Providing a basic education is an obligation of every society. And public education admittedly has a crucial influence on every person’s development. What constitutes such an education after the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic, however, varies greatly among cultures and even districts within a common society differ in their offerings. Among the most contentious areas of pedagogy are those revolving around sex. The debate can encompass whether it should be taught, at what age it should be taught and even if the subject should be taught in a coed or single-sex classroom. Most crucially there is debate over who should do the teaching. Should the instruction be by someone married or single, male or female, someone senior or someone younger? Since all education has implications and influences on social, cognitive and ethical development the decision as to the best approach is crucial. The current U.S. federal administration has made its decision of this matter, not on science, but on the basis of politics. It has apparently taken the approach advocated by a conservative block of the Republican Party. This essay is a commentary on this governmental policy and the negative effect it has on students’ mature development.
In the United States the federal government has spent over $170 million annually to subsidize states and community organizations that provide abstinence-only sex education or abstinence until marriage sex education programs (Waxman 2004). Such an education not only stresses that abstinence until marriage is to be practiced but that any sexual activity outside of a monogamous heterosexual marriage is not only morally wrong but is the only way to prevent pregnancy or avoid developing a sexually transmitted disease. Any other method except for abstinence is said to fail (Waxman 2004).
Those who argue for an abstinence-only policy are typically conservative politically with a religious belief that all non-married individuals should remain abstinent. They worry that comprehensive sex education, that is one that would include teaching methods of family planning and disease prevention, would dilute the abstinence message and encourage sexually promiscuous development. It has evolved into a political debate to define American values.
While the nation engages in this debate, however, America’s youth are paying the price. Every day 10,000 American teens contract a sexually transmitted disease, some 2,100 get pregnant, and 55 contract HIV (Advocates for Youth 2007, Dhingra 2006). There is no evidence that providing comprehensive sex education to minors increases the propensity to engage in sex prematurely or reduces the impact of the abstinence message. Studies over the last two decades have shown that full and informative sex education does not increase rates of sexual activity among teenagers but does increase knowledge about sexual behavior and its consequences. Comprehensive sex education also, in a positive way, increases preventive behaviors among those who are sexually active. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association as well as the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology have all testified against continued funding for abstinence-only programs (Ertelt 2008). And this insistence on abstinence-only education goes against numerous survey results that show that more than 90 percent of parents of junior and senior high school students believe it is important that sex education be complete and cover such topics as birth control use, prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), and contraception use and skills (National Public Radio 2004).
In 2004 U.S. Congressman Henry A. Waxman released a report that evaluated the content of the most popular abstinence-only curricula used by grantees of the largest federal abstinence initiative. It concluded that over eighty percent of federal grants go to providing abstinence-only curricula that “contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health” (Waxman 2004). The programs include exaggerations about contraceptive failure rates, the physical and mental health risks of abortion, and the health susceptibilities of the gay population (Waxman 2004).
It is apparent that although adolescents are the primary stakeholders in the debate concerning sex education, their needs and interests are not driving federal policy. The law has recognized that mature minors enjoy certain fundamental rights in matters of their own sexuality that need not yield to lesser state and parental interests. Moreover, state laws generally allow mature minors to make their own choices regarding, among other things, contraception, prenatal care, treatment of STDs, and adoption. Federal abstinence-only policies fail to recognize that the autonomy and privacy accorded to minors concerning their own sexuality entitles them to a corresponding right to truthful, accurate, and complete information necessary to make wise choices.
A comprehensive sex education that includes information about reliable contraception, methods of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases as well as knowledge of sexual minorities (male and female homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc.) empowers minors to act responsibly and in their best self-interest. In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence, “encouraging abstinence and urging better use of contraception are compatible goals. evidence shows that sexuality education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity, and programs that emphasize abstinence as the safest and best approach, while also teaching about contraceptives for sexually active youth, do not decrease contraceptive use (Klein 2005).”
one of the most obvious problems with abstinenceonly education is that despite the federal government’s largesse, these programs so far have not proved effective in promoting abstinence or preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy (Brückner & Bearman 2005). A 2007 report on teenage behavior by the national Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (Kirby 2007) confirmed a study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. (Trenholm et al. 2007). This survey organization found: “… At present there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence or reduces the number of sex partners among teenagers. …”. The report confirmed that comprehensive sex education programs – which included what most people understand to be actual education of the topic of sex – were producing exactly the kind of positive outcomes that were eluding the abstinence-only programs (Commentary 2008).
