Eight Months On, HHS Still Peddles Abstinence-Only

Brady Swenson

The department of Health and Human Services is running a new TV commercial that tells parents "you don't have to tell (your children) about 'the parts'... just tell (them) to wait."

No, that’s not Leslee Unruh or the National Abstinence Education Association.

It’s the Obama Administration.

Here’s the new tv ad from 4parents.gov, run by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services:

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So , let’s see, you’ve been in office 8 months now, right Barack? And this is what we’re still peddling?

It gets worse at their website. Here’s what they have to say about marriage:

This Web site talks a lot about marriage, and that waiting until
marriage is a sensible choice for your son or daughter to make when it
comes to sex. But what’s so valuable about marriage? Why is marriage
any different, or any better than other family situations?

First of all, let’s be clear on one important point. In general,
children – and adults – do better in homes headed by a married mother
and father.


What are the benefits married people enjoy?

  • Live longer.
  • Have better physical and emotional health.
  • Are happier.
  • Earn more.
  • Enjoy better sex lives.

That’s right, folks. Tell your kids they better get
hitched to their heterosexual partner, or else you’ll never have great
sex and you’ll die young, poor and unhappy. And whatever you do, don’t
talk about "the parts"…

Your tax dollars (still) at work…


Commentary Sexuality

Busywork to Keep Teens From ‘Getting Busy’: High School Students Asked to Sign an Abstinence Contract

Martha Kempner

One Utah program makes students choose to promise to uphold several flawed statements on abstinence. I would love to believe that the students would be brave enough to challenge what’s written on the page, but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don't make sense.

A picture of an abstinence-only-until-marriage workbook distributed in a Utah high school is making the rounds on social media, thanks to PopSugar. As the apparent homework for students on Day 12 of a so-called sex education program, the assignment asked them to choose their top five (or more) reasons to remain abstinent out of a list of 28. Students were then told to write those reasons neatly on the next page and sign it as a “contract.”

There are many reasons that I hate this activity, including how closely it resembles virginity pledges—which, though they don’t often go through the same trouble of outlining reasons for abstinence, we all know don’t work. Research has shown that 88 percent of young people who take those pledges end up having sex before their wedding night. And worse, according to those studies, once pledgers become sexually active, they are one-third less likely to use contraception than their non-pledging peers.

What upsets me the most, however, is the degree to which young people are supposed to accept the premise of the 28 so-called justifications for abstinence without question. If they were allowed to think critically about what they are being asked to sign, they might notice that the statements are based on the assumption that all premarital relationships are unhealthy, morally wrong, and overwhelmingly likely to lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unintended pregnancy. The statements are also based on the flawed idea that abstinence until marriage would be the only way to fulfill the promises they’re putting in the contract.

I would love to believe that the students in these classes would be brave enough to challenge much of what’s written on the page but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don’t make sense. Maybe my arguments can help other kids faced with homework like this challenge assumptions or, even better, help adults realize why this kind of program does not meet the needs of students.

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#1. I refuse to use others for my physical needs.
#2. I refuse to be used by someone else to satisfy his/her physical needs.
I suppose we can give the authors credit for acknowledging that teens have physical needs, but they lose those points for assuming that all teenage sexual relationships involve using each other purely for physical intimacy. Sure, some teens enter into unhealthy relationships in which one person is being used, but this is true of adults as well. Teens can and do have sexual relationships that are based on mutual love, trust, and respect. And some of these relationships include mutually pleasurable sexual experiences. Instead of assuming such relationships can’t exist, we should be teaching teens what is and isn’t healthy, and why mutual consent and pleasure is important. This understanding is critical even for teens who decide to stay abstinent in high school or until they get married, because they’ll need it in adult relationships as well.

#3. I refuse to risk getting pregnant or a girl pregnant.
Awkward phrasing aside, this is a good risk to avoid. But while abstinence is the surest way to ensure that no one gets pregnant, there are other ways to do so. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Yes, some teens use them wrong, but the most common mistake is leaving it in their purse or night table drawer. Teaching teens the importance of consistent condom use could allow them to keep this piece of their promise even if they end up having sex before marriage, which the majority of Americans do. Or, we could teach about (and give them access to) contraceptive implants and IUDs, which are over 99 percent effective without any effort on the part of the user and last for at least three years. These methods are a near-guarantee that teens will keep the promise of avoiding pregnancy whether or not they choose abstinence.

#6. I refuse to live through the trauma of an abortion.
First, we have to question the premise that abortion is traumatic. A recent study of women who’d had abortions found that 95 percent believed they’d made the right decision. Moreover, the most common emotion of the women after their abortion was relief. The study found no evidence that “post-abortion trauma syndrome”—a scare tactic frequently used by crisis pregnancy centers—exists. But #6 is flawed for another reason as well: It assumes, again, that sex before marriage is going to end in pregnancy. As I just discussed, a teen can refuse to live through abortion and can do so by using a highly effective form of birth control.

