Abstaining from the Truth: Sex Education as Ideology

Pam Chamberlain

Sexuality education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield is public education.

Editor’s Note: As has
already become painfully clear,  President Obama is neither perfect nor the unfailingly
faithful advocate for women’s rights that reproductive and sexual health advocates have hoped
for.  Although he did fulfill his
promise to overturn the Global Gag Rule, when Republicans complained, Obama removed a minor family planning stipulation in the recent stimulus bill without
a word of protest. So despite the fact that during his campaign he was clear that he "firmly oppose(d)
federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs," it is unclear to
what extent he will make good on his promises. Indeed, the 2009 Congressional budget reduces, but nowhere near eliminates, federal spending on abstinence-only programs. If Obama does step in to end the
funding, however, he will be stepping into a raging debate  over sexuality education that is already
being played out across the country. Pam Chamberlain reports on the new "minefield in public education."

The Osseo Public School District is in most ways a typical Minnesota
suburban system: three high schools, scores of athletic teams, and a
graduation rate of 94 percent. But for the past ten years, it has run a
dual-track curriculum in sexuality education. Students can choose
between an abstinence-only health class and a comprehensive sexuality
education class-the result of a prolonged, and expensive, debate among
community members of the district’s human sexuality curriculum advisory

While ending in a "compromise" of
maintaining two separate classes that cost over $100,000 for abstinence
textbooks and curriculum planning, the debate resulted in a school
board decision that defined sex as something that happens between a
husband and wife. The split in Osseo is emblematic of the national
stand-off on how the subject should be taught.

education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield
is public education. It is no coincidence that the struggle happens in
schools. Public education has long been recognized as a major tool in
imparting more or less universally accepted societal values such as
hard work and civic engagement, but it also sparks debates over the
value of competition, individualism, and unquestioned patriotism.
Because schools define what knowledge is useful for the populace, the
arena of schools is the locale for "ideological management," according
to educational philosopher Joel Spring.

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over what should be taught and who gets to learn it are as old as
public schools. Teaching the German language was prohibited in schools
during World War I. Conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler were
famous for five decades beginning in the 1960s as their homegrown
Education Research Analysts group deeply influenced the content of
Texas textbooks. Controversy over the constitutionality of school
prayer was heightened in the 1950s and early ’60s as proponents sought
to protect the country from godless communism. Recent debates over
evolution, bilingual education, the celebration of multiculturalism,
the teaching of Arabic, and LGBT rights all reflect controversies about
appropriate topics, activities, and services in public schools.

the emergence of HIV/AIDS, concerns about teen pregnancy, and sexually
transmitted infections (STIs), health and family life education classes
have been scrutinized by forces wanting to insert their perspectives
into the curriculum. The battle over sexuality education has settled
into two polarized camps, much like Osseo’s classes. Sexuality
education is just one link in a long line of power struggles over who
determines what is taught; the opposing frames in this case are public
health and conservative values.

There is widespread agreement that teaching adolescents, especially
younger teens, to postpone sexual intercourse is a good idea, but what
that teaching entails is controversial. Abstinence-only education
advises students to abstain from all pre- or extra-marital sex and
deliberately omits factual information on such topics as contraception,
abortion, and homosexuality. A favorite theme is the unreliability, and
resulting danger, of condoms. Comprehensive sexuality education, on the
other hand, includes education on abstinence but emphasizes that if a
person is sexually active, they need knowledge and skills about a wide
range of topics, including contraception and abortion, to make informed
decisions and stay healthy. Many abstinence-only education supporters
occasionally call their approach “abstinence-until-marriage” education
and brand comprehensive sexuality education as “condom-based” or

Although there is scant evidence
showing the effectiveness of abstinence-only education over time, the
federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on the strategy. This
sum supports three annual multi-million-dollar federal grant programs,
grantees, and a lobbying infrastructure that works hard on Capitol
Hill. Although a majority of states refuse to accept what has come to
be called “abstinence-only money” and have opted out of the state-based
grant program, this development has apparently only served to stir the
resolve of abstinence-only supporters and their backlash campaigns.

