How Ab-Only Changed My Life: Testifying To Congress

Max Siegel

Max Siegel is 23 years old and has been living with HIV since he was diagnosed at 17. His life was forever changed as a result of abstinence only education, and yesterday he testified at the first ever Congressional oversight hearing on abstinence-only.

This morning, I testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the first-ever hearing on abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education — a flawed policy that has transformed my life.

I testified as a 23-year-old living with HIV who has spent the last six years working to prevent new infections. I wanted to give a face to this $1.5 billion government-funded failure while explaining how the lessons I've learned apply to other young people, who now comprise 15 percent of all new HIV infections.

The hearing coincided with today's release of AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families' policy report, In a Position to Know: Youth and Parents Living with HIV Speak out on Sexuality Education. The report inspired my testimony by providing the first review of what abstinence-only programs mean to people living with HIV. In a Position to Know shared my story, among others.

Let me give you an idea of my testimony:

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I experienced abstinence-only education taught by my junior high school gym teacher. He told me and my male classmates that sex is dangerous and that we should think more seriously about it when we "grow up and marry." He made clear that only heterosexuality ending in marriage should be discussed. Already aware of my sexual orientation, his speech might as well not have happened.

When I was 17, I began seeing someone six years older than me. The first time we had sex, I took out a condom but he ignored it. I did not know how to assert myself further. I knew enough to suggest a condom, but I didn't adequately understand the importance of using one, and even if had I understood that, I had no idea how to discuss condoms with my partner. The abstinence-only message did not prepare me for life, and I contracted HIV from the first person with whom I consented to have unprotected sex.

I was still in high school.

More individuals have this virus now than ever before in history. Most children born with HIV no longer die; they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Within and outside of marriage, these young people must know how to prevent transmission of HIV to their sexual partners and how to protect themselves. Instead, abstinence-only disparages HIV-positive youth by suggesting they are dirty, dying, and unfit for love.

While most abstinence-only programs are more extensive than the class I experienced, they rely on similarly exclusive and stigmatizing messages that lack basic information about sexual health. What I experienced is a routine example of the messages of abstinence-only that children across still experience today. These programs ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are at high risk for HIV, and use government dollars to condemn them. They also compromise young women's safety by portraying sexually active females as scarred and untrustworthy. From a healthcare perspective, it's essential that scrutiny of these programs focuses on the consequences of abstinence-only's condemnation of young people.

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