The Inefficiency and Harmful Effects of Abstinence-Only Sexual Education in the United States

Sex Ed

For over three decades, since 1982, the United States federal government has funded abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, starting with a limited pool of funding through the Adolescent Family Life Act. The funding for these programs grew rapidly when the US government passed multiple reforms to the Social Security act, including “Title V”, in 1996. Title V outlined the federal definition of an abstinence-only program and included what the programs could and could not teach. Any sexual education program that did not thereafter adhere to the federal definition would receive no funding (Howell). This definition had eight requirements: The program must 1) have an exclusive purpose of teaching the social, psychological, and health gains of abstinence; 2) teach that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the socially expected standard; 3) teach that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and other associated health problems; 4) teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexuality; 5) teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; 6) teach that bearing a child outside of wedlock is likely to have harmful effects on the child, parents, and society; 7) teach young people how to reject sexual activity and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and 8) teaches the importance of stability before engaging in sexual activity (“Compilation”). The government has poured over a billion dollars into these programs since they came under official government regulation and funding in the mid-nineties, which has posed a serious problem for our nation. The system and bases for abstinence-only education curricula are broken and have caused numerous unintended consequences. These curricula should be nationally replaced with comprehensive sexual education programs, which not only teach the importance of abstinence, but also provides students with a wide variety of accurate and modern information that will allow students who did not, do not, will not, or can not remain abstinent to practice safe and healthy sexual behaviors. Abstinence-only sexual education should be avoided and replaced (with comprehensive sexual education) as it presents misleading information; is not effective in preventing sexual activity, sexually transmitted disease, or teen pregnancy; does not efficiently educate students on birth control methods; does not educate students on unexpected pregnancy or child care/development; and creates a hostile and discriminatory educational environment through the systematic use of fear tactics and one-sided teaching.

One of the many major critiques that opponents of Abstinence-only programs often cite in arguments are the many obvious inaccuracies that are taught to unknowing and ignorant young students. In a country where it is a human right to obtain correct knowledge regarding health and safety, its seems mad that teachers in many states are allowed, and sometimes forced to teach that HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) can be spread through tears and sweat. A report by representative Henry Waxman, a long-time opponent of abstinence-only sexual education, conducted an in depth investigation into the curricula of said educational programs to get a close up look at what students were being taught in their classes. With 46 years in the United States government (36 at the time), Waxman, with the help of his staff, studied the 13 most common curricula for the abstinence only programs used in the previous five years. Out of those thirteen, only two contained mostly or all accurate information. The other 11, taught in 25 states and accepted by 69 organizations, contained unproven information, wild conclusions, and stated falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender roles, sex and human life as facts. In their research Waxman and his staff discovered numerous inaccuracies and lies including: a fetus is a thinking human being after just over a month; half of the gay male population in America had tested positive for HIV; pregnancy can result in touching the genitals of the opposite sex; and 10% of women who have abortions become infertile (Connolly 1). By withholding important, distorting, or fabricating important information, these programs are withholding from young students the basic human right to knowledge that is necessary for them to make informed decision of their own in their teen and adult years (Alford). These programs are implanting untrue ideas into the heads of the nation’s youth, intentionally deluding them. Such unethical behavior can not be accepted, neither by American civilians or by the federal government, which has been aware of these issues for over a decade.

