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.)

Calderone and SIECUS succeeded by the mid-1960s in encouraging many school boards to introduce sexuality education, though the content of the programs was, to say the least, uneven. Calderone, for example (according to her obituary in 1998), “was an unstinting advocate for the acceptance of masturbation as a wholesome, normal and almost universal practice for people of all ages,” but it was hardly a subject featured in most classes. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society and other groups fought back with attacks on sex education as “smut,” “destructive of religious belief” and a “filthy communist plot.” Groups like MOMS (Mothers Organized for Moral Stability) and PAUSE (People Against Unconstitutional Sex Education) opposed sex ed in state legislatures, local communities and the courts. Judges were not generally inclined to second-guess school boards, however, and sometimes even noted (in the words of one California court) that parents do not have “a monopoly over the thoughts of their own children or anyone else’s.”

Opponents of sex ed were further frustrated in the 1970s and early ’80s when the federal government, in response to reports of more than a million teen pregnancies in the United States annually and more than 600,000 births, began to fund family-planning clinics and contraceptive information. Adolescent pregnancy rates in the United States were far higher than in any other industrialized country (most of which had similar rates of teen sexual activity)–fifteen times higher than Japan’s, and twice as high as sexually emancipated Scandinavia’s. Although a variety of reasons were posited for the problem, the lack of accurate, widely available contraceptive information was one obvious factor.

As government grants for contraceptive outreach multiplied, the right mounted a new counterattack. If sexuality education could not be suppressed, at least it could be altered to conform to a pro-chastity worldview. Phyllis Schlafly, a leading player in this game, wrote indignantly in 1981 that “nearly all existing sex education curricula” taught “how to enjoy fornication without having a baby and without feeling guilty.” Her activism inspired the creation of a new organization called the Committee on the Status of Women, which later became Respect, Incorporated, and produced the famous Sex Respect curriculum for grades 7-9. Another pro-chastity program, Facing Reality, was produced for high schoolers, along with other texts, parent/teacher guides and audiovisual aids. These right-wing curriculums pushed “abstinence only” based on exaggerated fears of emotional devastation, STDs and death from premarital sex. “There’s no way to have premarital sex without hurting someone,” announced Sex Respect, adding the exaggerated and misleading assertion that HIV can pass through latex condoms and be contracted by kissing. Facing Reality‘s Parent/Teacher Guide characterized as “mythology” the idea that condoms can prevent pregnancy or STDs, and catalogued forty-five separate perils of premarital sex, including “inability to concentrate on school, syphilis, embarrassment, abortion, shotgun wedding…heartbreak, infertility, loneliness, cervical cancer, poverty, loss of self-esteem, loss of reputation, being used, substance abuse, melancholy, loss of faith, possessiveness, diminished ability to communicate” and death. In one video designed for use with Sex Respect, a student asks an instructor, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die,” the instructor replies.

These early-abstinence curriculums were also explicitly religious. Sex Respect urged students to “attend worship services regularly” and suggested that “nature seems to be making a statement about the wisdom of keeping sex within marriage through the current epidemic of STDs and teen pregnancy.” Although the overt religiosity was gradually eliminated because of concerns about the separation of church and state, the second- and third-generation versions of these fear-based programs are now used in many of the classrooms affected by the 1996 abstinence law. (Although national figures are not available, Project Reality reports sales to more than 350 schools in Illinois alone; and Teen-Aid, another producer of abstinence curriculums, boasts of training 300-500 teachers across the country every year.)

During the Reagan years, abstinence-only pedagogy benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal largesse for promotion, curriculum development and pilot projects. As a contributor to Conservative Digest gratefully wrote, the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act “was written expressly for the purpose of diverting money that would otherwise go to Planned Parenthood into groups with traditional values”; if not for “the seed money provided by the federal government, Sex Respect might still be just an idea sitting in a graduate student’s thesis.” (The graduate student in question was Coleen Kelly Mast, Sex Respect‘s author.) Although critics complained of bias in favor of traditional two-parent families and the disparagement of divorced and single-parent families, as well as gay men and lesbians, by the 1990s somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of the nation’s schools were using an abstinence-only curriculum. Some communities engaged in ferocious political battles as newly elected school-board majorities substituted abstinence curriculums for more comprehensive, less ideologically loaded texts. In one 1994 case, a Louisiana court ruled that using Sex Respect and Facing Reality in public schools violated state law proscriptions against the teaching of religious beliefs or medically inaccurate information.

In 1991 SIECUS and its allies responded to the right-wing challenge with a comprehensive set of guidelines for K-12 sexuality education, endorsed by more than 100 professional and advocacy organizations ranging from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to Catholics for a Free Choice. The guidelines (updated in 1996) followed the conventional wisdom among sexuality educators: that sex ed must begin early (as one British author said, if kids are not given basic facts they will construct their own, “often of the mythological variety”). So, for example, elementary school classes would discuss reproduction, masturbation and puberty–well in advance of its arrival. Contraception, gender roles, varieties of sexual behavior and homosexuality would be covered later. Older students would learn, among other things, that most women “need clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm” and that most couples “do not experience simultaneous orgasm during vaginal intercourse.”

