Raising Expectations in the Rockies: Colorado’s Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Industry and the Imperative for Real Sex Ed

Lisa Olcese and Jen Heitel Yakush

Despite an increasingly progressive climate around sexual health education, Colorado's abstinence-only-until-marriage industry continues to thrive, and continues to use dangerous and discriminatory approaches in reaching vulnerable youth.

The debate between abstinence-only-until-marriage and comprehensive sex education can seem deceptively simple.  Youth are either given an education that demonizes sex and withholds information about contraceptives or STDs, or, if they’re lucky, they have access to programs that teach them how to make responsible and informed decisions, without fear or shame.  The right choice is clear, and once state governments decide to devote funding and attention to comprehensive sexuality education, the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry will vanish like a bad dream.

A glance at Colorado, though, shows us that nothing is ever that easy.  Despite its increasingly progressive policies on sex education, the state is quickly becoming a testing ground for implementation of comprehensive sexuality education programs where abstinence-only-until-marriage programs continue to flourish despite a lack of federal funds.  The Healthy Colorado Youth Alliance and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) teamed up to create a report, Raising Expectations in the Rockies: Colorado’s Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Industry and the Imperative for Real Sex Education, detailing both the failures of Colorado’s abstinence-only-until-marriage industry as well as the advances made in the state in the fight to implement comprehensive sexuality education. This new report provides an extensive overview of abstinence-only-until-marriage providers and the ways that these programs, without changing their fundamental message, have adapted to Colorado’s new policies while continuing to misinform the state’s youth. The report also address the gains made and the challenges local schools districts still face to implement comprehensive sexuality instruction consistent with state law.

It would be hard to find a state that represented a more fascinating microcosm of the country’s complex attitudes toward sex education.  In terms of the numbers, Colorado’s youth are not unusual, with median rates of unintended teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compared to adolescents across the country.  As in the rest of the United States, parenting is a primary reason for school drop-out among young women.  Some of Colorado’s youth populations, including black and Latino youth, are disproportionately affected by high rates of teen birth and STIs, and these disparities are frequently cited by both sides as ballast for their own particular programming.

But Colorado has also seen increasingly progressive political action on sex education since 2007, when the state first rejected Title V abstinence-only-until marriage funding.  In the spring of that same year, Governor Bill Ritter signed HB07 1292 into law, a piece of legislation that established science-based content standards and, for the first time, set minimum requirements for curriculum used to teach human sexuality by school districts.  Although Colorado schools are not compelled to teach sexuality, pregnancy, or STI-prevention education, districts can decide whether they want to include the subject.  These new requirements established that although abstinence needed to be emphasized, programs also needed to encourage family communication and help students develop skills for making responsible and healthy decisions, as well as providing instruction on STIs and contraception. These seem like obvious minimum standards for any sex education program that seeks to prepare students to make healthy choices.  But our investigation revealed that the curricula promoted by Colorado’s abstinence-only-until-marriage providers didn’t just neglect to teach basic skills like helping young people clarify their own values or make decisions for themselves about relationships, they also omit crucial information about STIs and birth control. They supplement a lack of information with lessons that combined gender stereotypes with condemnations of non-traditional families, topped off by a heavy dose of fear and shame.

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In our report, we examined the programming and curricula administered by the state’s four former Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) grantees, which include Friends First, Life Network, WAIT Training, and the YMCA of Pueblo.  All of these organizations received funding during the 2009 fiscal year.  These organizations focus their programming on Colorado’s nine most populous counties, which are also the areas of the state most affected by unintended teen pregnancy and STIs.  Although these are clearly the places where comprehensive sexuality education is most essential, the programs promote a narrow vision of an acceptable and moral life, demonizing abortion, elevating marriage as the only responsible relationship goal, and marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth and their families.  Their curricula aren’t benign; they are downright dangerous.

Some grant recipients are explicitly faith-based and, in addition to providing curricula for Colorado public schools, they even linked to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), organizations that pretend to offer medical services to pregnant women and instead delude the women who seek their help with anti-abortion propaganda and straight-up misinformation in an attempt to frighten them out of exercising their right to choose.

As if medical misinformation topped with a sprinkle of religious messaging wasn’t bad enough, the gender stereotypes promoted in many of the curricula seem to be straight out of the latest episode of Mad Men. Positive relationship dynamics are illustrated through disturbing parables that encourage girls to think of themselves as “damsels in distress,” fragile creatures who are capable of offering occasional pieces of advice or wisdom but who should not overshadow their male partners, or have strong opinions of their own.  In the parables, the consequences for women who overstep these boundaries are severe; one “princess” who dares to offer suggestions about how to slay a dragon is abandoned by her rescuer for a less knowledgeable maiden.  The implications are clear: women are valued only for the support they provide to men.  It’s worrying to imagine that these kinds of messages can be found anywhere outside a history curriculum, not to mention in a twentieth-century classroom that ostensibly teaches about healthy relationships.

