson, analysis of web forums revealed a societal perception of adolescents as asexual beings and the hyper-sexualisation of homosexuality (DePalma). Each of these factors (the perceived asexuality of adolescents and the hyper-sexualization of homosexuality) would have a large impact on representation in sex education programs independently of one another but together, they are a perfect cocktail for silencing. In the case of sexuality and the LGBTQ+ spectrum, silencing refers to the conscious and unconscious ways which society avoids acknowledging and addressing its LGBTQ+ members and their existence. "1 in 10 adolescents struggle with issues regarding sexual identity" (Santelli 78), meaning that an estimated 10% of high school students are not only not benefitting fully from their sex ed programs, by not including them within the standard curriculum their identities are being invalidated and relegated to a "less than" or "other" status not worthy of mentioning in standard sex ed. However, upon analysis of the data, with 5 percent of people remaining abstinent until marriage and 10 percent of high school age students struggling with their sexual identity, sex ed programs would be pertinent to a higher percentage of people if they focused solely on education for LGBTQ+ students than it is as an AO program. I am in no way suggesting that sex education become centered solely on LGBTQ+ students; however, by including information on sexual identity and information on safe sex practices for homosexual couples, these programs would be statistically twice as relevant than they are currently.

Ideally, AO education in America will soon become a thing of the past, much like victory gardens or leg warmers. Societal norms about sex have progressed rapidly over the past 50 years, but our policies on sex-education have remained more or less stagnant leading to outdated, inaccurate information being presented to students. Not only is the current state of AO-education a violation of basic human rights, it is dangerous and ineffective. By implementing a comprehensive sex ed program in the United States which includes an abstinence component rather than an abstinence focus, an emphasis on options for safe sex practices, and content addressing the concerns of LGBTQ+ students, we as a society will be able to properly inform our coming generations about sex and effectively change the "hush hush" culture we have currently surrounding issues of sex and sex-education.