Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: The Candidates on Sex Ed, In Their Own Words

Sarah Seltzer

Comprehensive sex ed has become one of the most winnable reproductive health issues, for Democrats and pro-choice Republicans alike. Where do the candidates stand on sexuality education?

Recently, the troubling issues
surrounding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — like that they don’t work — have started getting some public
attention. This newfound spotlight on sex-ed (or the lack thereof) has
come from discouraging sources, whether it was cries of hypocrisy spurred
by Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, or a recent rise in teen STIs and teen
pregnancy after years of decline.  

But attention is attention,
and the 2008 election is a great chance to re-examine what kind of sex
ed Americans want for their kids. Here are some of the different bullet-points
being batted back and forth in the debate, and where the candidates
stand on them in their own words. 

I’ll tell you when you’re
older: The facts when age-appropriate

Democratic candidate Barack
Obama has made it clear that in his mind, comprehensive sex ed is the
pragmatic approach, and should begin before kids begin experimenting
sexually – even while valuing the belief that young people should hold
off on sexual activity. At an appearance in the summer of 2007, ABC reported Obama as saying: 

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    "Keep in mind: I honor
    and respect young people who choose to delay sexual activity. I’ve
    got two daughters, and I want them to understand that sex is not something
    casual. That’s something that we definitely want to communicate and
    should be part of any curriculum. But we also know that when the statistics
    tell us that nearly half of 15 to 19 year olds are engaging in sexual
    activity, that for us to leave them in ignorance is potentially consigning
    them to illness, pregnancy, poverty, and in some cases, death." 

Age-appropriate sex-ed means
increasing kids’ knowledge as they get older, starting from how to
recognize inappropriate touching in grade school, and building up towards
explaining puberty, relationship dynamics, and eventually, contraception
and protection against STDs when those topics become pertinent to students’

Obama was a supporter of age-appropriate
legislation in Illinois, which made him the target
of ads from his opponents’ campaign
The misleading ads implied that Obama wanted to teach kindergarteners
about sex, when in fact the program he sponsored stipulated age-appropriate
education: that at this early age, they learn how to recognize sexual abuse

Marched towards the altar:
Promoting heterosexual marriage and gender-norms.

One of the complaints against
abstinence-only education is that it doesn’t allow for alternate sexualities.
In June 2007, Republican candidate John McCain and other Republican
legislators signed a letter addressed to the heads of the Senate
Finance Committee, expressing their wholehearted backing of the Title
V abstinence-only program. This program doles out funds to the states
for education programs that specifically leave out information about
birth control. It’s a $50 million dollar juggernaut, as the legislators
noted in their letter, which included the following line:  

    "… saving sex until
    marriage and remaining faithful afterwards is the best choice for health
    and happiness." 

Of course, this leaves out
those who don’t fall into heterosexual partnerships and those teens
who have already begun to be sexually active. 

A related critique of abstinence-only programs is about their use of gender norms and "shaming" — such as the
infamous "tape/candy" exercises where women are told
that once they have been sexually active, they’re as desirable as
chewed candy or used-up tape. Obama linked this shaming aspect with
the importance of medical accuracy: 

    "I’m going to teach [my
    daughters] first of all about values and morals, but if they make a
    mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. I don’t want them punished
    with an STD at the age of 16."

While this comment garnered
some heat, it showed his understanding of the gendered-double standard-and
the undue burden on women to be the sexual gatekeepers that is part
of the abstinence-only worldview. 

Look it up: Medically accurate

Barack Obama is one of several
secondary-sponsors of a bill now up for consideration, the "Prevention First
" which is
a comprehensive family planning umbrella bill with a number of subsidiary
goals, from rape victim assistance to emergency contraception (his running-mate
Joe Biden is also a sponsor).  The Prevention First Act states

    "Any information concerning
    the use of a contraceptive provided through any federally funded sex
    education, family life education, abstinence education, comprehensive
    health education, or character education program shall be medically
    accurate and shall include health benefits and failure rates relating
    to the use of such contraceptive." 

Among Prevention First’s
daughter bills is the REAL (Real Education About Life) Act, which
includes several stipulations that those programs be truthful about the
advantages and risk of each kind of contraception. 

Obama also proudly notes his
position on his campaign website, and uses his sponsorship of 
"Prevention First" as an example of what he would do to promote
women’s reproductive health. 

On the other hand, McCain’s
stance on medically accurate information is unclear, since he famously
hemmed and hawed over a question by a reporter that touched on the fundamental
science that would be taught to students in a sex ed program. As Cristina
Page and others reported, this exchange with a reporter took
place on McCain’s campaign bus. Here is a partial transcript: 

    Q: "What about grants
    for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions
    about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is
    just abstinence?" 

    Mr. McCain: (Long pause)
    "Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy." 

    Q: "So no contraception,
    no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives
    help stop the spread of HIV?" 

    Mr. McCain: (Long pause)
    "You’ve stumped me."


    Q: "But you would
    agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
    Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?" 

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second
pause) …. I’ve never gotten into these issues before." 

Abstinence-Only on the wane 

A search of McCain’s campaign
website for the terms "sex education" and even "sex" yielded
zero results. But the Republican platform calls for a replacement of all family
planning programs for teens with abstinence-only programs. 

In fact, states are now trending
towards rejecting federal funds for abstinence-only,
due to the growing belief that those programs do not work effectively

Sex education has become one
of the reproductive health issues that is most winnable for the reproductive justice crowd, be it Democrats or pro-choice Republicans. Obama and
his allies have an opening to hammer home the importance of truthful
education for teens at an appropriate age, and they might actually score
some points in the "culture wars."

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