the quixotic battle of abstinence only zealots

California declined federal funds to teach abstinence-only sex ed. The result? Teen pregnancies are down to their lowest level ever.

safe sex vector

When the federal government was distributing funds for sex education with the catch that all sex ed programs backed by all that cash be abstinence-only, the state of California passed. Instead, its schools taught a much more comprehensive curriculum about human sexuality and gave teenagers access to contraception from a number of family planning services. The result? Teen pregnancy rates in the state are at their lowest ever as they’re rising across the nation, with the most abstinence zealous states tending to rack up the highest rates; New Mexico is leading the nation in teen births along with much of the South. Simply put, the numbers show that comprehensive sexual education works, abstinence-only dogma fails miserably in its mission, and those who still insist we stick with passing off scaremongering as legitimate education are demonstrably wrong.

People who tend to call themselves social conservatives are a puzzling movement. On the one hand, when it comes to business, personal finance, healthcare, and gun ownership, they’re all about individual rights with a heavy emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s actions. But when it comes to sex and religion, they have no faith in the very same people who they just trusted with just about everything else under the sun. In their view, sex should only happen for one reason and one reason only: reproduction. And so they stand in front of teens surging with hormones and feelings that are alien but oddly alluring to them, and tell them not to give in to the urges that have been ravaging teenage bodies for tens of thousands of years in our species alone. Then, just as it inevitably fails, they switch to scaremongering and forcing teens to choose against having sex by turning simple things like finding help, access to family planning, and buying birth control either difficult or taboo. Just to make it worse, abstinence only classes often lie about the efficiency of contraceptives, making it less likely that teenagers will use them, and actually raise the incidence of STDs and pregnancies.

Simply put, abstinence-only crusaders are a public health hazard right up there with anti-vaccination groups which refuse to immunize their kids despite having no grounds for their phobias. Oh sure, both groups will dispute this statement and both will summon a self-serving study of some sort to back up their stances, and in both cases, they’ll be wrong. While the anti-vaxers have a stable of quack doctors, not to mention a greedy fraud with a martyr complex, from which to draw their pseudoscience, the abstinence-only crowd has think tanks armed with fraudulent studies and outrageous, distorted and outright fabricated anecdotes. But again, when a state decides to teach teenagers about the reality of sex and makes all the necessary education and services accessible to more young adults, there is a very marked decrease in teen pregnancies. Actually, the current reversal in previously declining teen pregnancy rates happened in 2006 as the Bush administration’s round of federal funds for abstinence-only education made its way throughout the nation.

Yes, it’s true that during the Clinton era there was also a big round of investment in abstinence-only curricula and teen pregnancies still fell. However the Bush round of funds invested far more aggressively in atrocious programs which were often administered by religious organizations and required zero scientific content. As a result, we’ve seen more and more aggressive abstinence-only programs with an obvious religious and dogmatic overtone, feeding less and less legitimate scientific content to the students that really need it. This isn’t so much a partisan issue as it is a failure to get facts into the classroom on both sides of the aisle. Keep in mind, Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for saying that masturbation was normal and healthy, and maybe someone ought to consider covering it in sex ed classes. Only with Obama has there been some indication of change towards sex ed programs on the national level, but that indication is still stuck between a campaign speech remark and an actual bill to fund comprehensive sexual education. There’s only a cut to the current stable of abstinence-only programs, something that doesn’t do much to reverse the situation.

So if abstinence programs are getting worse and worse, why are comprehensive programs better? Well, first is the fact that they actually explain safe sex practices and encourage teens to use contraception. This means that when teens have sex, they’re far less likely to get an STD or get pregnant. On top of that, a comprehensive class explains the financial and academic reasons to delay sex. The point is to tell teenagers that sex should not be the most important thing in their lives and they have other, much more pressing matters to which they need to attend. But if they do decide to have sex, they better choose their partners wisely and use protection to mitigate the risks. Rather than promote rampant teen sexuality, as abstinence-only dogmatists accuse these programs of doing, a good comprehensive sex ed curriculum does three things: delays when teenagers start having sex, educates teens on proper contraception, and gives them a complete picture of human sexuality as a healthy part of adult life rather than some dangerous and forbidden fruit magically made safe and wonderful by a wedding ring. While crazed abstinence-only activists threaten to sue teachers for saying that sex is just a normal human desire, all they’re doing is showing their irrationality on the subject. And unfortunately, far too many of our politicians are eager to bend over and help their harmful and irresponsible crusade.

# sex // abstinence only education / sex ed / sexuality


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