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.

Commentary Sexual Health

Don’t Forget the Boys: Pregnancy and STI Prevention Efforts Must Include Young Men Too

Martha Kempner

Though boys and young men are often an afterthought in discussions about reproductive and sexual health, two recent studies make the case that they are in need of such knowledge and that it may predict when and how they will parent.

It’s easy to understand why so many programs and resources to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) focus on cisgender young women: They are the ones who tend to get pregnant.

But we cannot forget that young boys and men also feel the consequences of early parenthood or an STI.

I was recently reminded of the need to include boys in sexual education (and our tendency not to) by two recent studies, both published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The first examined young men’s knowledge about emergency contraception. The second study found that early fatherhood as well as nonresident fatherhood (fathers who do not live with their children) can be predicted by asking about attitudes toward pregnancy, contraception, and risky sexual behavior. Taken together, the new research sends a powerful message about the cost of missed opportunities to educate boys.

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The first study was conducted at an adolescent medicine clinic in Aurora, Colorado. Young men ages 13 to 24 who visited the clinic between August and October 2014 were given a computerized survey about their sexual behavior, their attitudes toward pregnancy, and their knowledge of contraception. Most of the young men who took the survey (75 percent) had already been sexually active, and 84 percent felt it was important to prevent pregnancy. About two-thirds reported having spoken to a health-care provider about birth control other than condoms, and about three-quarters of sexually active respondents said they had spoken to their partner about birth control as well.

Yet, only 42 percent said that they knew anything about emergency contraception (EC), the only method of birth control that can be taken after intercourse. Though not meant to serve as long-term method of contraception, it can be very effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within five days of unprotected sex. Advance knowledge of EC can help ensure that young people understand the importance of using the method as soon as possible and know where to find it.

Still, the researchers were positive about the results. Study co-author Dr. Paritosh Kaul, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the proportion of boys and young men who had heard about EC: “That’s two-fifths of the boys, and … we don’t talk to boys about emergency contraception that often. The boys are listening, and health-care providers need to talk to the boys.”

Even though I tend to be a glass half-empty kind of person, I like Dr. Kaul’s optimistic take on the study results. If health-care providers are broadly neglecting to talk to young men about EC, yet about 40 percent of the young men in this first study knew about it anyway, imagine how many might know if we made a concerted effort.

The study itself was too small to be generalizable (only 93 young men participated), but it had some other interesting findings. Young men who knew about EC were more likely to have discussed contraception with both their health-care providers and their partners. While this may be an indication of where they learned about EC in the first place, it also suggests that conversations about one aspect of sexual health can spur additional ones. This can only serve to make young people (both young men and their partners) better informed and better prepared.

Which brings us to our next study, in which researchers found that better-informed young men were less likely to become teen or nonresident fathers.

For this study, the research team wanted to determine whether young men’s knowledge and attitudes about sexual health during adolescence could predict their future role as a father. To do so, they used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health), which followed a nationally representative sample of young people for more than 20 years from adolescence into adulthood.

The researchers looked at data from 10,253 young men who had completed surveys about risky sexual behavior, attitudes toward pregnancy, and birth control self-efficacy in the first waves of Add Health, which began in 1994. The surveys asked young men to respond to statements such as: “If you had sexual intercourse, your friends would respect you more;” “It wouldn’t be all that bad if you got someone pregnant at this time in your life;” and “Using birth control interferes with sexual enjoyment.”

Researchers then looked at 2008 and 2009 data to see if these young men had become fathers, at what age this had occurred, and whether they were living with their children. Finally, they analyzed the data to determine if young men’s attitudes and beliefs during adolescence could have predicted their fatherhood status later in life.

After controlling for demographic variables, they found that young men who were less concerned about having risky sex during adolescence were 30 percent more likely to become nonresident fathers. Similarly, young men who felt it wouldn’t be so bad if they got a young woman pregnant had a 20 percent greater chance of becoming a nonresident father. In contrast, those young men who better understood how birth control works and how effective it can be were 28 percent less likely to become a nonresident father.9:45]

Though not all nonresident fathers’ children are the result of unplanned pregnancies, the risky sexual behavior scale has the most obvious connection to fatherhood in general—if you’re not averse to sexual risk, you may be more likely to cause an unintended pregnancy.

The other two findings, however, suggest that this risk doesn’t start with behavior. It starts with the attitudes and knowledge that shape that behavior. For example, the results of the birth control self-efficacy scale suggest that young people who think they are capable of preventing pregnancy with contraception are ultimately less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy.

This seems like good news to me. It shows that young men are primed for interventions such as a formal sexuality education program or, as the previous study suggested, talks with a health-care provider.

Such programs and discussion are much needed; comprehensive sexual education, when it’s available at all, often focuses on pregnancy and STI prevention for young women, who are frequently seen as bearing the burden of risky teen sexual behavior. To be fair, teen pregnancy prevention programs have always suffered for inadequate funding, not to mention decades of political battles that sent much of this funding to ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Researchers and organizations have been forced to limit their scope, which means that very few evidence-based pregnancy prevention interventions have been developed specifically for young men.

Acknowledging this deficit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Adolescent Health have recently begun funding organizations to design or research interventions for young men ages 15 to 24. They supported three five-year projects, including a Texas program that will help young men in juvenile justice facilities reflect on how gender norms influence intimate relationships, gender-based violence, substance abuse, STIs, and teen pregnancy.

The availability of this funding and the programs it is supporting are a great start. I hope this funding will solidify interest in targeting young men for prevention and provide insight into how best to do so—because we really can’t afford to forget about the boys.

Commentary Sexual Health

Fewer Young People Are Getting Formal Sex Education, But Can a New Federal Bill Change That?

