Commentary Sexual Health

Illinois Governor Signs New Sex Education Law, But Some Abstinence-Only Proponents Say They Aren’t Worried

Martha Kempner

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed a law requiring all schools in the state that teach sex education to include accurate information about birth control and STDs. This is quite a change from the current state law, which emphasizes abstinence, still, many are saying that schools—even those who use abstinence-only curricula—will not have to change much.

CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly noted that Gov. Quinn was planning to sign the sex education law. In fact, he has already signed it. We regret the error.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has recently signed a law requiring all schools in the state that teach sex education to include accurate information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While this is quite a change from the current state law, which emphasizes abstinence, many are saying that schools—even those who use abstinence-only curricula—will not have to change much.

Illinois law does not require schools to provide sex education but currently says that those that do must teach that “abstinence is the expected norm in that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only protection that is 100% effective against unwanted teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome when transmitted sexually.”

There are 860 school districts in Illinois and no state agency tracks exactly what kind of sexuality education, if any, each provides. A 2008 study by the University of Chicago, however, found that 93 percent of the districts offered sex education and about 65 percent of those that did, offered programs that the researchers considered to be comprehensive, in that the programs included discussion of contraception and STDs.

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Still, lawmakers are concerned that students are not getting enough information about these important topics. The goal of the new law is to ensure that students get medically-accurate and age-appropriate information about how to protect themselves against pregnancy and STDs. Sen. Heather Steans (D-7th District), who co-sponsored the legislation, told the Associated Press, “Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way, but the reality is that by the end of senior year in high school, two-thirds of our kids are saying that they’ve had sex.” She added, “For me it really is best practices and what actually works.”

The law is expected to go into effect in January, but many school officials don’t believe it will have too much impact on what they will teach this coming school year. Tammie Holden, the principal of a middle school in Springfield, told the AP, “We’re still at the learning stage and understanding specifics. I don’t think we would have to do a new curriculum. So it would just be some adjustments made.” Similarly, Andrea Evers, the superintendent in Cairo, said her district already teaches a comprehensive program. “My belief is that we’re already doing it right,” Evers said. “Looking at both sides of the issue and making sure the children know that the choice is theirs.”

While these school districts may very well be within the parameters of the new law, some in the state are arguing that even those schools that take a strict abstinence-only-until-marriage approach will not have to make changes. Scott Phelps, executive director of the Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership (A&M Partnership), a Chicago organization that sells abstinence-only curricula, told the AP that his clients are okay because they teach contraception—“just not in great detail.” He went on to explain, “We don’t teach them how to use contraception, but we teach them what it is. We don’t see how our curricula would in any way violate the new law.”

Having reviewed a number of the curricula that Phelps has written and A&M Partnership sells, I don’t believe that they are within either the letter of the law or the spirit in which it was passed. The law requires medically-accurate information, but Phelps’ curricula rely on incomplete truths, innuendos, and fear to “teach” young people about STDs and contraception. For example, Navigator, which Phelps co-wrote, tells students that “any type of sexual activity can spread STDs from one person to another.” But the curriculum’s definition of sexuality activity defines it as any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse.”

That is a pretty useless explanation of disease transmission.

After all, I can think of many behaviors that involve genital contact—such as sticking your hands down your own pants while your partner watches or letting your partner touch you through said pants—that carry no risk of STDs; and if we’re just talking about sexual stimulation, the list gets even longer. Unfortunately, neither Navigator nor Aspire, another curriculum which Phelps wrote, explain how STDs are transmitted any better than this. Instead, both focus their discussion almost entirely on the long-term health results of untreated STDs. (I do give Aspire credit for encouraging teens to get tested if they suspect they have an STD.)