#12. I refuse to lose my self-respect.
This one really galls me because it goes back to the dichotomy set up by many abstinence-only curricula that says teens who are abstinent are model citizens and teens who have sex lack character, dignity, and self-respect. Abstinence programs have compared teens who have already had sex to things like used tape, to a cup full of spit, a mushed-up Peppermint Patty, chewed pieces of gum, or a rose with no petals. A person’s value is not wrapped up in their virginity. And teens who have had sex should know that they are no less valuable than any of their peers.

#16. I refuse to disrespect other’s physical boundaries/limitations.
This is a great promise that all teens should make. It is the basis of a lesson on consent. Teens need to learn that everyone has the right to make their own choices when it comes to sexual activity and they must respect those choices. Such a lesson, however, has little to do with staying abstinent until marriage. It’s about respecting an individual’s own boundaries, whatever they may be. So if your partner doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, then yes, you have to abide by that decision. But it’s equally important to abide by their decision if they tell you they don’t want to have sex until, say, next Thursday.

#18. I refuse to enter into marriage with unnecessary baggage from past relationships.
Abstinence-only curricula often focus on the idea that all sexual relationships outside of marriage leave memories and scars that will haunt you forever. You may lose your ability to bond (again, think about the tape game) or you may have flashbacks of prior partners during sex with your spouse. The average adult between the ages of 30 and 44, however, has had between four and eight opposite-sex sexual partners. Although I can’t tell you what images were going through their heads the last time they made love to their husband or wife, many seem to manage marriage without daily PTSD flashbacks of the ones who came before. While some people might consider past relationships as baggage, others see them as opportunities to learn the communication, negotiation, and emotional skills needed to be a good life partner.

Though this assignment might seem extreme, it is actually the kind of thing kids have been made to do in abstinence-only programs for years. Making young people blindly adopt tenets like these and then promise to follow them for years is not going to help them learn to protect themselves against STIs, pregnancy, or even heartache. Nor is it going to help them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make responsible sexual and relationship decisions as they mature. Good programs aim to educate young people rather than indoctrinate them. These teens would be much better off with one that let them think for themselves and question the basic premise that all sex before marriage is wrong.

This contract, as they say, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Analysis Media

The Numbers Don’t Lie: White Men Still Dominate the Media

Sarah Seltzer

From the Women's Media Center's report to the annual VIDA Count, recent number-crunching shows that we still live in a white male media ecosystem.

When media consumers read an op-ed shaming rape victims, when fans follow fictional narratives that exaggerate the risks of abortion, when viewers encounter no women of color on TV screens or elided depictions of queer sexuality in films, when articles about and interviews with transgender individuals treat their lives as salacious rather than sensitive material, when readers flip through the pages of glossy magazines and see only tiny, thin, white bodies—in all these instances, they are consuming the choices of media makers.

So much of this damaging media content comes from creators who are not women. Women are more absent than they should be in positions of power for nearly every form of media imaginable, from sports reporting to op-ed pages to Hollywood meeting rooms. The annual VIDA Count came out Monday, revealing a male-dominated “byline count” in major “thought leader” publications that, with the exception of a few places, has barely budged. Meanwhile, last week, the Women’s Media Center released its annual report, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014, and despite some prominent gains, the numbers are downright dismal in category after category.

As a writer with one foot in the media world and another in the activism world, I sometimes wonder if I overhype the sexism in the former, or have too critical an eye. But the numbers don’t lie. When feminists raise havoc and draw attention to these kinds of omissions, we are confronting a male-dominated industry that favors its own status quo.

All of us who love creating and consuming media, from TV shows to podcasts to newspapers, have a stake in solving this problem. Diversity shouldn’t just be encouraged for equality’s sake, but also for the sake of quality: The whiter and more male the reporters, staff, and executives are, the more likely audiences are to encounter stereotypes and cliches, monochrome casts, and stale content.

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Often, the numerical imbalance these reports pinpoint reinforces itself. As detailed below, many of the disparities highlighted by the WMC report and VIDA Count, as well as other recent studies, indicate the existence of mini-ecosystems for white male media privilege. If men are writing the most op-eds, for instance, they’re most likely to be on Sunday talk shows. And if more men are directing movies, then more men get speaking roles in movies. The beast of misogyny feeds itself.

Some of the studies the WMC report uses in its compilation delve into race, while some are strictly about gender. But the results across the board are clear: The media has far to go in both categories, as well as in terms of including more diversity across the LGBT and ability spectrum. (It is also clear that the researchers who look into these statistics need to find a model to better examine all those intersections.)

Read on for a detailed look at some of these findings.