to the demands of abstinence-only lobbyists, the federal government
enacted its own eight-point definition of abstinence education which
mandates the design for all federally funded abstinence-only programs.
One point defines abstinence as a program that “teaches abstinence from
sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all
school age children.” Yet in an era when 95 percent of Americans
engage in pre-marital sex, promoting abstinence as an educational goal
seems unrealistic. Further, abstinence-only ideology ignores the
reality of LGBT sexuality, including the estimated three-to-five
percent of high schools students who identify as lesbian, gay, or
bisexual. Materials advance gender stereotypes of men’s rampant,
uncontrollable sex drive, which purportedly must be kept in check by
women’s’s adherence to their natural chastity and purity. A disturbing
amount of “blame the victim” mentality appears in abstinence-only
curricula, which relieves men of the responsibility for acting upon
their “natural urges,” even violently, and puts the onus on women and
girls to “wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.”

abstinence education supporters are on a mission to reduce sexual
activity not only for school-aged students but for unmarried adults as
well. In 2006, they successfully lobbied to extend the target age range
of funded programs beyond adolescents to age 29. In hearing the news of
the revised guidelines, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for
Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports comprehensive
sexuality education, said,

stepped over the line of common sense….To be preaching abstinence
when 90 percent of people are having sex is in essence to lose touch
with reality. It’s an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with
public health.

Why Do They Think That Way?

spokespeople for abstinence-only education represent a core
constituency that sees sexuality through a very conservative religious
lens. Reacting against what they see as the degradation of culture by
modern values, conservative Protestant evangelicals seek the
codification of strictly traditional values as they read them in
scripture. To these fundamentalists, a literal reading of the Bible is
sufficient to learn how to act responsibly in all areas of life.

are joined by conservative Roman Catholics in the belief that sexual
behavior is defined as fidelity in heterosexual marriage, and any
veering from that path is considered sinful. Such sin results in the
ultimate punishment, separating the believer from God, or damnation. So
for fundamentalist Protestants, it is not only necessary to avoid such
a fate oneself; preventing others, especially children, from committing
sexual sins is an act of compassion and responsibility that will save
them, too, from eternal hell. This is for them the essence of
evangelizing the Good News. Hence the belief that it is not only
acceptable, but necessary, to set standards in public education that
conform to these beliefs. Add to this the idea that parents have a
special obligation to protect their own children from eternal harm, and
you have a style that is recognizable in its stridency and

These fundamentalists and
others who are mobilized to political action, the Christian Right, are
about 15 percent of voting public. This group of Christians wields
greater power than its size might suggest. It can make or break
elections in certain key districts by getting out the vote. But in the
case of abstinence-only education, strategists have made certain key
choices that have extended the appeal of their message far beyond their

Abstinence-only framers talk in coded language that appeals to their
conservative base plus resonates with a wider swath of evangelical
Christians. When churches sponsor an alternative to the school prom
called the “Purity Ball,” they can trigger a reaction to how American
culture has sexualized the rituals of adolescence. Social conservatives
who are uncomfortable with the fast pace of modern life can be
attracted to the concept. A spokesperson recommending True Love Waits,
the Southern Baptist Convention’s abstinence education program, reminds
parents, “The world is coming after our middle schoolers like never
before. As parents we must equip them to become lights in a dark
world.”  A real coup is getting the President to use coded words like
“culture of life” and references to abstinence in the same sentence, as
Bush did in 2007, speaking before the Southern Baptist Convention:

believe building a culture of life in our country also means promoting
adoption and teaching teen abstinence, funding crisis pregnancy
programs and supporting the work of faith-based groups.

approach to sexuality education can have appeal among an even larger
group of people, those who may base their political opinions on
nonreligious principles. They might harbor a mild distrust of how
government spends their money. After all, public education is the
largest program financed mainly by local taxation. They may be
disappointed with reports about the state of public schools and the
lackluster results of the latest federal push for educational reform,
the No Child Left Behind Act. And they would be persuaded by secular
arguments based on reason and scientific evidence of the need to
intervene in a public health crisis such as high rates of teen
pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-only education
advocates have deployed this scientific sounding approach for over
twenty years.