These crimes against our youth can hardly be condoned, especially when considering that the system in place in these abstinence-only programs has proven time and time again to be ineffective in nearly every category of assessment.In nearly every case, abstinence-only sexual education programs had no or insignificant effects on teen behavior, rates of birth, or rates of STDs, and many even showed that these factors were negatively affected. In 2007 the Cochrane HIV/AIDS group conducted a study on the effects that the abstinence-only curricula had on HIV infection rates, as well as numerous other factors including frequency of sex, rate of unprotected sex, number of partners, first sexual experience, and condom usage. Three researchers examined over 20,000 records and 13 full length evaluations from developed countries. The results gathered were compared to results gathered from students who had received no sexual education. The abstinence-only programs studied were generally declared ineffective or to have had insignificantly negative effects in every category. In one of the evaluations examined, though, these programs were found to have significantly harmful effect on STD rates (Operario, Don, et al). Beginning in 1997, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has been evaluating different methods of teaching students sexual education in schools and communities. They have published multiple full length evaluations of these programs based on the cross referencing of research provided by hundred of experts and the statistical analysis of thousands of reports, taking into consideration over 500 different factors that affect risk behaviors in adolescents. With similar results as those of the Cochrane HIV/AIDS Group, The National Campaign stated that “none of the programs affected initiaion of sex, abstinence in the previous 12 months, number of sexual partners, use of condoms, use of [other] contraception, frequency of unprotected sex, pregnancy rates,  birth rates, or STD rates (Kirby 116). The Secuality and Information and Education Counsul of the United States (or SIECUS) compiled their own information from similar studies to obtain a clear set of results in the masses of data on abstinence-only education programs. The Consul found three main results show through. The first of these results has already been stated, and has been proven and re-proven: “abstinence-only programs do not affect rates of HIV infection or sexual behavior.” The programs had statistically insignificant or no effect on factors such as rate of vaginal sex, number of sexual partners, condom use, rate of pregnancy, and rate of sexually transmitted disease. The second of the three results found by the Consul was that multiple state evaluations of abstinence-only sex education programs found them ineffective as well. In 2003, a state study in Pennsylvania declared these programs to be “ largely ineffective in reducing sexual onset and promoting attitudes and skills consistent with sexual abstinence.” Texas, in 2004, five abstinence-only programs volunteered to be evaluated by the state and were deemed to be inefficient and possibly harmful. In their research, there were no positive improvements in any category of study, but there was a slightly significant increase in percentage of children 13-17 who reported to have been sexually active at some point. Kansas, along with multiple other mentioned states suggested that comprehensive sexual education would most likely have much more positive effects. The third result of the SIECUS compilatory study was by far the most ground breaking in the field: “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Negatively Impact Young People’s Sexual Health.” This research was based in the behavioral patterns of students that had taken virginity pledges in abstinence courses versus those of students who had not taken that (those) class(es). It was found that those who took the pledge were one third (⅓) less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active. They were also less likely to be checked or tested for STDs. The same study also found out that pledgers who had not had vaginal intercourse were far more likely to participate in oral and anal sexual activity. Among this virgin faction, pledgers were six times (6x) more likely to participate in oral sexual activity and four times (4x) more likely to participate in anal sexual activity than their non-pledging counterparts. In regards to STDs, the rates among pledgers and non-pledgers were found to be almost identical except in community pockets where the rate of virginity pledgers was 20% of higher. In these pockets where there were so many pledgers, the STD rate was 3.3% higher than other communities (SIECUS 2). These findings are similar to those of many other organizations since the early nineties. Very few reliable studies, in fact, show any significantly positive effects of abstinence-only curricula, only 1 or 2 peer-reviewed journal articles within the last 15 years. Meanwhile, comprehensive sexual education is continually being proven to be effective in promoting abstinence, proper and frequent use of contraceptives, safe and healthy sexual behavior among sexually active teens, etc. In many scientific studies, where abstinence-only programs failed, comprehensive programs succeeded. In 2008, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a report describing behavioral and sexual trends among three groups: those that received no sexual education, those that received abstinence-only sexual education, and those that received comprehensive sexual education. Students that received comprehensive sexual education were found to be significantly less likely to report rates of teen pregnancy and vaginal intercourse (Kohler). The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found no evidence of comprehensive sexual education ever having had negative effects on any of the studied factors, including rate of sex, pregnancy, or STD rates. Instead, the Campaign found that most of the studied comprehensive programs had significantly positive effects. Forty percent (40%) of these programs were found to have “delayed the initiation of sex, reduced the number of sexual partners, and increased condom or contraceptive use.” Of the studied programs, nearly 30 percent (30%) reduced or sexual activity, more than 60 percent (60%) reduced the rate of unsafe/unprotected sex and 40 percent (40%) of the studied programs showed positive effects on more than one of these things (Kirby 17).