Opinions Are Dominated by DudesEven on Women’s Issues

Opinions: We all have them. Yet men—white men, in particular—are more likely to get theirs broadcasted, whether as a quote in an op-ed or as a “talking head” on news shows. The WMC report cites a Gawker reckoning of bigshot editorial page columnists: There were only 38 women out of the 143 columnists at the largest newspapers and syndicators in the country. And the same holds when opinions from “sources” are sought in front page news stories. “Men were quoted 3.4 times more often than women in Page 1 stories published in The New York Times during January and February 2013,” the report notes.

OK, this is all rather dispiriting, but what about opinions on women’s issues? Surely women must be ahead on this! Unfortunately, another report by watchdog group the 4th Estate found:

Among 35 major national publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, men had 81 percent of the quotes in stories about abortion…

In stories about birth control, men scored 75 percent of the quotes, with women getting 19 percent and organizations getting 6 percent…

Women fared a bit better in stories about women’s rights, getting 31 percent of the quotes compared with 52 percent for men and 17 percent for organizations.

This particular finding demonstrates that the disparity is not just about who’s available and qualified to talk, but a real systemic bias in favor of male voices. It should be noted that numbers for Sunday talk shows, another huge opportunity for opinions to be aired, are even worse—with the saving grace of Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show.

I find it particularly egregious that opinion journalism, which is by its very nature subjective, would be so lopsided—one would think that the basic rules of fairness would dictate that reporters and editors get responses from people with different backgrounds and “takes” on any given issues.

What Happens Offscreen Affects What We See On It

Opinions about world events are rivaled in gender unevenness by film criticism, which is after all just opinion writing about popular culture. The VIDA Count revealed that in book criticism, a number of behemoths won’t budge from their 75 percent male byline count:

Drumroll for the 75%ers: The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books (actually holding steady at 80% men for four years) and New Yorker. We get it: you’re mighty, unmovable giants.

Similarly, a count of film review bylines during two consecutive months last year took a look at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the site filmgoers hit when they want to determine whether a film has “critical buzz.” In that sample time period, counters determined that men had written 82 percent of the reviews, and of the “top critics” at high circulation publications, the number was 78 percent.

But what are they writing about? The report notes that back in the mid-1990s, women were making more top movies than they are today. (As if we needed more grist for the mill of 90s nostalgia.) In 2013’s top-grossing movies, women accounted for only 16 percent of important positions behind the scenes, including directors, writers, executive producers, producers, cinematographers, and editors. Likewise, in one television category, forward movement has been so incremental as to be nearly immeasurable: “the number of episodes directed by white men fell from 73 percent to 72 percent.” Progress? Only a percentile.

Unsurprisingly, this bad news behind the scenes has had an effect on what appeared onscreen. Female actors in the top 2013 films garnered barely more than a quarter of the speaking roles and narration opportunities. On the other hand, in those films where women did have roles, actresses received “more roles with speaking parts and fewer gigs zeroing in on their sexuality.”

The fact that critics, filmmakers, and speaking roles are all imbalanced, gender-wise, creates a closed and self-reinforcing circle inside of whose borders male experience is centered, reinforced, and overvalued. And when women do attract praise and attention, as this infographic of Oscar winners shows, it’s often for roles that are defined by male relationships, whether as wives, mistresses, or maids.

Sports Coverage: A Man’s Man’s Man’s World

With all the disappointing results highlighted in the WMC report, the worst by far were in the arena of sports journalism, from talk radio to the Web to the paper. Only two sports talk radio hosts in the top 100 were women, while the number of female sports columnists actually dropped from 9.9 percent to 9.7 percent. But if ESPN staff were removed, “the percentage of female columnists would slip from 12.8 percent to 4.8 percent of all columnists. It’s enough to make film criticism look positively egalitarian!

That said, the sports journalism world has seen steady improvement too. Between 2010 and 2013:

  • the number of female sports editors increased to 9.6 percent from 6.3 percent,
  • the number of female assistant sports editors rose to 17.2 percent from 10.5 percent,
  • the number of female copy editors/designers increased to 19.6 percent from 16.4 percent, and
  • the number of women and people of color sports editors increased 7.4 percent, rising to 16.8 percent from 9.4 percent.

When there’s a long way to go, gains can look dramatic—doubling the representation of women, and going a long way toward making an environment more hospitable for women and minorities in sports newsrooms.

So What Are We To Do?

Obviously, all editors and reporters need to be conscious of their own biases, and the existence of closed circles when it comes to covering, hiring, and quoting people who are like them. It should be noted that VIDA has been counting for several years running, and several magazines like Tin House and the Paris Review have actually shifted their “counts” dramatically, while the New York Times Book Review hiring a female editor has made a huge cultural difference in that publication’s pages.

But when VIDA surveyed smaller magazines, the group found less lopsided numbers. This feeds into my growing belief that women and other underrepresented groups need to make their own media pipelines, build their own companies and enterprises, and create their own stars who will then be hired by the mainstream—and also make the big enterprises compete for female and minority audiences. It’s a classic example of a situation where pressure from both within and without “the system” should be leveraged to effect change.