The guidelines were certainly comprehensive–but rarely implemented in their entirety. Even among school districts that resisted abstinence-only, typical sex-ed programs lasted just a few weeks and were tucked into physical education classes. As former SIECUS president Debra Haffner acknowledged, even the more liberal ones consisted primarily of “disaster prevention and organ recitals.” Given this fearful approach, it was not surprising that US teen pregnancy rates remained higher than in any other industrialized nation. By the late 1980s, the US rate was about one in ten–six times the rate in the Netherlands–and more than half of those pregnancies resulted in live births. The corresponding teen birthrate for Japan was four per 1,000; for Denmark, 16; for Italy, 23. A 1998 study found that US youngsters scored the lowest of thirteen nations on basic sexual and reproductive knowledge.

The contrast with Continental Europe was striking. Not only did the Scandinavian countries teach comprehensive sex ed, starting in elementary school, but free or low-cost contraceptive services and information were readily available in most of Western Europe. Youngsters received sex information from parents, grandparents, schools, healthcare providers and the media. Massive, long-term, government-funded educational campaigns used television, radio, discos, billboards, pharmacies and clinics to give youngsters explicit portrayals of responsible sexual behavior. Even Britain, with sexual politics almost as fraught as those of the United States, had contraceptive ads on TV in the late 1980s (one showed a young woman insisting that her paramour don his “rubber-johnnies” if he wanted “humpy-pumpy”); and in 1999 the British government sponsored a “Lovelife” website for teens with explicit, nonjudgmental information about condoms and safer sex.

Adolescent pregnancy and birthrates in the United States did decrease slightly by the late 1990s, but they remained by far the highest among industrialized nations. For young women 15-19, the US pregnancy rate was 101 per 1,000 in 1995, down from a peak of 117 in 1990. The teen childbirth rate was 52 per 1,000–thirteen times higher than the Netherlands rate and six times higher than that of France. In a 1998 tally of childbirth rates for young women through age 19, Bangladesh and the Ivory Coast ranked highest, followed by India, Kenya and eight other Third World nations. Next came the United States, with a teen childbirth rate higher than any European country and many non-Western ones as well.

Of course, Europe does not have the severe right-wing opposition to sex- and contraceptive education that besets the United States. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of European life that Italy, overwhelmingly Catholic and home to the Vatican, has the lowest birthrate on the Continent. The United States, by contrast, is sexually schizophrenic: copious information about anatomy, contraception, orgasm, masturbation and oral sex techniques is available to youngsters from mass circulation magazines and educational nonprofits (some of it, like the popular SEX, ETC. newsletter and website, is even written and edited by teens), but government continues to preach abstinence-only and to withhold straightforward sexual information from those youngsters who are least likely to find alternative sources.

Beyond America’s sexual schizophrenia, though, there are structural reasons for our peculiarly obtuse approach to sexuality and youth. The extreme decentralization of public education in the United States not only makes possible but invites local culture-war battles over curriculum, from sex ed to school plays with vulgar words to novels by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. In other nations, curriculum is more centralized and uniform, and disputes over pedagogy are correspondingly muted. Here, sex ed remains a hot political issue rather than a sober matter of public health. As Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has said: “You start out talking about condoms in this country, and you end up fighting about the future of the American family. Teens just end up frozen like a deer in the headlights.”

The irony is that surveys consistently show an overwhelming majority of American parents want public schools to offer comprehensive sex ed, including discussion of contraception, abortion, homosexuality and safer sex. Even the White House Office of National AIDS Policy last year expressed “grave concern” that “there is such a large incentive to adopt unproven abstinence-only approaches.”

As Congressional reauthorization of abstinence education looms, reproductive rights, youth and anticensorship advocates have begun a campaign to draw attention to the deficiencies in Congress’s ideological approach to sexuality education. Participants include Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, Planned Parenthood, the Pro-Choice Resource Center, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), whose concerns center around the First Amendment implications of a law that promotes a narrowly partisan message and suppresses valuable, even lifesaving information. In January NCAC circulated a joint statement of opposition to the abstinence law, for endorsement by other anticensorship groups, while the reproductive rights contingent worked on crafting model legislation, tentatively titled the Family Life Education Act, that would fund comprehensive sexuality education as an alternative to the distortions and omissions of abstinence-only. These groups emphasize, as they have ever since the Sex Respect phenomenon put them on the defensive, that comprehensive sex ed also teaches abstinence, but not to the point of denying reality or depriving kids of health information. As SIECUS’s public policy director, William Smith, says, the proposed act “will at least level the playing field and restore some sanity to the federal investment in sexuality education.”

But the forces of sanity will have an uphill battle. Most legislators are reluctant even to hint that any message other than unmitigated chastity is acceptable for youth. In 1999, without serious opposition, Representative Istook secured $20 million for abstinence pedagogy above and beyond the ’96 funds (these grants will go directly to qualifying projects rather than to the states). He obtained another $30 million for fiscal year 2001. This political landscape is unlikely to change until elected officials are persuaded to focus their energies on developing a sane sexual health policy instead of indulging in the easy pleasures of symbolic rectitude. James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth sums up: “It is a classic case of US politicians putting their agendas before the health and needs of our young people. And it has to stop.”