In addition to to these findings, multiple studies have shown abstinence-only curricula to have negative impacts on students’ knowledge of birth control and rates of use of birth control among sexually active teens. Abstinence-only sexual education programs often teach false or exaggerated information concerning birth control. For example, evaluations of the most popular programs falling under this category shined a light on many misconceptions that are commonly taught, for example: condoms fail to protect against STDs nearly one-third (⅓) of the time (Connolly 1) and that condoms fail to prevent pregnancy as often as 17% of the time (Kempner 33). Furthermore, In accordance to federal law, these programs are legally forbidden to teach anything to students about birth control without putting the focus on their failure rates, which are very often exaggerated. This gap in informational bodies most often includes how different birth control methods work, what they are made of, whether or not they have effects on the human body, how they should be used, how often they should be used, proper usage, etc. By not teaching students about birth control or teaching them falsities, students who decide to become sexually active will have a skewed opinion about them. These created negative, misguided opinions cause teens to avoid birth control or not take the effort to use them correctly. A SIECUS research study reported that students associated with abstinence-only programs were one-third (⅓) less likely to use contraception after becoming sexually active than other students (SIECUS 1). In states where abstinence-only sexual education programs are either the requirement or the norm , teen pregnancy rates are significantly higher than in those states where comprehensive sexual educations is either the requirement or the norm. For example, in Mississippi – where abstinence-only sexual education programs are required in public schools – teen pregnancy rates are 0.6 percent higher than the national average. However, In New Hampshire – where comprehensive sexual education programs are required in public schools – teen pregnancy rates are 0.3 percent lower than the national average (“SIECUS State Profiles”) Furthermore, Students are not only discouraged from birth control usage through incidental consequence, but through active manipulation. In addition to implications that condoms are not effective against pregnancy or STD prevention, abstinence-only curricula often attempts to manipulate their students into believing that condoms and other birth control methods are dangerous, hard to use, and inconvenient by many abstinence-only textbooks. The class-based book CLUE 2000 tells students that condoms are complicated to use and requires complex, precise movements that can make or break the effectiveness of the condom. Another book, titled Choosing the Best, is quick to tell students that condom usage requires over 10 specific steps that must be followed routinely and without error. Both of these statements suggest to naive teenagers that using birth control is scary, difficult and hard to understand. Both books also suggest that condom usage eliminates spontaneity, foreplay, and romance in a sexual interaction. This makes teens look at birth control as inconvenient as well. If teens are manipulated into believing that birth control is ineffective, hard to use, and inconvenient, they will not use it  as frequently after becoming sexually active, putting them at higher risk for STDs and unwanted pregnancy (Kempner 35).

Abstinence-only programs do not only lie to students, manipulate students, and misguide them, but they also discriminate against millions of students every single year. Abstinence-only curricula creates a hostile and discriminatory environment – through the use of shame and scare tactics – towards sexually active students, young female students, students who do not intend to conform to “traditional” standards” as well as students belonging to the LGBT community. Manipulation through fear and shame is highly effectual in making naive children believe one thing or another, despite the means being morally wrong. Abstinence-only programs distort and exaggerate information to present to students the worst-case scenarios to frighten them, rather than inform them. Many of these programs teach students that having sex outside of marriage will certainly and inevitably lead to consequence for the individual, their friends, their families, and society. According to CLUE 2000, an abstinence-only textbook, premarital sex can “damage your ability to love, degrade your emotional self worth, and distort interpersonal relationships”. Another textbook states that sex before marriage is linked to the development of mental illness. In the textbook WAIT Training, premarital sex is compared to fire in that they are both “deadly” “dangerous” and are results of “loss of control”. Sex Respect, yet another abstinence-only textbook, claims strongly that “there is no way to have premarital sex without hurting someone.” These textbooks and these curricula all target premarital sex with hostility, but also the students who may have engaged in it. Abstinence-only sexual education programs often discriminate against those students who have engaged in sexual activity or plan to by alienating them, degrading them, and putting them below students who have or will abstain from sexual activity. It is a simple, historical fact that most teens do not abstain from sexual activity and will have sex at least once during their later childhood. This means that, even though most classes will be full of students who have not abstained or are actively participating in sexual activity, the sexual education they received is purposely tailored to one group of students. The sexually active students are titled “dysfunctional” and thereafter either ignored or degraded.The textbook Sexuality, Commitment, and Family tells teachers that “it is unwise and unfair to allow the sexually dysfunctional faction of students to set standards for developing…programs.” This statement illustrates the way sexually active teens are viewed by abstinence-only programs: deviants, abnormalities that should be disregarded so that the focus and praise can be placed on those who abstain (Kempner 20). These programs indirectly imply that abstinent students are better than those that are sexually active; this idea is repeatedly discussed and demonstrated throughout multiple textbooks and curricula outlines. Students are taught that premarital sexual activity is the result of a multitude of negative things, such as lack of control, peer pressure, poor self image, and use of drugs. The curricula goes on to have the students list negative effects that premarital sex has on a person and their personality. The suggested answers included guilt, disappointing parents, loss of reputation, selfishness, loneliness, loss of faith, loss of self-mastery, diminished ability to communicate, alienation, few friendships, difficulty with long-term commitments, loss of honesty, and loss of sense of responsibility towards others. This list gives students the idea that only people with low character have premarital sex and/or that all of these negative character traits are the direct result of having premarital sex. Students who decide to become sexually active or who are/became sexually active by means of force are manipulated into believing that their sexual past is the result of their lack of character and/or that their pasts have tainted them in a significantly negative way. It is heavily implied that these students should be ashamed of who they are, their personal character, and their pasts, no matter what those pasts might be. Sexually active students are compared to criminals, including murderers and thieves, and put on the same level as somebody who is mentally ill. These are intentionally hostile actions and only results in many students being treated in a negative fashion in order to exemplify the curriculum’s particular beliefs of what is not right, moral, or acceptable. These students are repeatedly belittled and treated like second class. Students who abstain, on the other hand, are placed on pedestals above others and praised. These students are associated with being brought up with adequate morals, therefore wanting to save themselves for marriage. (Note that this ideology makes the assumption that premarital sex is an issue of morality, rather than sexual health. This is one of the many instances where religion and education are mixed and blurred to manipulate youth within abstinence-only curricula.) These textbooks claim that abstinent students have the ability to develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually as well as development self control and a system of values. CLUE 2000 claims that abstinent students “can devote more time and energy to developing character, talents, and career choices.” All of these statements and ideas imply that students that have not abstained or were forced or coerced into sexual activity do not demonstrate these characteristics or possess these traits. Students are told – indirectly, though forcefully – that if they have been or currently are sexually active, they not only do they not exhibit self control or a system of morals, they will not develop normally as people, and that many doors of opportunity (through talent and careers) are now closed. Not only this, but they are told that they are selfish, irresponsible, dishonest people who others will not like or want to be around. (Kempner 18) It is worth noting the following: nearly half of all seuxla assault victims are under the age of 18. In grades 9-12, 12% of young girls and 3% of young boys admit to being sexually assaulted. Girls 16-19 are four times (4x) more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault than the general population (“Who are the Victims”). That being said, it is clear than in any given class of high school students, there is a good chance that one or more victims of sexual assault is present. These boys and/or girls are being told by the curricula, that because of their experience, being forced into sexual activity, they are now tainted/ruined. The curricula throws a net over sexually active students, despite their situation and claims that they are all bad or rotten apples. Some curricula takes this 5 steps farther, especially concerning girls who have had sex. Sexually active females are related to spit cups or chewed gum. Students are asked if they would drink from a spit cup or chew previously chewed gum. It is hard to imagine a victim of rape or any other sexually active student being put in such an emotionally damaging situation; one in which their own school system judges them, their past, and their body. These students are essentially being related to garbage for a choice that they made or a situation they were forced into. The topic of bullying within school systems is often discussed; in this case it is clear that students are being bullied not only by their peers, but their own teachers and curricula.