Martha Kempner

Though the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act has little chance of passing Congress, its inclusive and evidence-based approach is a much-needed antidote to years of publicly funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which may have contributed to troubling declines in youth knowledge about sexual and reproductive health.

Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute finds there have been significant changes in sexuality education during the last decade—and not for the better.

Fewer young people are receiving “formal sex education,” meaning classes that take place in schools, youth centers, churches, or community settings. And parents are not necessarily picking up the slack. This does not surprise sexuality education advocates, who say shrinking resources and restrictive public policies have pushed comprehensive programs—ones that address sexual health and contraception, among other topics—out of the classroom, while continued funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has allowed uninformative ones to remain.

But just a week before this research was released in April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). If passed, REHYA would allocate federal funding for accurate, unbiased sexuality education programs that meet strict content requirements. More importantly, it would lay out a vision of what sexuality education could and should be.

Can this act ensure that more young people get high-quality sexuality education?

In the short term: No. Based on the track record of our current Congress, it has little chance of passing. But in the long run, absolutely.

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Less Sexuality Education Today

The Guttmacher Institute’s new study compared data from two rounds of a national survey in the years 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. It found that even the least controversial topics in sex education—sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS—are taught less today than a few years ago. The proportion of young women taught about STDs declined from 94 percent to 90 percent between the two time periods, and young women taught about HIV and AIDS declined from 89 percent to 86 percent during the same period.

While it may seem like a lot of young people are still learning about these potential consequences of unprotected sex, few are learning how to prevent them. In the 2011-2013 survey, only 50 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys had received formal instruction about how to use a condom before they turned 18. And the percentage of teens who reported receiving formal education about birth control in general decreased from 70 percent to 60 percent among girls and from 61 percent to 55 percent among boys.

One of the only things that did increase was the percentage of teen girls (from 22 percent to 28 percent) and boys (from 29 to 35 percent) who said they got instruction on “how to say no to sex”—but no corresponding instruction on birth control.

Unfortunately, many parents do not appear to be stepping in to fill the gap left by formal education. The study found that while there’s been a decline in formal education, there has been little change in the number of kids who say they’ve spoken to their parents about birth control.

Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire that this can lead to a dangerous situation: “In the face of declining formal education and little discussion from their parents, young people are left to fend for themselves, often turning to their friends or the internet-either of which can be fraught with trouble.”

The study makes it very clear that we are leaving young people unprepared to make responsible decisions about sex. When they do receive education, it isn’t always timely: It found that in 2011-2013, 43 percent of teen females and 57 percent of teen males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.

It could be tempting to argue that the situation is not actually dire because teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low, potentially suggesting that young people can make do without formal sex education or even parental advice. Such an argument would be a mistake. Teen pregnancy rates are dropping for a variety of reasons, but mostly because because teens are using contraception more frequently and more effectively. And while that is great news, it is insufficient.

Our goals in providing sex education have to go farther than getting young people to their 18th or 21st birthday without a pregnancy. We should be working to ensure that young people grow up to be sexually healthy adults who have safe and satisfying relationships for their whole lives.

But for anyone who needs an alarming statistic to prove that comprehensive sex education is still necessary, here’s one: Adolescents make up just one quarter of the population, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they account for more than half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that occur each year in this country.

The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act

The best news about the REHYA is that it takes a very broad approach to sexuality education, provides a noble vision of what young people should learn, and seems to understand that changes should take place not just in K-12 education but through professional development opportunities as well.

As Advocates for Youth explains, if passed, REHYA would be the first federal legislation to ever recognize young people’s right to sexual health information. It would allocate funding for education that includes a wide range of topics, including communication and decision-making skills; safe and healthy relationships; and preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV, other STIs, dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.

In addition, it would require all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and to meet the needs of young people who are sexually active as well as those who are not. The grants could also be used for adolescents and young adults in institutes of higher education. Finally, the bill recognizes the importance of teacher training and provides resources to prepare sex education instructors.

If we look at the federal government’s role as leading by example, then REHYA is a great start. It sets forth a plan, starts a conversation, and moves us away from decades of focusing on disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fact, one of the fun parts of this new bill is that it diverts funding from the Title V program, which received $75 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2016. That funding has supported programs that stick to a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education” (often called the “A-H definition”) that, among other things, tells young people that sex outside of marriage is against societal norms and likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects.

The federal government does not make rules on what can and cannot be taught in classrooms outside of those programs it funds. Broad decisions about topics are made by each state, while more granular decisions—such as what curriculum to use or videos to show—are made by local school districts. But the growth of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and the industry that spread it, researchers say, was partially due to federal funding and the government’s “stamp of approval.”

Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute and a co-author of its study, told Rewire: “My sense is that [government endorsement] really spurred the proliferation of a whole industry and gave legitimacy—and still does—to this very narrow approach.”

The money—$1.5 billion total between 1996 and 2010—was, of course, at the heart of a lot of that growth. School districts, community-based organizations, and faith-based institutions created programs using federal and state money. And a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations grew up to provide the curricula and materials these programs needed. But the reach was broader than that: A number of states changed the rules governing sex education to insist that schools stress abstinence. Some even quoted all or part of the A-H definition in their state laws.

REHYA would provide less money to comprehensive education than the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams did to their respective programs, but most advocates agree that it is important nonetheless. As Jesseca Boyer, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Rewire, “It establishes a vision of what the government could do in terms of supporting sex education.”

Boonstra noted that by providing the model for good programs and some money that would help organizations develop materials for those programs, REHYA could have a broader reach than just the programs it would directly fund.

The advocates Rewire spoke with agree on something else, as well: REHYA has very little chance of passing in this Congress. But they’re not deterred. Even if it doesn’t become law this year, or next, it is moving the pendulum back toward the comprehensive approach to sex education that our young people need.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Jesseca Boyer’s position at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.


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