When In Texas: Just Say I Don’t Know

Frederick Clarkson

A new report presents the cruel hard truth: Texas is the largest recipient of federal funds for abstinence only programs while turning out young people with one of the highest rates of sexual risk taking behaviors, teen birth and pregnancy rates.

The official seal of Texas features six flags to signify six national identities Texans have known. But a report just issued by the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund suggests that a seventh flag may need to be added.  They call Texas the "flagship state for the abstinence movement."  But of course identity has consequences and the study Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools reveals a flag of ignorance flapping smartly in the breeze over the state legislature that has made abstinence only the "preferred" method of teaching about human sexuality since 1995. 

Noting that Texas has among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, the study also reports that the state spends "approximately $1 billion annually for the costs of teen childbearing." What’s more, the report underscores authoritative data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found "young Texans to be "well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors" and that this may be "one of the most pressing public health issues facing our state."

"Our classrooms are perpetuating a conspiracy of silence that robs young people of the reliable information they need to make responsible life decisions, " Dr. David Wiley, a health education professor at Texas State University-San Marcos and one of the co-authors of the report.

Just Say Don’t Know is based on two years of research by Wiley and fellow health education professor Dr. Kelly Wilson which they describe as "the first, specific, in-depth examination of what is happening in classrooms, beyond the boardrooms where policy is established and companies where textbooks are developed."  Their analysis is based on tens of thousands of pages of documents, curriculum materials, and district policies from nearly all of the state’s more than 1,000 public school districts.

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"We can now say with certainty the following about the state of sexuality education in this state," the authors declared.  "Abstinence-only programs have a stranglehold on sexuality education in Texas public schools.  An overwhelming majority of Texas school districts – more than 94 percent – do not give students any human sexuality instruction beyond abstinence.  Additionally, just over 2 percent simply ignore sexuality education completely.  What is left is a miniscule 4 percent of Texas school districts that teach any information about responsible pregnancy and STD prevention, including various contraceptive methods."

Wiley and Wilson stated that in their "professional opinion … our schools are failing Texas families by turning out generations of sexually illiterate young people at a time of high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs."

Texas is the single largest recipient of federal funds for "abstinence only" sexuality education programs to the tune of $18 million dollars last year.  Most states reject the funds because under federal rules, abstinence only means abstinence only.  That, plus abstinence only programs don’t work.  But Texas remains "stubbornly committed" to abstinence only approaches.

Some school districts don’t even bother with official abstinence programs and use religiously oriented programs produced by the religious right agency, Focus on the Family, or True Love Waits, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Some Catholic and protestant fundamentalist dominated school districts skip the subject altogether because it would be "too controversial."

Turning a Blind Eye to Crackpot Claims

Unsurprisingly, the study found that "more than 3.7 million Texas students attend school in a district where they will not encounter even the most basic information about how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."  Just Say Don’t Know reveals that the way that Texas schools address sexuality ranges from incompetent to bizarre, but that there is little oversight from the state or from school districts.

For example, one school district utilizes a skit that compares using a condom to committing suicide.  The skit titled "Jumping Off the Bridge" concludes:  "Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads – they may protect you some?"  Knowing that STDs can kill and that there is at least a 30% failure rate is like helping the teen kill them self [sic]. It is a lie to call condoms "safe sex."  If there is a 30% failure rate of condoms against life threatening diseases, then calling them a way to have "safe sex" is like "helping" someone commit suicide by giving them elbow pads to "protect" them or finding them the safest spot from the bridge to jump.’"

Crackpot claims about condoms are perhaps the leading misinformation promoted in many school districts, including long discredited assertions that latex condoms have tiny holes large enough for sperm to travel through, even if the condom is otherwise properly used.

Here are some of what the report says about the state of the programs they evaluated:  alarming," "shockingly poor," "blatant errors of fact mixed with misleading Information," scare tactics and shaming," "outdated gender stereotypes" "unconstitutional religious content."  And they say that the "examples are numerous and widespread."

At the Austin press conference announcing the report, Wilson stated that abstinence-only programs, "often promote restrictive, even sexist gender roles and suggest that flirts are responsible for aggressive male sexual behavior."   In one passage from an abstinence only program, she observed, "women are compared to crock pots that take awhile to get warmed up, while men are like microwaves that are ready to cook at a moment’s notice."

"While this kind of stereotyping may seem mild," she averred, "it should be shocking to learn that abstinence-only programs often suggest – sometimes in not very subtle ways – that it’s the fault of young women if men become too sexually aggressive. One such program used in about a dozen school districts puts it this way:  ‘A girl who shows a lot of skin and dresses seductively fits into one of three categories: One, she’s pretty ignorant when it comes to guys, and she has no clue what she’s doing. Two, she’s teasing her boyfriend which is extremely cruel to the poor guy! And three, she’s giving her boyfriend an open invitation saying, ‘Here I am. Come take me.’"

Texas Sized Problems

When it comes to Texas, size always matters, and it is worth noting that national textbook publishers have resorted to self-censorship to accommodate the Texas market, making Texas everyone’s problem. Just Say Don’t Know reports:

"Seeking to avoid previous political battles over providing information on contraception and disease prevention in health textbooks, publishers simply self-censored the health education textbooks they submitted for the 2004 Texas adoption process.  Consequently, abstinence-only sexuality education is presented as the only option in all the books except one…  used by less than 1 percent of school districts in the state – mentions the word "condom" exactly one time.  Though a single mention of condoms as protection against unintended pregnancy and STDs is a far cry from a comprehensive approach, it does surpass the three other textbooks, which fail to mention the word "condom" or any other form of contraception or method of disease prevention except abstinence from intercourse or other sexual behaviors."

An additional section of the report, authored by Ryan Valentine, deputy director of TFN Foundation, looked at the religious-based curricula, materials and speakers used by many districts and found numerous examples of flagrant and unconstitutional proselytization and religious indoctrination in the public schools under the guise of sexuality education.  He flagged, for example, "an emerging trend" currently in of using materials or speakers from antiabortion "crisis pregnancy centers."  CPCs he explains are "nonprofit organizations that offer counseling to pregnant women intended to persuade them to give birth rather than have an abortion.  Nearly all of these organizations are established by or affiliated with Christian antiabortion groups.  (It should be noted that sound sexuality education neither promotes nor discourages abortion.)"  He reports that 64 school districts currently draw on CPCs for their sexuality education programs.

The report makes a number of recommendations including the rejection of federal abstinence only funds; increased oversight of sexuality education curricula, and insistence on using excellent materials from reputable sources.   But it also suggests that improvements will not be easy, noting that in addition to profound resistance from conservative religious sectors, that the state is home to several leading abstinence promoting agencies, such as the Medical Institute for Sexual health, which was identified as a major source of misinformation finding its way into public school curricula on sexuality education.

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