Yet a more fundamental problem reveals a danger far greater than wasting valuable time and resources: even if abstinence only curricula were shown to be extremely effective, they would still be inadequate because they fail that majority of minors who will not remain 100% abstinent and leaves them worse off than before they took the course (Haignere et al. 1999). Simply put, while total abstinence, including giving up non-coital sexual activities, may be “100% effective” against pregnancy and STDs, abstinence-only curricula fail to pay adequate attention to their own “user-failure” rate which have been found by various studies to range from 26% to 86% (Haignere et al. 1999).
User-failure, i.e., failing to remain abstinent even once, can result in pregnancy and disease exposure. Thus, by not teaching prevention, the curricula necessarily fail to meet the needs of most adolescents who will become sexually active before marriage even though they have participated in an abstinence-only curriculum (Brückner & Bearman 2005). Teaching only about abstinence is like teaching children to cross the street at the walk signal, but then failing to tell them to look both ways before crossing all streets whenever and wherever they cross.
Abstinence-only education suffers from harmful definitional problems as well. Even among abstinence-only educators, the definition of abstinence is unclear; does it include refraining from oral and anal sex and masturbation? Abstinence-only programs vary widely in how or whether they define sex and what behaviors constitute abstinence. Since disease can be spread through physical contact other than vaginal intercourse, abstinence-only education programs inadvertently expose teens to greater risk of infection by promoting ignorance of STD transmission through non-coital sexual activity (Nicoletti 2005).
Pregnancy too is possible without coitus by mutual masturbation practices that are often substituted for intercourse. Also, it is not realistic to expect all individuals to remain abstinent until marriage when the age of marriage continues to increase into the late 20s or beyond. Thus, a simplistic message of abstinence leaves students unable to make sound judgments about engaging in many forms of sexual exploration other than intercourse.
The user failure and definitional risks are not just theoretical. In one recent study Brückner and Bearman (2005) evaluated STD acquisition among adolescents taking “virginity pledges” as part of an abstinence-only until marriage education program. Evaluating data over time from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, they found that while pledgers delayed first sex and had fewer partners and cumulative exposure, the STD infection rates of pledgers did not differ from nonpledgers over time. They concluded: “…Contrary to expectations, we found no significant difference in STD infection rates between pledgers and nonpledgers, despite the fact that they transition to first sex later, have less cumulative exposure, fewer partners, and lower levels of nonmonogamous partners. … Advocates for abstinence-only education assert that premarital abstinence and post marital sex are necessary and sufficient for avoiding negative consequences of sexual activity, such as STDs. This assertion collides with the realities of adolescents’ and young adults’ lives in several ways. First, although pledgers experience sexual debut later than others, most of them will eventually engage in premarital sex. Those who do report lower frequency of condom use at first intercourse. Those who do not are more likely to substitute oral and/or anal sex for vaginal sex. …” Brückner and Bearman also found that pledgers who were over-represented among adolescents having oral and anal sex, were also less likely to know their STD status and less likely to be tested. Significantly they reported that female pledgers marry earlier which, of itself has negative consequences such as higher divorce rates (White 1990).
The omissions and deceptions prevalent within the unfounded curricula of abstinence-only programs both prevent minors from making informed choices and expose them to potentially grave harms. Proponents of abstinence-only education defend the curriculum, arguing in part that there are other avenues available for minors to obtain more comprehensive information (Pardue 2004). However, for some minors, there is no other avenue (Landry et al. 1999). Some parents actively block their children from access to reliable sex-related information.