Borrowing a Public Health Frame

the fact that abstinence-only education is rooted in con servative
religious principles, many of the arguments abstinence-only educators
use with the general public are secular ones that appear to use logic
and scientific principles. Mary Beth Bonacci, chastity educator and
founder of an abstinence promotion website Real Love Incorporated,
refers to a flawed study by Dr. Susan Weller rejected by the Department
of Health and Human Services in 1993 when she states,

AMA Journal did a study using condoms—30 percent failure rate in
preventing AIDS transmission. You’d say, “70 percent were safe, that’s
not bad.” But is it safe when death is the option? Would you fly an
airline that had only a 30 percent failure rate?

the Best is a set of abstinence education curricula for grades seven
through twelve that meets federal guidelines for abstinence-only
funding. Choosing the Best PATH, for grade seven, also focuses on
alleged condom unreliability:

who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate
of about 15 percent in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a
period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of
getting pregnant with condoms used as birth control.

Of course the “failure” rate is due to inconsistent condom use, a
common result of inadequate training, rather than to the average two
percent condom breakage rate. In addition, the statement calculates
probability incorrectly, resulting in a highly misleading—but
scientific sounding— message.

Some programs
use fear to motivate students to promote abstinence. A middle school
student handbook from the FACTS program reads:

are always risks associated with it [premarital sex], even dangerous,
life-threatening risks such as HIV/AIDS. Using contraceptives does not
change this for teenagers.

sexuality education has successfully used the public health approach,
which defines a health problem, identifies risk, and designs
interventions based on the science of epidemiology. Since
abstinence-only education often attempts to hide its ideological
perspective, abstinence-only spokespeople will co-opt public health
vocabulary in their rebuttals in order to sound “scientific.” In
answering the question, “Is Choosing the Best medically accurate?” its
promotional materials state,

the Best curricula contain facts gathered from the most reliable and
current sources of information available, such as peer-reviewed,
published journals and government agency publications.

Medical Institute for Sexual Health tries to legitimize the
abstinence-only message in a medical framework. This organization was
founded in 1992 by Joe McIlhaney, a gynecologist and social
conservative who jumped on the early (and since disproven) test
results that condoms do not protect against HPV, human papillomavirus.
A section of its website on HPV includes minimally accurate medical
information but adds an abstinence message:

Am I safe if I always use a condom?
If you always use condoms for vaginal sex, you can cut your chance of
getting HPV by about half. [Actually, it’s about a 70 percent reduction
in risk compared to non-condom users. (author)] To date, there is no
evidence that condoms reduce your chance of getting HPV during oral or
anal sex.

What can I do to avoid getting infected?
Avoid sexual activity if you are single. Be faithful to one uninfected
partner for the rest of your life. Already had sex? See a doctor and
get checked out.

with other Christian Right campaigns, abstinence-only educators repeat
unsubstantiated or misleading claims until they not only become a
substitute for reality for the speakers but are accepted as facts by
their audience. For instance, the condom industry and the government
use scientific testing such as inflating and stretching condoms until
they break. Those who oppose condom use on the grounds it would
encourage sexual activity and act as a contraceptive argue that condoms
are not reliable, using these tests or altered statistics as evidence.
For over twenty years, abstinence-only educators have repeated the
misleading claims that condoms are undependable, refining the basic
message to respond to counter arguments from scientists and proponents
of condom use. If sex can’t be “safe,” it must be dangerous, goes the

The Measure of Success

of abstinence-only education would like to tout their success using the
same methods that other public health prevention programs do, and they
have tried their best to do so by promoting their own studies. But
public health researchers have disputed the claims made in support of
abstinence-only programs. Those claims of success have been generated
mostly by a single evaluation company, The Institute for Research and
Evaluation, run by Stan Weed, a Mormon researcher, out of his home.
Weed has over 20 years experience working with faith-based
interventions and abstinence education and has evaluated over 100
abstinence-only programs in thirty states. He is the major scholarly
defender of abstinence-only education, so it is important to note that
critics such as William Smith of the Sexuality Information and
Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have already debunked
his studies:

Stan Weed…
interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100
abstinence-only programs. Okay, it sounds impressive… until you learn
that Weed has just one peer reviewed and published study in a refereed
journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have a
modest impact among seventh graders in delaying sex.