A common theme among abstinence only curricula is the backwards and traditional view of gender roles in our society. Young students are taught how a woman and man should and should not act, with and without one another – often these lessons are sexist and discriminatory. One of the most discriminated against faction within these programs is that of young female students. Young girls being taught under abstinence-only curricula are pressured into falling into stereotypical female roles, harassed and shamed, scared away from their own bodies, and belittled in numerous ways. The traditional lifestyle that these programs advocate are ones in which sexual activity falls on the shoulders of young women rather than young men. Within these programs, boys are painted as being led by their own lust and sexual desires, whereas girls are painted as having little to no sexual desire at all. Girls are told that it is their job to keep young men in line and teach them how to control themselves. Thus, much of the pressure of abstinence is placed on young women and girls, rather than both sexes. This is not the only case of such division among gender responsibilities. Students are taught that men are sexually aroused easily and visually, therefore young women should dress modestly and not “tease”. The textbook Sex Respect states, “if you don’t aim to please, don’t aim to tease.” The textbook Clue 2000 states, “the way you look or dress should not be sexually suggestive. Don’t wear revealing clothing or carry a condom.” A third textbook, WAIT Training directly tells students that girls who dress in a more revealing way are playing “games” with boys and are purposely sending a message. These books and their respective ideologies lead students to put a majority of sexual pressure on young women. Girls are told to cover up, because their bodies are too powerful; boys are told that how you view women should be based on how women dress, and that it isn’t their fault if they act inappropriately. This is the same logic that is behind victim shaming in rape cases, in which women are seen as responsible for how men interact with them. Instead of addressing the obvious shame and pressure that is put on young women in today’s society, abstinence only curricula panders to the young men. Textbooks write, “no guy-bashing” and “there are always exceptions [to male stereotypes]”. Textbooks discuss how challenging it is for boys to handle the pressure of saying no to sex, in complete denial of the fact they nearly all sexual pressure is put onto the girls. Boys are assured that saying no to sex does not make them less manly and girls are asked “how can [you] make young men feel…admired for choosing the wise choice?” These activities reinforce the idea that women, by nature, should of course say no to sexual activity. Young man, however, due to their incredible struggles against lust, should be praised when they remain abstinent (Kempner 43). All of this paints a certain picture of young women and young men. It creates and perpetuates gender stereotypes and gender roles – especially for females. Young women are portrayed as needing to fit into a certain box – a traditional box – and those that don’t fit are attacked. This leads directly into the point that abstinence only curricula attempts to pigeonhole students into traditional guidelines and lifestyles.

