In Cincinnati, Ohio, a high school sex education teacher carefully places a Jolly Rancher candy on each student’s desk. The 14- and 15-year-old students feel the crinkly plastic wrapping in their hands, wondering when they will get to eat their tantalizing treats.
“Don’t eat the candy!” warned the teacher, although she had just finished placing one on each desk. “You must wait until after class. It will taste much better if you allow yourself to wait.”
And so begins the young Ohioans’ lesson on abstinence—the only method of pregnancy or disease prevention that they will learn during their high school sexuality education class.
One in every four adolescents receives this type of abstinence-only sexuality education. According to recent statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, 41 percent of teenagers (regardless of the type of sexuality education they received) know little or nothing about condoms and 75 percent know little or nothing about oral contraception. One in three teenagers claims to have never had any formal education on birth control, suggesting that even those not necessarily enrolled in abstinence only programs are still unable to access critical sexual health information.
There is no significant difference in the rates of teenage sexuality in the United States compared to other similar, developed Western countries. American teens are simply far less likely to use contraception. It is no surprise that the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy and STI rates in the developed world.
Sexuality education in the United States has evolved to teach everything besides sex itself. Although teenagers in more progressive schools may learn how to slide a condom onto a banana, they rarely learn how to access birth control conveniently and affordably. Instead, students in both abstinence only and comprehensive programs are given projects that test and assess their knowledge of how to avoid sex, rather than their knowledge of sexual health. At the end of a typical course, many students know that they can “go to the movies” or “play soccer” instead of having sex, but they do not know what to do in case their alternative activities plan falls through and the condom breaks.
Sexuality education, more intimately known as “sex ed,” began in earnest in the mid 1980s with the advent of the AIDS epidemic. Once it became established that the HIV virus spread through sexual contact, policy-makers both inside and outside the federal government felt a social and moral responsibility to educate students on disease prevention through the public school system. Despite the Regan administration’s notorious silence on AIDS and support of religion-centered abstinence-only policies, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) distributed $310 million in HIV/AIDS education marking the first federal funding for “comprehensive” sexuality education.
However, implementing truly comprehensive sexuality education was difficult during the Reagan years, despite the large grant from the CDC: less than half of the programs taught factually accurate information and many programs framed HIV/AIDS education as a gay issue and contended that homosexuality was both sinful and the cause of the AIDS crisis. Only 10 percent of the CDC programs even revealed the great value of condoms as a method of disease prevention.