Abstinence-Only Education Offers Nothing But an “F”

Pamela Merritt

I’ve taught young women who thought drinking a certain brand of soda pop would prevent HIV/AIDS infection and who were convinced that certain forms of birth control caused permanent sterilization.

Sex education funding can be confusing.  Just trying to figure out what’s funded requires some research and what’s actually being taught in sex education classes can vary.  On top of that, it’s hard to keep track of what’s changed or what’s been changed back to what it used to be.  As a result, many residents of communities all over America are going about their daily business unaware that their states just applied for sex education funding that will affect what sex education curriculum is taught in their children’s school.

Contrary to popular belief, the election of President Obama did not bring about the demise of abstinence-only sex education in America.  The Obama administration did remove from its own bugget most of the funding for abstinence-only sex education, but Congress added a provision to the recent health care reform legislation that restored $250 million in funding over five years for state programs that focus exclusively on abstinence.  States have the option of applying for one or both funding streams and my home state of Missouri applied for both.  While we cheered the application for comprehensive sex education funding, many Missourians were alarmed that the administration also applied for funding for abstinence-only programs.  As a result of pressure from reproductive health activists, Governor Nixon’s administration appears to be taking a new approach with abstinence funding that will require all programs to include only medically-accurate information.  But Missourians will have to keep a watchful eye to make sure abstinence-only programs do not revert to their traditionally dangerous and medically-inaccurate form.

I don’t have children but my interest in sex education is personal.  As a volunteer working with teens in my community, I’ve met young people who found out how pregnancy happens when they became pregnant.  I’ve taught young women who thought drinking a certain brand of soda pop would prevent HIV infection, who argued passionately that a person could tell whether their partner had a sexually transmitted infection simply by “looking” and who were convinced that certain forms of birth control caused permanent sterilization.  Myths and inaccuracies abound, fueled by years of conservative anti-knowledge policies and sex education curricula in which the only abstinence that results is from educating students about sex.

While some oppose comprehensive sex education and advise young people to just put a quarter between their knees, squeeze them together and then wait until “opposite” marriage, those of us who care deeply about the reproductive health of young people know that abstinence-only programs fail to empower young people to make informed decisions about their health.  Many of the young adults I know are frustrated with the quality of the sex education they receive in their schools and the impact that has on their lives and the lives of their friends.  Others turn to friends or older peers for information and advice that may or may not be medically accurate.

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In my home city of St. Louis, the need for comprehensive and medically accurate sex education is clear.  St. Louis has led the nation in the rate of Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted infections (STI) for several years and, although some reports show those rates falling, they remain alarmingly high.  The Missouri legislature recently passed an expedited partner therapy law that will allow patients diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection to receive a prescription for their partner too, which will greatly decrease the likelihood of re-infection.  Expedited partner therapy is a welcome progressive step forward, but prevention remains the best policy and comprehensive sex education is the key to making prevention a reality.

Abstinence only programs cannot take credit for any decreases in STI rates or unplanned teen pregnancies – those few successes have happened in spite of abstinence only education, many as a result of local organizations government and community groups working to increase awareness and access to treatment.  As a taxpayer that brings me no joy, since my money has been used to fuel the farce of abstinence-only education even as I volunteer my time to try to mend the damage done through these inadequate programs.  It’s no wonder that I sometimes feels like I’m swimming upstream with weights on my legs.  With new funds come new opportunities to right what’s wrong or continue down the same dangerous path.  Supporters of comprehensive sex education must advocate on the state, city and local level to make sure funds are used wisely to support medically accurate sex education curricula.  Anything less deserves an “F”.

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