Analysis Violence

Did Abstinence-Only Ideology Create a Bully Generation?

Soraya Chemaly

Abstinence-only programs, with their emphasis on purity, marriage, and heterosexuality, create hostile environments that perpetuate the growth of rule-enforcing bullies, one slut-shaming, homophobic class at a time.

Abstinence-only education creates a petri dish for bullying in schools. There is always a lot of back and forth about the efficacy of these programs, and I fall on the side that they demonstrably fail to reduce teen pregnancy, the rate of incidence of teen sex, or the transmission of sexutally transmitted infections (STIs) (all you have to do is look at Texas). In addition, however, I believe that the heyday of our federal investment in abstinence-only programs had a terrible collateral effect — namely, kids who were “educated” in this way were more likely to bully and harass because they learned, in ways integral to abstinence provisions, outdated “traditional” ideas about gender and sexuality. Even kids whose parents talked to them at home, about contraception or healthy sex, were taught gendered rules and more and more of them appear to have enforced those rules to great harm.

To be clear, I am not saying teaching abstinence is the problem. But, teaching abstinence in the context of fully comprehensive, age-appropriate sex ed is qualitatively different from teaching abstinence-only. This is the problem. I am saying that there is something inherently harmful about cultures that insist on abstinence-only teaching.

From 1982 until 2010 funding for abstinence-only programs grew exponentially, from $4 million dollars in 1982 to $176 million in 2007. According to The Department of Health and Human Services, during almost the exact same period, 2001-2008, there was a steady rise of bullying at schools. Fourteen percent of students, ages 12 through 18 reported being bullied during school in 2001, a proportion that more than doubled, to 32 percent, in 2007. Some of the bullying increase might be attributable to better recognition and reporting, but I think that the almost straight line correlation in growth trends during that same period is interesting. A correlation is not necessarily a causation, but here is why I think that there is an intimate dynamic between the two trends:

Elizabeth Meyer, author of the excellent book, Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools defines bullying and harassment in the following way:

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Bullying is repeated and intentional hurtful behaviors directed at a specific person, whereas harassment includes unintentional or intentional behaviors that are discriminatory in nature.

When bullying occurs it’s not in isolation from the culture in which it occurs. The idea that bullying is a one-off instance of rule breaking is a misconception. It is, instead, the systematic enforcement of rules, particularly gender rules. And, yes, that includes same-sex bullying–in some ways an even better example of gender-rule enforcing than opposite-sex bullying. The list of children, with which we are now sadly familiar, who have killed themselves as the result of slut-shaming and trans- and homo-phobia is bleak and long. There are serious penalties being paid for not following gender rules.

There are three primary ways that abstinence-only programs, with their emphasis on purity, marriage, and heterosexuality, create hostile environments that perpetuate the growth of rule-enforcing bullies, one slut-shaming, homophobic class at a time:

  1. They rely on offensive, sexist stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls, as a foundational teaching tool and pass it off as “biology.” They portray “real” boys as unable to control themselves, unemotional (particularly about sex), not interested in female desire or sexual satisfaction, not ultimately responsible for their own sexual feelings (which are portrayed as dependent on how girls chose to tempt them) and definitely heterosexual. Girls, on the other hand, are shown as controlling monitors of aggressive male sexuality. In classic Madonna/whore manner, girls, despite being chaste objects of male desire and not “naturally” interested in having sex, are portrayed as temptresses that need to control what they wear and the messages they send. Also heterosexual, they are definitely not capable of managing their own reproductive lives.(*See footnote for examples from texts or click here for some real doozies.)
  2. They marginalize and stigmatize LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) youth by teaching that sex between a woman and a man (obviously within traditional heterosexual marriage) is the only safe, healthy, “normal” behavior. Even if you want to teach your kids abstinence, you don’t have to do it this way. Any other form of sexual activity is a perversion to be avoided. There is a Federal Definition of what constitutes abstinence-only program content (on which we’ve spent $1.5 billion dollars since 1982) and it requires that students be told that heterosexual marriage is the “expected standard.” In addition, these programs regularly represent LGBTQ relationships as a form of disease and provide misleading information about HIV and other STIs. Despite the fact that abstinence-only materials were required to provide “medically accurate” information after a 2004 study revealed the persistence of these misrepresentations, the same materials continued to be used. The messages sent by these curricula not only reinforce a discriminatory environment, but cultivate it. What kind of school environment is produced when teachers are forced to provide materials supporting the idea that non-hetero kids are deviant as a matter of federally-mandated policy? No wonder LGBTQ students are five times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation.
  3. Lastly, abstinence-only programs teach kids to slut-shame and -blame, and send a victim-blaming message. The flip side of this equation for boys is that they aren’t in control of themselves and can’t be blamed if a girl “encourages” them. We sometimes call that as “boys being boys” and it’s how we laughingly wave away a slippery slope of assaultive behaviour. The Legal Matters study concluded that abstinence materials consistently defined women as “socially and sexually submissive” and concluded that “Many girls fear that if they broach the topic of safe sex with their partners, they will be thought of as promiscuous and be rejected and ostracized as a result.” ***

When adults in authority teach stereotypes and hyper-gendered rules as fact, how are children expected to feel and behave? I could not find any longitudinal, granular research studying this relationship, but why would it surprise anyone that bullying would increase greatly in these settings? Marry, no pun intended, these lessons and environments with teens’ unregulated access to new social media and it’s the perfect recipe for cyber-bullying.