However, even if we concede both that the government has no obligation to fund any sex information and that all minors might obtain information elsewhere, such as through alternative school programs, family, friends, or health care providers, the ability of any minor who undergoes abstinence-only sex education is nonetheless significantly set back both by what abstinence-only education teaches and what it does not teach. Because participants are erroneously taught, as just one example, that abstinence is the only effective way to prevent disease and conception and are not taught that contraception and condom use are effective methods of avoiding pregnancy and disease they are hampered by erroneous instruction. even where other sources of information are available, these students are unlikely to appreciate that they should and could seek more comprehensive sex instruction from a more reliable source. After all, to a young person, a teacher working under the auspices of a program funded by the federal government is most likely to be viewed as reliable and honest. Being dishonest with students and discouraging crucial questioning is a deterrent to mature cognitive development.
Our social ideal is a democratic education, one that both prepares our young to choose for themselves and teaches them that their freedom to do so hinges on their respect and tolerance of the freedom of others to choose differently. The purpose of sex education is not merely to prepare adolescents to assume a future role as a sexual responsible adult in a democratic society. Biological and psychological realities dictate that sex education must prepare minors to act responsibly now and so teaching about sex cannot be postponed until adulthood. Sex education, because of its relationship to a minor’s present health and reproduction rights, necessarily stands on a different footing than more mundane curricular choices, and for this reason the scale must tip in favor of the student’s right to comprehensive sex education. In matters of sexuality, adolescents are sexually mature now; the minor’s right to information is no less than an adult’s. And a goal of all preparatory education is to foster adult responsible development.
There can be no legitimate interest in affirmatively and deliberately misleading, deceiving or depriving adolescents of health information and when doing so might expose them to grave harms. Further, requiring teachers to engage in such negative behavior forces them to violate the educator’s code of ethics. Abstinence-only curricula have a negative developmental influence. The politically motivated curricula behind abstinence-only sex education programs are designed to instill fear about sex, distort health information, denigrate any but heterosexual and marital sex, and are intended to and actually do have an adverse affect on the procreative and health decisional rights society has accorded to mature minors. An informed minor can make informed procreative and related choices; an ignorant minor can take it upon him or herself to become educated. But a minor who erroneously believes that a reliable teacher has provided sound instruction will assuredly make poorly informed choices. Thus, these curricula are insidiously more harmful than merely teaching nothing about sex and do not leave minors in the same position they would be otherwise.
There is hope on the horizon. In 2007 the group Advocates for Youth reported on a groundswell of research and investigative findings that point to the failure of abstinence-only sex education and public opinion that would prefer to have support go instead to comprehensive sex education programs (Advocates for Youth 2007). The present administration will most likely be replaced in the next election. This will probably have global as well as national repercussions. First, nationally almost half of all states receiving this administration’s millions have begun to say “no thanks” to the federal monies and electing to finance comprehensive sex education programs of their own (SIECUS 2008). They have become convinced by studies that confirmed that comprehensive sex education programs that include what most people think should be included in sex education were producing exactly the kind of positive outcomes lacking from abstinence-only programs. Teenagers who had taken the more inclusive programs were delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and showed increasing contraception use (Commentary 2008, Trenholm et al. 2007).
More that 100 Members of Congress have written to the president encouraging him to change his policies regarding sex education and abortion (Swenson 2008b). And according to two recent polls almost nine of ten Americans in every state oppose the Bush administration’s policies regarding his anti-contraception stance and sex education programs (Swenson 2008a). Critically, a group of academic scientists involved in the study of adolescent sexual and reproductive health have written a strong letter to congress criticizing abstinence-only sex education (Sentelli 2007).
Globally, things will probably also change. From the time of President Reagan’s tenure the Republican administrations have been strongly enforcing their fight against sex education, family planning and the freedom of choice in abortion matters. It has been predicted that the Democratic party and the presumptive new president will be more sympathetic to the evidence nationally and globally and advocate for the need for comprehensive sex education and the availability of resources to better world sexual and reproductive health (Wildman 2008).
Controlling what is taught in sex education classes is not a mere political prize or a religious issue. Adolescents are sexual beings who, particularly in their developing years, need and deserve comprehensive sex education. Such an education not only should prepare them for life as mature individuals but also allow them to develop safe from erroneous and biased sexual messages. Indeed everyone needs true and reliable information about sexual matters that will affect their current and future lives. A comprehensive sex education program should offer such. Such programs are likely in the future.