Sex, Lies and Politics
Kids "know far too much too soon" about sex, a recent college graduate named Wendy Shalit lamented in her 1999 book A Return to Modesty, and Congress seems to agree. In recent years, it has been doing everything in its power to prevent comprehensive sexuality education from reaching America's youngsters and to promote, in its place, an educationally limited, fear-based curriculum that preaches "abstinence unless married."
Later this year, Congress will probably reauthorize an "abstinence education" program that it created in 1996 with $250 million in matching funds (to receive the full amount, states must put up at least three-quarters as much, or an additional $187.5 million). The original package was part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act--otherwise known as welfare reform. It was the 104th Congress's attempt not only to eliminate welfare but to impose conservative standards of sexual morality on low-income Americans.
The law enumerates eight principles for "abstinence education," among them that "abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems"; that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity"; and that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Gay and lesbian youngsters, unlikely to conduct sexual activity only "in the context of marriage," are thus rendered deviant or invisible, while the children of single moms or unmarried couples are implicitly told that their parents have suffered "harmful psychological and physical effects" from sex outside marriage. Funded programs cannot discuss birth control or safer-sex techniques, except to highlight (or exaggerate) their shortcomings. The goal is quite explicitly to discourage adolescents from using condoms or other contraceptives.
The premise that is usually articulated to defend this unusual pedagogy is that an unambiguous "just say no" message is the only way to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. As Oklahoma Republican Ernest Istook, one of the program's most vocal Congressional champions, puts it, teenagers cannot understand "mixed messages." While this may be true of cultural conservatives like Istook, it is not necessarily true of American teenagers, most of whom are adept at negotiating the ambiguities of popular culture. Indeed, Istook's reductive approach to education and his low opinion of youthful intelligence have not in any event proven accurate. As Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth and SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) pointed out in the wake of the 1996 law, studies have shown no decrease, and often an increase, in the age of "sexual debut" after the introduction of sex-ed programs that include straightforward contraceptive and safer-sex information in addition to abstinence messages. By contrast, there is no evidence that abstinence-only programs discourage sexual activity.
By late 1998, though, every state had applied for and received abstinence-unless-married funds. Some sought to use the money without compromising existing programs; in Maine, for example, as one official explained, "the limits on what you can say are so restrictive that we decided we could not use the money for classroom programs or anywhere else where there was face-to-face contact." Two states--California and New Hampshire--ultimately did not use the funds, in California's case because it was determined that the eight-point program violated state law by withholding contraceptive information and forbidding mention of the fact that condoms reduce the risk of AIDS. And there were a few surprises: Richmond, Virginia, withdrew from participation, its director of health declaring that the program was "ill-conceived" and "did not help children who were already sexually active or gays and lesbians." Charleston County, South Carolina, also voted against accepting the federal money; the school board chairman said, "Let's not live in a fantasy land" or "play Russian roulette with the lives of our students."
Six states, on the other hand, incorporated the federal ideology into their official sex-ed programs. The Pennsylvania Senate proclaimed "Chastity Awareness Week" and urged "Chastity Day" presentations at public schools. Franklin County, North Carolina, cut three chapters out of its ninth-grade textbook because they dealt with contraception and STDs, and the school board had not held a hearing, required by state law, before state-mandated abstinence-unless-married pedagogy could be replaced with a comprehensive curriculum. By the end of 1999 abstinence was the sole contraception method taught at more than a third of all US public schools.
The triumph of abstinence-unless-married pedagogy is the culmination of two decades' work by the religious right in first trying to defeat, then managing brilliantly to co-opt, sexuality education. The current curriculums have their roots in the fear-based "sex hygiene" programs that social-purity groups offered early in the twentieth century. These featured hideous images of the symptoms of tertiary syphilis but ignored the varieties and pleasures of sex, or even the details of anatomy. Elements of the fear-based approach persisted even after Dr. Mary Calderone and her colleagues, with the encouragement of the National Education Association and the American Medical Association, founded SIECUS in 1964 to promote comprehensive sexuality education. ("Sexuality" rather than "sex" is the preferred term because it emphasizes the social, cultural, psychological and spiritual dimensions of human sexual life, not just reproduction, anatomy and disease prevention.)