The Sex Ed Bait and Switch

Amanda Marcotte

Abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents hope that by misrepresenting the recent study on abstinence education they can continue getting funding for programs that have nothing in common with the single one that’s been proven effective.

Big news last week for the “sex is evil and should be
avoided” crowd—big media organizations all over the country trumpeted
that abstinence-only education "works".
  Naturally, I was skeptical that the sex-phobes had actually
produced a curriculum that convinced young people to put off sex for the 15
years between the onset of puberty and getting married, and indeed, a quick
perusal of the story demonstrated that the program in question only delayed the
onset of sexual activity for 2 years for a percentage of the students.  As usual, by their own measurement,
abstinence-only proponents were a miserable failure, and the 95 percent number
(that’s the percent of Americans that have had premarital sex) remains

But knowing as I do how much the religious right loves a bad
faith argument, I was also not surprised to see abstinence-only supporters
pretend that an utter failure to convince kids to wait until marriage was a
win for them
.  Apparently, the
war on sex is a war of attrition and any reduction in orgasmic activity is a
plus in their book.  But upon
investigating the claims that the abstinence-until-marriage crew was “right”, I
found that their declarations of victory were even more dishonest than
usual.  Because the program
trumpeted by the anti-sex crew had no
relationship to the abstinence-until-marriage
programs promoted by the
religious right and funded
under the Bush administration.
This successful program very narrowly taught a bunch of 6th
and 7th graders to wait until they were ready, accepting that for
the vast majority of them, “ready” is going to come before marriage. “Wait
until prom” is a much different message than “wait until marriage”. There was
no denouncing of contraception you get in the standard abstinence-only
curriculum, and in fact the teachers were told that if a student expressed
misinformation about condoms, that they were to correct them. As
Jill Filipovic noted in the Guardian
, “In other words, the programme was
exactly what the abstinence portion of a good comprehensive sex-ed class would
look like.”

Very few people in the comprehensive sex education camp
think that 12-year-olds having sex is usually a good idea.  Most kids that age want the ability to
say no more than they want the right to say yes, and so crafting programs to
their needs is exactly the sort of thing a good sex educator should do.  But as Hanna
Rosin noted
, it’s silly to think that this approach will do much for 15-
and 16-year-olds whose sexual activity is far more likely to be exactly what
they want.  At best, what we’ve
learned is that teaching negotiation skills to say no is good for younger kids,
and then older kids are probably still going to need and want sex-positive,
medically accurate information, so that they sex they instigate on their own is

Since this program that worked openly flouted the
abstinence-only curriculum promoted by people like the executive director of
the National Abstinence Education Association, you’d think that Valerie Huber
would oppose it.  But instead,
Huber told
the New York Times
that this is great news. And was shockingly honest about why she’d think that:

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“The current recommendation before
Congress in the 2011 budget zeroes out abstinence education, and puts all the
money into broader comprehensive education,” Ms. Huber said. “I hope that
either the White House amends their request or Congress acts upon this,
reinstating abstinence education.”

So, in other words, she hopes that by misrepresenting this
study, she can get funding reinstated for programs that have nothing in common
with this single one that’s been proven effective.  This shouldn’t be surprising at all — abstinence-only is big
. Lisa
Lerner at Politico
wrote an interesting article demonstrating how politicians
seeking political gains among conservative supporters have cynically exploited abstinence-only
earmarks, and it’s interesting to see in just examining Arlen Specter’s
earmarks that are the beneficiaries of the funding.

Urban Family Council, which received more than $310,000 in earmarks in the
past, collected an additional $24,000 last year. The group was founded by a
Philadelphia evangelical activist and is known for its aggressive efforts to
block benefits for gay partners of city employees.

A+ for Abstinence, a Christian program
that runs a website called, received $24,000. The program,
according to the website, “shares sexual purity in an innovative and
spiritually sound way that speaks directly to the hearts of young people.”

money goes to anti-choice organizations, evangelical groups, and other
religious groups that then express their gratitude by reinforcing the message
the Jesus was a Republican. 
Cutting abstinence-only funds hit the bottom line of these groups pretty
hard.  No wonder they want the
money back, enough that they’re apparently willing to promote a study they
ideologically oppose in order to reopen that funding stream. 

that there’s anything wrong with building up non-profits that rely on
government funds to do your work, of course.  The problem arises when the work you do is
harmful and opposed to taxpayer wishes, and you
therefore misrepresent what you do in order to get your hands on the money.
Huber has employed this strategy
for a long time,
characterizing abstinence-only
in such a way that it sounds just like
good comprehensive sex education
, while actually
supporting scare-‘em-lie-to-‘em-moralize-at-‘em
ineffective, unethical
abstinence-until-marriage programs.
  Call it the sex ed bait and
switch — the voters want comprehensive sex education that teaches kids skills
so they can delay sex if they want to, and Huber is happy to pretend that’s what
she’s selling if it keeps the funding flowing for the programs she wants.  If she can’t be honest, it’s supposed
to be the media’s job to call her out on the carpet, not give her a platform
from which she claim credit for effective programs she’s seeking to demolish so
she can replace them her own ineffective, moralizing ones.     

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