The lessons about marriage and families are no less disturbing.  Marriage is elevated as the only acceptable life goal, to the point where lessons in some curricula consists of a mock wedding ceremony, complete with tuxedo and white dress.  Students are given unrealistic expectations for their married lives (assuming, of course, that they can and want to get married), promoting the excitement of the wedding day rather than addressing the serious long-term commitment that marriage entails.  Marriage, these programs teach, will provide health and wealth; married people can expect all kinds of benefits, including longer lives and lower risk of domestic violence.  A refusal to marry or failed marriage, on the other hand, results in unspeakable catastrophe: delinquent children, higher incidence of sexual abuse, and increased risk of poverty.  These programs go far beyond affirming a couple’s decision to form a legal union and begin a family.  They marginalize LGBT youth, who may not be able to marry, and vilify young people who grew up in single-parent or “non-traditional” families.  All of these damaging lessons are couched in metaphors that rely on fear and shame.  In another disturbing parable, students are told that after pre-marital sex, their self-esteem will be crushed as easily as an empty soda can.  In yet another, that their bodies are as desirable as chewed gum or crumpled paper; they are impure, emotionally drained, and worthless.

The state’s most prominent abstinence-only-until-marriage program providers commonly target specific populations that they deem to be “at-risk,” including Latino/a students, teen parents, low-income youth, and single-parent families. The YMCA of Pueblo and Friends First conduct Quinceañera Programs, which work to “reinforce the traditional quinceañera [sic] values of purity and virginity until marriage,” and include a graduation ceremony where each girl pledges her commitment to abstinence until marriage and is presented with a purity ring “as a reminder of her promise to save her virginity for her future husband.” While the purpose of the Quinceañera is to mark a rite of passage for young women, particularly in the context of church and family, a “virginity pledge” has not been a traditional element of the ritual. Such programs undermine and remake a cultural tradition of Latino communities in order to further an ideologically driven mission.

Friends First and WAIT Training also target the “high-risk” populations that result from the “broken nature” of single-parent homes and uphold the notion that abstaining from sexual activity until marriage is a panacea that will bring “freedom from broken relationships.” These programs infer that abstinence will increase marital stability, decrease depression, and increase adult happiness, and present one family structure as morally correct and beneficial to society. In reality, any Coloradan classroom is likely to have children of never-married or divorced parents as well as children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents who cannot legally marry in Colorado.

Interestingly, the programs have adapted to changes in Colorado’s political climate.  They have shied away from total medical misinformation (like previous suggestions that young people who have sex should wash their genitals with Lysol after sex) or explicitly faith-based messaging, and instead provide just enough information about birth control or STIs to comply with new state regulations.  This information is often incomplete or confusing.  Curricula will tell students about the importance of using condoms correctly, but then provide no information about what correct use entails.  They do not, however, emphasize the need for young people to make their own decisions about relationships, or remove marriage from its pedestal.  Instead, the programs justify their existence under the new sex education guidelines by marketing their curricula as “poverty prevention” and “relational wellness,” while the core ideological message remains the same

Colorado’s students deserve better than these programs.  And although the state has made impressive strides toward implementing comprehensive sexuality education, our report shows the need for a strong and persistent commitment to advancing accurate and healthy programming in the Colorado schools. 

We have a few recommendations. First of all, individual schools can make HB07 1292 a reality by ensuring that all sexuality education taught in their schools is comprehensive.  Colorado can save money and resources by continuing to reject the failed, expensive Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funds.  The state can continue to apply for Personal Responsibility Education Program funding, so that the comprehensive sex education programs in the state can grow through federal funding.  And the state can implement the state academic standards for comprehensive health education with evidence-based programs and principles and create a statewide resource for teachers and administrators on comprehensive sex education that supports consistent implementation of HB07 1292.

Like the rest of the country, Colorado is at a crossroads.  There is significant proof that abstinence-only-until-education programs are a waste of money, and a glance at any of the curricula reveals the damaging stereotypes that these programs uphold.  The federal government is showing an increasingly strong commitment to funding programs that embrace comprehensive sexuality education.  Now Colorado has the opportunity to hold its sex education curricula to a high standard—and to get rid of programs that do more harm than good.

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