Saying Goodbye to Ab-Only? Don’t Forget to Say Hello to Comprehensive Sex Ed

Amanda Marcotte

In a new administration, the real danger might not be that abstinence-only continues, but that it fails and nothing comprehensive replaces it.

The process
of writing obituaries for the fundamentalist brain child that has plagued
the nation for the past 8 years, known as "abstinence-only education," has already begun. 
Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only fails at its purported public health
claims (though I suppose it succeeds amply at its unspoken aim of making
anti-choicers feel like their religious views are the official state
views). Just as importantly, abstinence-only has become a national
joke.  How could it not?  A bunch of dour scolds telling teenagers
to wait 10 or 15 years to have sex when they’re married makes as much
sense in an era when 95% of Americans have had premarital sex as square
dancing lessons.  In a nation with the highest rates of teen pregnancy
in the developed world, the people have come around to believing we
need something more than shaking a finger in the face of eye-rolling

But what happens next? 

According to Newsweek, the writing’s on the wall for abstinence-only,
no matter who wins the election.  Both candidates have endorsed
the idea of contraception education in schools to various degrees, but
even if they hadn’t, the fact that the states are refusing federal abstinence-only
funds means the program might just die from lack of use.  Are we
looking at an inevitably brighter future in sex education?  Activists
who do this work day to day vehemently caution comprehensive sex ed
supporters not to grow complacent. VIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-OnlyVIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-Only

"It is far from the end game," says Bill Smith, the Vice President
of Public Policy at SIECUS, but "we are capitalizing on this momentum and using it to advance comprehensive
sex education. Specifically in Washington, it is SIECUS’ top priority
to establish the first-ever federal funding dedicated to comprehensive
sex education and our state work is similarly focused." 

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James Wagoner, the President
of Advocates For Youth, concurs, pointing out recent public opinion
victories (most recently, the McCain campaign’s failure at using comprehensive
sex education to scare the public), but notes that even if abstinence-only
funding is cut, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see the funding
moved into comprehensive sex education.  Banking on a Democratic
Congress might be a mistake, he argues, pointing out that past resistance
from some House Democrats has to be overcome to achieve the comprehensive
sex education goals.   

Indeed, the real danger might
not be that abstinence-only continues, but that it fails and nothing
comprehensive would replace it, which Wagoner points out would do nothing
to change our high teenager pregnancy and STD rates.  So how should
sexual and reproductive health activists capitalize on the momentum and push for
a genuine, evidence-based, reality-oriented federal comprehensive sex
education program that might have a real effect on public health outcomes? 

We need to argue from a position
of strong values.  Right now, there’s a myth that anti-choicers
are the only ones who have values, and the mainstream media clings to
this myth even in the face of self-evident silliness.  This Newsweek
article is a good example: 

But spend time among the
folks of east Texas, folks you’ll find at the stadium on Friday night
and the sanctuary on Sunday morning, and you start to understand why
groups like Virginity Rules will not go quietly. This isn’t really about
sex. In the eyes of supporters, teaching abstinence to teenagers amounts
to teaching marriage to future adults. 

Teaching marriage?  I
live in Texas and can assure you that we don’t have a plague of teenagers
who are unaware of the existence of marriage, so I fail to understand
how you "teach" it. Presumably, reporter Laura Beil means teaching
young people to value marriage or to have good marriages.  In fact,
Beil seems to think that comprehensive sex education ignores marriage,
relationships, and values altogether.

The vast majority of public-health
experts, however, seldom discuss sex education and marriage in the same
sentence. They gauge success by pregnancies prevented, infections not contracted,
and kids who enter adulthood with a healthy view of sexuality. The public-health
community views a wait-until-marriage message as blind to the world
most teens inhabit.

It’s true that public health
advocates do tend to hold the very mainstream opinion that marrying
very young before you’ve seen much of the world isn’t a smart thing
to teach kids, but not because we’re cold, clinical people obsessed
with science over values, as Beil implies. (Even though it’s a statistical
reality that the younger you marry, the likelier you are to divorce.)
As Wagoner explains, comprehensive sex education is about teaching kids
about responsibility and conducting sexual relationships in healthy
ways, which is hardly anti-marriage.  "Good, solid, healthy relationships
are the foundation of good, healthy marriages," he argues.   

Not only do comprehensive sex
education proponents value responsibility and healthy relationships,
I’d add, but we also value maturity.  As the Newsweek article
demonstrates, abstinence-only proponents argue the best marriages are
made when the participants have the least amount experience and knowledge
about maintaining sexual relationships, a belief rooted firmly not in
the world of adults, but in children’s stories. 

    [The beauty queens] were,
    each one, card-carrying virgins, declaring, "We Are Waiting for
    Our Prince Charming." 

In that, you really see the
difference in worldviews.  Abstinence-only is about telling teenage
girls to hold out for a character that only exists in fiction. 
Comprehensive sex education is about understanding that people have
relationships in the real world, and those relationships shouldn’t
be devalued because they aren’t in storybooks or animated by Disney.

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