The best part of all of this, however, is how our tax dollars pay to implement the pre-modern, fundamentalist social policy agendas of a minority of parents and teach kids to bully at the same time. You can see why I find it particularly rich when people who proudly tout abstinence-only programs are also interested in funding anti-bullying rules and legislation. Abstinence-only was a subtle form of organized hazing and a not-so-subtle form of national policy bullying if you ask me.

I know that during the past two years we’ve significantly increased commitment and funding for science- and evidence-based teen pregnancy, STI, and HIV prevention programs. I would hazard a guess that this shift in sex ed will have just as much, if not more, effect on reducing bulling and increasing tolerance, than anti-bullying rules and legislation will. But, in the meantime, I think it is unconscionable that we continue to pay a lot of money (a total of $250 million was reinstated for 2010-2014) for the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program. Maybe schools that teach abstinence-only should reconsider how much they want to waste on anti-bullying rules.


*Examples from the 2008 Legal Momentum Report: “One curriculum, Why kNOw, teaches that “women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships” while “men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” Another curriculum, Facts and Reasons, claims that “in deciding to have intercourse, women are more likely than men to be in love, want a mutually satisfying relation-ship, and are interested in what their partner feels and thinks…men are more likely to engage in sex with a warning to the woman that there will be no commitment…One curriculum taught that women need “financial support” while men need “admiration.””

** For example, in 2004 a national study found that abstinence only programs taught kids, among other eggregious nonsense, the following: a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person,” HIV can be spread via sweat and tears and condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission. Four years later abstinence programs were found to be teaching the following: “Sexual identity is not fully established until the late teens or early twenties. Young persons may sense affection and even infatuation for a member of the same-sex. This is not the same as “being” a homosexual. Any same sex “sexual experimentation” can be confusing to a young person and should be strongly discouraged.”

***Heritage Keepers, a provider of abstinence-curricula materials explained, in case kids missed the Slut-Shaming 101 prerequisite class, “girls have an added responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” I won’t even get into the representation of abortion.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Abortion

Study: United States a ‘Stark Outlier’ in Countries With Legal Abortion, Thanks to Hyde Amendment

Nicole Knight Shine

The study's lead author said the United States' public-funding restriction makes it a "stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations."

The vast majority of countries pay for abortion care, making the United States a global outlier and putting it on par with the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and a handful of Balkan States, a new study in the journal Contraception finds.

A team of researchers conducted two rounds of surveys between 2011 and 2014 in 80 countries where abortion care is legal. They found that 59 countries, or 74 percent of those surveyed, either fully or partially cover terminations using public funding. The United States was one of only ten countries that limits federal funding for abortion care to exceptional cases, such as rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Among the 40 “high-income” countries included in the survey, 31 provided full or partial funding for abortion care—something the United States does not do.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, lead author and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California (UC) San Francisco, said in a statement announcing the findings that this country’s public-funding restriction makes it a “stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations.”

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The researchers call on policymakers to make affordable health care a priority.

The federal Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976 and reauthorized every year thereafter) bans the use of federal dollars for abortion care, except for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Seventeen states, as the researchers note, bridge this gap by spending state money on terminations for low-income residents. Of the 14.1 million women enrolled in Medicaid, fewer than half, or 6.7 million, live in states that cover abortion services with state funds.

This funding gap delays abortion care for some people with limited means, who need time to raise money for the procedure, researchers note.

As Jamila Taylor and Yamani Hernandez wrote last year for Rewire, “We have heard first-person accounts of low-income women selling their belongings, going hungry for weeks as they save up their grocery money, or risking eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion, because of the Hyde Amendment.”

Public insurance coverage of abortion remains controversial in the United States despite “evidence that cost may create a barrier to access,” the authors observe.

“Women in the US, including those with low incomes, should have access to the highest quality of care, including the full range of reproductive health services,” Grossman said in the statement. “This research indicates there is a global consensus that abortion care should be covered like other health care.”

Earlier research indicated that U.S. women attempting to self-induce abortion cited high cost as a reason.

The team of ANSIRH researchers and Ibis Reproductive Health uncovered a bit of good news, finding that some countries are loosening abortion laws and paying for the procedures.

“Uruguay, as well as Mexico City,” as co-author Kate Grindlay from Ibis Reproductive Health noted in a press release, “legalized abortion in the first trimester in the past decade, and in both cases the service is available free of charge in public hospitals or covered by national insurance.”