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.

And we’ve moved depressingly slowly since that time and, in some important respects, even backward: in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Bill, which included Title V funding—an annual $50 million allocated for abstinence-only-until marriage programs—as a rider. Although it was slated to expire June 30, 2009, it was reauthorized in 2010 as a condition of Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Thirty states currently receive Title V funding despite an $8 million Congressionally mandated study stating that abstinence-only programs do not significantly halt, or even delay, sexual activity.

In order to receive the grant, abstinence-only programs are required to teach eight key concepts, among them, that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity” and “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects.” Contraceptives are only discussed in the context of failure rates, and extramarital sex is stigmatized as morally wrong and psychologically damaging.

It is worth repeating that a full one-fourth of all American teenagers receive this type of sexuality education unfettered by any alternative views. 

Even comprehensive sexuality education—curricula that cover and discuss contraception, sexual orientation, and abstinence—can be technically comprehensive while still restricting key information. While contraception is discussed as a method for birth control and disease prevention, abstinence is often stressed as well. Class discussions and projects often show how to resist and avoid sexual encounters rather than how to practice sexual health. 

Making matters worse is the lack of any standardized program monitoring system. Though a state may provide comprehensive sexuality education on paper, what is actually taught in schools depends far more on what material the teachers are comfortable teaching and how much controversy the principal is willing to tolerate. Most teachers are not formally trained in sexuality education, and are hesitant to discuss “controversial” topics out of fear of backlash that could jeopardize their employment.

Many abstinence-only advocates further compromise comprehensive programs by pushing for sex segregation, parental notification and consent, and opt-out policies where students (or their parents) can chose an abstinence-only course instead of other fuller, if still limited, approaches. 

This is not a youth issue. This is not a women’s issue. This is a social issue. It is a war on information, waged against women and teens whose consequences ripple throughout society costing taxpayers through unwanted children, perpetual poverty and a strain on the welfare state. The real tragedy—and whatever hope there is—lies in the fact that, unlike many social issues, this one is immediately preventable.