Weed’s findings, a federally sponsored multiyear evaluation by
Mathematica Policy Research demonstrated that abstinence-only programs
did not have an effect on sexual abstinence of youth. Comprehensive
sexuality education advocates see this report, released in April 2007,
as a vindication of their efforts.

The scientific studies have not stopped the wave. Abstinence
education is a tool of ideological management that is now well
established in American culture and social policy. We can identify
those elements that have helped to institutionalize the campaign. What
began as isolated projects by individuals in the 1980s has grown into
an elaborate network of people, places, and paraphernalia. Over 900
federally funded programs now exist, generating new and revised
curricula, videos, and training materials, as well as supporting
instructors, administrators and the organizations to house them.

federally funded infrastructure includes parachurch ministries like
Focus on the Family, crisis pregnancy centers, advocacy organizations
like the Abstinence Clearinghouse, technical assistance centers for
dealing with federal grants, and even a trade organization with a
lobbying presence in Washington, the National Abstinence Education
Association. While the level of federal funding for abstinence
education has not reached that of another school-based prevention
program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education or DARE, which hit the $1
billion per year mark in 2001, it has come a long way toward being

Federal funding for
abstinence programs began with the passage of the American Family Life
Act (AFLA) in 1981 granting a modest $4 million for “chastity” programs
for teens, a response to family planning efforts to prevent teen
pregnancies. With annual increases since 1997 and the establishment of
two other grants programs, including sizable sums for community-based
programs ($113 million in 2007), federal funding has totaled over $1.5
billion, financing a well-heeled abstinence education industry.
Without this support, abstinence-only programs would not be as commonly
used as they are today (in about 25 percent of schools, according to
their supporters).

A Small Circle of Friends

The use of abstinence education has indeed increased over the past 25
years, not only as a direct consequence of federal funding but due also
to friends in high places. When George W. Bush was running for
President in 1999, he stated, “My administration will elevate
abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal.” He and
others in Congress and in federal government positions have made good
on that promise.

In 2007, The Nation ran an
exposé of a small circle of friends and their sizable harvest of
federal dollars through the abstinence-only funding streams at the
federal level. In it, author Michael Reynolds chronicles how a
single abstinence advocate, Raymond Ruddy, has spent millions of
dollars supporting his favorite abstinence-only programs, crisis
pregnancy centers, and other parachurch ministries, while
simultaneously lobbying Washington to increase its flow of federal
dollars to these same groups. His colleagues include Wade Horn, the
influential marriage promotion advocate with the National Fatherhood
Initiative and the Department of Health and Human Services. Their
appointments in both the federal government and organizations close to
Ruddy help keep what Reynolds calls the “faith-based feeding trough.”

recipient of AFLA funds has been the Best Friends Foundation, a
character and abstinence education program founded in 1987 by Elayne
Bennett, wife of William Bennett,
who was Secretary of Education at the time. Ms. Bennett’s success in
fundraising in both the private and public domains is evidenced by Best
Friends’ ability to continue to raise over $1 million a year in
government grants and private help from individuals and the
conservative Richard DeVos, William Simon, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations.
The founder of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, Joe McIlhaney,
Jr., an evangelical gynecologist and board member of Best Friends, was
appointed to key posts with the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention as advisor to the Director and a member of the President’s
Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. The Institute received $250,000 as a
special federal earmark grant in 2004 for its abstinence education

What Next?

education will remain force, no matter what level of funding its
programs receive because there are enough anxious parents, monied
investors, and conservative evangelicals to continue to make grassroots
demands on the schools. But support for abstinence-only programs will
continue to be a viable political campaign only if its followers
continue to be mobilized, and there are plenty of reasons why
conservative strategists might want to do so.

tend to be more than single-issue voters, and clusters of followers are
also anti-abortion, pro-marriage, or anti-gay, making them potentially
responsive to one or more of these culture war issues. Socially
conservative organizing is alive and well around these issues, with
groups like the Family Research Council, the American Family
Association, and other energetic faith-based organizations maintaining
their influence and energizing their base.

