Sex Ed in Mississippi: Why ‘Just Wait’ Just Doesn’t Work

Felicia Brown-Williams and Jennifer Heitel Yakush

Poor sexual health outcomes in Mississippi are the result of a state that continues to invest scarce funds in failed abstinence-only programs, leaving young people without the information and services they need to protect themselves.

This week, Planned Parenthood in Mississippi
and the Sexuality Information and Education
Council of the United States (SIECUS)
released a report on the saturation
of taxpayer-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs throughout the state
of Mississippi and the status of sex education,
or lack thereof, provided in Mississippi
public schools. The report, titled Sex
Education in Mississippi: Why ‘Just Wait’ Just Doesn’t Work
, details
the poor sexual health outcomes among adolescents in Mississippi, the state’s
heavy investment in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and the lack of
sex education required in public schools.

indicators for health among Mississippi’s
adolescents present a bleak picture. Mississippi has the
highest teen birth rate in the country. Young
people in the state also rank above the national average for rates of risky
sexual activity, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),
including HIV. The state’s poor sexual health outcomes make it clear that young
people lack access to the adequate sexual and reproductive health information
and care they need to protect themselves and make safe and healthy decisions.

report also makes clear that the federal government’s heavy investment in
abstinence-only-until-marriage funding over the past few decades has
promulgated a myriad of state
, state agencies, and community-based organizations focused on
promoting an abstinence-only-until-marriage ideology throughout the state. The trickle-down effect of the funding for
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and the industry it created has
impacted states throughout the nation, with a disparate impact on Southern
states, and this could not be truer in Mississippi.

a shift away from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is taking place at
the national level spurred by overwhelming
proving these programs to be ineffective, they continue to prosper
in Mississippi.
Federal funding for such programs may
have just started
to dry up in favor of more comprehensive approaches to sex education
include information about abstinence and contraception, among other topics;
however, Mississippi continues to see a steady stream of
abstinence-only-until-marriage programming and it will take time and vigilance
before a shift away from the abstinence-only approach is seen in the state.

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Parenthood in Mississippi and SIECUS partnered together to take a closer look
at the information students are receiving in public schools and the messages
delivered by school-based and community-based abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs reaching youth across the state of Mississippi. We found that
Mississippi school districts and the Mississippi Department of Human Services
abdicate their responsibility to provide medically accurate information to
students and instead rely on failed
abstinence-only-until-marriage programming. It is clear from the evidence
detailed in the report that a fundamental change is needed in how Mississippi educates its
young people and prepares them to be sexually healthy adults.

majority of sex education programs in Mississippi,
whether provided by schools, state agencies, community organizations, or
churches, take an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, and messages
promoting abstinence-until-marriage are pervasive in the state-appearing on
billboards, print media, in radio and television ads as well as in formal
programs. Young people in Mississippi are
practically bombarded with messages about staying abstinent until
marriage. In addition, many of these
programs, media campaigns, and activities are supported by federal funds.

Fiscal Year 2008 alone, Mississippi
received $5,742,594 in federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs, which was the eighth
largest funding amount awarded to any state
. By far, the largest recipient of
abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in the state is the Mississippi
Department of Human Services (MDHS) which received a total of $1,428,753 for
Fiscal Year 2008. With its federal
funding, MDHS operates the "Just Wait" Abstinence Program which includes a
statewide media campaign, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, conferences,
an annual rally, and school presentations that reach youth throughout the state
of Mississippi.

Mississippi schools do not fare
much better in providing accurate sex education to students. State law does not
require schools to teach sexuality education or provide instruction in HIV,
STD, or pregnancy prevention; however, if schools choose to teach any of these
topics, state law requires that they stress abstinence-only-until-marriage.  Furthermore, many schools have ceded sex
education to outside groups that are allowed to conduct classes and other
activities in the schools with little-to-no oversight. Students are therefore at risk of receiving
inaccurate and ideologically biased instruction. The lack of any statutory requirement to
provide evidence-based, medically accurate sexuality education, and the
reliance on outside groups providing abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction
in the schools, has resulted in a myriad of different, but equally ineffective,
programs which leave young people at risk.

classrooms, the impact is real. The information and programs delivered to
students use fear and shame tactics to
promote abstinence until marriage, reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes that
impose a double standard on young women, provide outright, inaccurate
information, and use outdated materials-some which are 20 years old. For
example, the Leland
School District
distributes a pamphlet to students, entitled "The Truth About…Sex &
Love."  It states, among other things, that
sex outside of marriage "is playing Russian Roulette with your emotions,
self-respect, health, and your [sic] future."

another example, some information provided to students is wholly outdated.
Information on AIDS included in the 1994 edition of, Fearon’s Health (2nd ed.),
a textbook used in Forest Municipal school district, gives students a history
lesson on the epidemic rather than providing any current information. Its most recent statistics for AIDS are from
1991, including statistics indicating a mortality rate from 1981-1991 of 64
percent. By contrast, the estimated AIDS mortality rate in 2006 was 38 percent.

mention just one other egregious example, of which there are many, the "Not
Now" abstinence-only-until-marriage program, delivered to students in four
Mississippi Delta counties, has students participate in a mock wedding
ceremony. As part of the ceremony, the
bride presents the groom with a dirty sneaker as a wedding present. The dirty sneaker signifies "a lifestyle of
impurity" and relays the message that no sock (representing a condom) could
ever fully protect the foot from dirt and diseases. The groom, on the other hand, gives the bride
a clean sneaker representing his "purity up until marriage." At the end of the wedding activity, the
students "pledged to remain pure" and bring clean tennis shoes to marriage. While
this is awful messaging in and of itself, research also shows that 88 percent
of students who pledge to remain abstinent until marriage fail to keep this
pledge and have the same STD rates as those who didn’t take a pledge. They are
also less likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active.

is made clear by this report is that Mississippi is failing to provide young
people with the information they need to make healthy decisions and avoid
unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Most disturbingly, the Department of Human
Services, which is seen as a trusted state agency, plays a large role in
disseminating this ineffective programming to young people instead of equipping
them with public health information that is medically accurate and based in

major medical and public health organization in this country and around the
agrees that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not best for
young people and believe in the importance of providing comprehensive sexuality
education. It is time for Mississippi to follow
the route that we know works in meeting the health needs of our young people:
end abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the state and implement
comprehensive sexuality education. Public policy in the Mississippi must be made to follow the
evidence and commit to a bold new plan to implement comprehensive sex
education.  The taxpayers and young
people of Mississippi deserve nothing less.

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