At this point it is clear that abstinence only education stresses abstinence from sex until marriage. According to the very definition of abstinence only education, as outlined in Section 510b of the Social Security Act (i.e., Title V), “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” (“State Abstinence Education”). Firstly, this definition is based off of a very narrow idea of an ideal relationship or lifestyle. The idea of marriage, followed by a faithful and monogamous relationship is one based off of traditional, western lifestyles and can not be applied as a “human standard”. The fact is: many people in the world do not engage in monogamous relationships, and even fewer engage in faithful relationships. Simply, the human ideal for sexuality is far too varied to say that a “faithful and monogamous marriage” is the standard for all humanity. Furthermore, this “standard” for humanity is unrealistic to many, and undesirable to some. Many people do not want to get married. Many other do not desire a monogamous relationship – some people engage in open relationships or relationships with more than one person. Many religions support multi-wife marriages.  Title V also defines abstinence programs as they pertain to child-rearing. These programs teach that “bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society”(“State Abstinence Education”). Again, this is a standard that many people find undesirable. Many people raise their children in single-parent households, for example. Same-sex couples cannot marry, and thus can not raise a family within-wedlock. Nearly 4 million children live in the foster care system (“The AFCARS Report”). The curricula, in its very essence, aims to make all of its students see that the traditional western lifestyle is the best lifestyle to live by, and in doing so, the students who may or may not believe in it, as well as those who can not participate in it regardless; LGBT youths being the prime example. Aware that they can not possible adhere to the standards set by abstinence only curricula, these students are immediately made outsiders, deviants to the standard. This is just one of the many ways that LGBT youths are discriminated against within abstinence only curricula. Textbooks, for example, deny the legitimacy of homosexuality, attack it, or ignore it completely. For one, the curricula often intentionally avoids and excludes “deviant students”, including gay students, writing material only for heterosexual students. Many students are left out and ignored. This discriminatory teaching is mentioned by the authors of WAIT Training, who said, “[our curricula] is designed to meet the needs of heterosexal relationships.” When homosexuality is discussed, it is almost always linked with negative opinions, stereotypes, twisted facts, etc. In multiple abstinence only textbooks, gay people are only mentioned in relation to STDS or the context of being promiscuous. One textbook – FACTS – goes so far as to define homosexuality as purely sexual, and without intimacy. What’s more is that homosexuality is often related to criminal or obviously immoral acts. CLUE 2000 states, “Among Kinsey’s most outrageous…claims are [that] pedophelia, homosexuality, incest, and adult-child sex are normal.” This quote and it’s respective ideology relates homosexuality to clearly immoral things, such as pedophelia. As is stated above, the LGBT community is often connected to diseases and STDs; the textbook Facing Reality tells teachers that AIDS is perhaps one’s punishment for making the choice to be homosexual.There is a clear bias against LGBT persons and the textbooks used by these curricula illustrate it clearly. As was stated earlier students are told that the best way to avoid STDs (other than abstinence) is to avoid “homosexual behavior”. Some curricula materials actually take the initiative to try to justify homophobia, asking, “Homophobia or Compassion?” This reading, by Facing Reality, tells students that using the word “homophobe” is name-calling and wrong (Kempner 47). To compare, Comprehensive sexual education often creates an environment meant to encompass all students of all types. According to the California Department of Education, “comprehensive sexual education requires that instruction be appropriate for students of all sexual orientations and encourage students to develop healthy attitudes concerning body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family.”

Overall, it is clear that abstinence only education is not only ineffective, but also extremely damaging. These programs use fear, lies, guilt, manipulation, and exclusion to push students towards a particular set of beliefs – often narrow minded and/or Christian-base. Students are diverse, come from many different backgrounds, and have many different lifestyles and characteristics. Therefore, it is unacceptable to teach all students things that may only apply to a few, ignoring the rest – possible the majority. Many students, in some way or another, are damaged under abstinence only sexual education programs, be it sexually, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, etc. It must be noted that many of these issues are not present or are handled in a much better way under many comprehensive sexual education programs. It is clear, then, that abstinence only education should be immediately discarded from federal funding pools. We, as a country, can not – and should not – support, condone, or accept abstinence only sexual education in our schooling systems.


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