In a recent move, The National Abstinence Education Association
launched a new“parents” initiative, Parents For Truth, with a $1
million campaign in June 2008. It is the trade association’s public
service announcement and signature-gathering campaign to discredit
comprehensive sexuality education. Misusing information from an
HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum about the relative risk of various
behaviors for HIV transmission, designed for African American males
12-16, the group’s first video depicts a suburban mother of what looks
to be a ten-year-old girl horrified at the content of her daughter’s
health class.

Finally, the policymaking
infrastructure is in place. Members of the Pro-Life Caucus in Congress
remain powerful enough to influence their Democratic colleagues on key
legislative votes, even to influence liberals to support programs they
disagree with. Abstinence-only’s infrastructure was further
strengthened when curriculum designer and executive director of the
Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Scott Phelps, founded a D.C.
lobbying group and trade association, the National Abstinence Education
Association in 2006 with Valerie Huber as its Executive Director. This
group has become the centralized voice of abstinence-only education:
state-level coalitions of community-based groups, most of which are
crisis pregnancy centers with abstinence-only programs, feed into the
national organization and depend upon it for marketing the message of

On the other side, groups like
the 140- member National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education and
its leadership at SIECUS have worked hard for years to counter the
misleading claims of abstinence-only spokespeople, and their
levelheaded influence must be acknowledged.

in opposition to pro-abstinence education lobbyists, Rep. Barbara Lee
(D- CA), Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
have sponsored the Responsible Education for Life Act (REAL), which is
intended to counter the Bush administration’s success in establishing
abstinence-only education as the only federally sanctioned sexuality
education. This would reflect the results of a 2004 poll that showed
parents supporting comprehensive sexuality education, including 94
percent supporting teaching about contraception and pregnancy
prevention. Hopes for passage of this bill remain high, although the
current legislation has gone nowhere since March of 2007.

members of Congress, like the California Democrat Henry Waxman, have
been leaders in criticizing federal support for abstinence-only
education, and the first Congressional hearing on federal funding for
such programs took place in April 2008. Abstinence advocate Stan Weed
was the only witness identified by the Republican minority to defend
the science of abstinence-only education. His testimony focused not on
the success of abstinence-only programs but on the methodological
limitations of evaluations of comprehensive sexuality education
curricula. When he was accompanied by a lobbyist, Valerie Huber from
the National Abstinence Education Association, rather than another
researcher, he looked especially vulnerable.

with a counteroffensive from a Democratic Congress, the campaign faces
a loss of its federal leaders. Wade Horn, former assistant secretary at
the federal Department of Health and Human Services, best known as the
Bush administration’s architect of marriage promotion as a solution to
poverty, was the administration’s chief supporter of abstinence-only
education. He now works in the private sector for Deloitte.

In 2005, Karl Rove
brought to HHS a fierce welfare reformer and anti-abortion and
pro-abstinence official, Claude Allen, who targeted comprehensive
sexuality education groups and arranged for Advocates for Youth, a
premier progressive sexuality education organization, to be audited
multiple times. Allen lasted just over a year, before being arrested
for theft related to a petty fake refund scam of retailers.

Unruh, head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, was a teen mother herself
and the founder of Alpha crisis pregnancy center in South Dakota. She
spearheaded the 2006 campaign to ban all abortions in that state.
However, according to William Smith, her shrill TV presence may have
made her a liability for the abstinence-only cause.

these promising changes at the national level, abstinence-only
education continues to be powered through strong support at the state
level from state and local politicians, and abstinence-only coalitions
marketing their perspective to parents and school personnel. Liberal
strategies promoting state versions of the REAL Act, supporting
well-informed, responsible teens through comprehensive sexuality
education, are thus as vital as vigilance in the nation’s Capitol.

a conservative campaign on the defensive is not the same as a decisive
victory over it. Every tactic used to support comprehensive sexuality
education has so far been met with corresponding counter-tactics.
Winning a battle in the culture wars takes more energy and resources
than merely being in the right.

This piece first appeared in the Public Eye, the web magazine of Political Research Associates. You can find a fully annotated version at the Political Research Associates website.


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