Fear and Abstinence on Capitol Hill

Joe Sonka

Faced with evidence that abstinence-only programs don't work, what are their proponents doing? Rebranding!

Last Wednesday morning in the Rayburn Congressional Office Building on
Capitol Hill, hundreds of abstinence-only supporters gathered to
prepare for their annual lobby day.
With their programs exposed as failures by independent studies, a
budget crisis, and new leadership in Washington, they know that their
funding is in serious jeopardy.

So, what do you do when faced with this kind of dilemma?


Sitting amongst their crowd Wednesday, the talking point repeatedly
drilled into the young lobbyists’ heads was that their programs aren’t
just about not having sex. Oh, no… they are actually “holistic
approaches” to promote “healthy lifestyle choices."

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Really? Has the social conservative fringe gone New Age on us?

No. No, they haven’t. But in the face of the devastating evidence that
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been a failure with a $1.5
billion price tag, desperation is called for. The order of the day was
to rebrand themselves, while fudging as many facts as they can.

After the morning round of Congressional meetings, The Heritage
Foundation hosted a lunch with speakers, including some House members
and staff. Longtime abstinence-only defender Robert Rector of the
Heritage Foundation spoke, giving the standard false talking points of
the movement.

His most blatant falsehood is that “0%” of comprehensive sex education
programs talk about abstinence. This stems from “research” done by the
Administration of Children and Families under the Bush Administration
in 2007. However, “research” and “science” are not exactly the strong
suit of Rector or Bush, as Rector was off by roughly 100% on this one.

This study was thoroughly debunked by ETR Associates
in 2007, as they found that ACF merely studied curricula by doing word
counts of “abstinence” and “condom.” If they had looked a little deeper
and actually “read the content” of the comprehensive sex education
programs, they would have found that they are full of advise and
strategies on how to delay sexual activity and choose not to have sex,
stressing that this is the safest behavior. The limited use of the word
“abstinence” stems from studies that have shown this word to turn off
students and instead used language that produced better results. Yes,
some programs actually care about “results” more than reinforcing their
own social conservative ideology. And our results are better.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good smear, right?

Another falsehood he pushed was that “0%” of unintended pregnancies
could have been prevented if they had access to or knowledge about
contraceptives. Literally… zero. Why? Because they all wanted to have babies. One might say that he pulled this stat out of his “Rector,” so to speak.

Rector also railed against the liberal media “hiding” the facts from
the public, as they will only share studies done by those non-partisan,
egghead professional scientists pointing out that abstinence-only
programs simply don’t work. Why? Because the media is “controlled by
the promiscuity lobby”. This was a common theme among the speakers,
that the liberal media and MTV are “telling you to have sex” and “think
that pre-marital sex is OK… but it’s not!” The very fact that
television would allow a Trojan condom ad to air that showed men who
don’t wear condoms as pigs, was bemoaned – “is this what has come of
our country? Is this America?” Yes, adults can actually engage in safe
consensual sex… the horror.

Rector and his colleagues dismissing independent studies showing the
failure of abstinence-only education is nothing new. When the damning Mathematica report was released in 2007, Rector let their true colors come out on an Abstinence Clearinghouse conference call to discuss damage control.
He laid out a strategy to spin this report to the media, saying “The
other spin I think is very important is not [program] effectiveness,
but rather the values that are being taught”, further stating that
whether or not these programs work is a “bogus issue."

This lies at both the core of the abstinence-only movement, and their
strategy as they move ahead. “Independent studies” by “non-partisan
scientists” are to be ignored at all cost. Instead, they focus on the
inherent “morality” of their cause, and the “deviant nature” of those
who would dare give young people a comprehensive, realistic,
science-based approach to sex ed. According to Rector:

“abstinence sex ed is in harmony with the human heart. Comprehensive sex ed is not in harmony with the human heart”

And those comprehensive sex ed programs?

“It’s like Hugh Heffner and a school nurse got together and made a plan for your life”

Former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) elaborated, dismissing
the “scientists on the Hill” and saying that “folks at places like
Planned Parenthood demean you for having values!” He revealed
the main force behind these programs by saying that instead of asking
God to bless America, “America should bless God.” Because God hates
condoms, I presume.

Several spoke about the deeply traumatic experience of being taught in
high school health class how to put a banana on a condom (horrors!),
and comprehensive sex education was derided sarcastically for teaching
that “sexuality is a natural part of life."

However much faith that these folks have in their superior “values,”
they at least were bright enough to know that stressing the “results”
of their programs was now a total loser. That’s why everyone made sure
to shift their talking points away from it, repeatedly saying that
their programs are not just about telling young people not to have sex.
No, instead they were now “holistic”. They were really about telling
kids not to smoke, drink, do drugs or fight. So what if their programs
don’t decrease teen births or STI rates, at least they’re telling kids
not to do heroin, right? What, you want to take away our funding and
turn the kids into junkies?

The “holistic” spin is of course laughable, but that didn’t stop them
from trying to frame ab-only as the truly “comprehensive” sex ed. Kisa
Smith of the Heritage Foundation claimed that comprehensive sex ed
“treat kids like animals” and assumes that “they can’t think for
themselves”. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) claimed that the ab-only movement
is “fighting for young people’s rights.”

This is, of course, Orwellian rhetoric. It is the abstinence-only
movement that insults the intelligence of young people, claiming that
they can’t have all of the information they need about safe sex,
because they’ll all go have wild crazy sex if they have it. It is the
abstinence-only movement that is continually trying to deny young
people the right to all of the information they need to protect
themselves. In reality, kids are smart enough to walk and chew gum at
the same time, and if you respect them enough to give all the
information they need, they’ll be much better off.

Following their next round of Congressional visits, they held a concert
of sorts in front of the Russell Senate Building, full of raps and
Christian rock songs about abstinence (including one speaker claiming
that if a girl is not a virgin, she doesn’t deserve to have a nice
engagement ring). As I was enjoying the concert, National Abstinence
Education Association president Valerie Huber saw me and made a bee
line to me. She recognized my face and wanted to tell me that my blogs
are not “fair."

I wasn’t going to mention it, but since she’s throwing darts about
“fairness,” I feel obliged to mention that this is the same Valerie
Huber who was suspended from her position as a supervisor of Ohio’s
Department of Health abstinence-only program after being found guilty of ethics violations.
She attempted to secure a state contract for a company that she was
involved in, and was caught red-handed. So I won’t take any lectures
from her about “fairness,” as I consider exposing the failures of the
abstinence-only movement as totally “fair” to the taxpayers that have
been subsidizing programs like hers’ over the past decade.
Wednesday, the progressive blogosphere and youth sexual health advocates stepped up to the plate and answered our call
to flood Congress with thousands of letters, countering the
abstinence-only lobbyists. It couldn’t hurt to end their work week with
some more, so if you haven’t yet, please send your Congressperson this letter asking them to, at long last, defund these ineffective and harmful abstinence-only programs. We have them scared and on the ropes, so let’s not miss out on this great opportunity.

This post article was first published at Amplify.

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