More disturbing, however, is that both curricula try to convince teens that condoms will not protect them from STDs. In one faux critical thinking exercise, Aspire asks students whether they would tell a friend about to have sex with someone who had a known STD to use a condom or instead tell him/her just not to do it. In another “thinking” exercise, Navigator shows separate graphs of condom use and chlamydia rates for the years 1982–1995 and notes that both went up. It then argues, “if condoms were effective against STDs, the increase in condom usage would correlate to a decrease in STDs overall—which is not the case. Rather as condom usage has increased, so have rates of STDs.” This sounds logical and many students may buy it as proof that condoms are inadequate, but in truth the increased rates of chlamydia over that period are explained by widespread screening, more sensitive tests, and better reporting.

While Phelps’ may believe that he is within the parameters of the law, such misleading discussions of STDs are unlikely to have the effect that Illinois lawmakers are seeking—a reduction in the number of STD cases among young people in the state. (In 2011, 35 percent of chlamydia cases and one-third of all gonorrhea cases in Illinois occurred in young people ages 15 to 19.)

Phelps’ curricula also do a poor job of educating young people about birth control, perhaps because he and his co-authors don’t believe teens can be trusted to use it. The guidebook for Navigator, which is intended for adults not students, explains:

Navigator does not promote the use of contraceptives for teens. No contraceptive device is guaranteed to prevent pregnancy. Besides, students who do not exercise self-control to remain abstinent are not likely to exercise self-control in the use of a contraceptive device.

I’m not sure which angers me more—people who don’t believe that teens are capable of making good decisions or people who believe it is okay to deny them information in order to influence their decisions. (Or maybe it’s people who believe sexually active teens are untrustworthy and lack self-control.)

Not surprisingly, the discussions of birth control in these programs are designed to undermine students’ faith in contraception methods. Aspire, for example, suggests that condoms break and other methods fail and then tells students that no contraceptive method can prevent all of the “consequences” of premarital sex. In case you’re wondering, these include emptiness, loneliness, broken heart, anger, rage, pregnancy, STDs, AIDS, infertility, cancer, worry, fear/stress, regret, low self-esteem, confusion, child care/support, loss of income, reputation, and parental conflict, among others. I suppose I can’t argue with this statement on its face—condoms can’t prevent loneliness and people can still be angry even if they have an IUD in their uterus. Of course that’s not what these methods were intended to do. To me, this tactic is akin to a magician’s slight-of-hand; instead of telling students that there a number of reliable methods of birth control that can help them prevent pregnancy, and one that also protects against STDs, the curriculum takes out a bright shiny object (or, in this case, depressing and scary objects) and says, “Hey, look over here.”

Curricula like these had their days in the sun a few years ago when the federal government was pouring money into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and states were passing laws like the one currently on the books in Illinois that told schools to stress abstinence over anything else. Today, we know better. Research has found that these programs simply don’t work and states have wised up and passed laws, like this one supported by Gov. Quinn, that suggest a more comprehensive approach and require accuracy. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states required schools that choose to teach sex education to provide medically-accurate information as of March of this year.

The fact that Illinois will be joining this list come January is great for young people there. However, it is important that groups like the A&M Project are not allowed to continue teaching their brand of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs or claiming that these meet the law’s requirements. These programs are neither medically accurate nor comprehensive and they cannot be considered sufficient education for the students of Illinois or any other state.

Commentary Sexual Health

Abstinence-Only Speaker Makes Kids Cry—Then Fight Back

Martha Kempner

Abstinence-only-until-marriage speaker Pam Stenzel presented her message of shame to the wrong students last week. Many are complaining that her speech was "slut-shaming" and at least one is filing a complaint with the ACLU.

Pam Stenzel, a speaker on the national abstinence-only-until-marriage circuit, was out in full force in West Virginia last week telling students at George Washington High School that sex outside of marriage is bad and that anyone who has had sex outside of marriage is similarly bad. She allegedly told students that if they were on the birth control pill “their mother probably hated them” and that she could look any one of them in the eyes and tell whether they were going to be promiscuous. While people like me have been complaining about Stenzel’s messages for years, she has a new foe now: her audience.

Katelyn Campbell, a student who attended the recent presentation, told the West Virginia Gazette that she is planning on filing a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because Stenzel’s fear-based and inaccurate presentation amounted to “slut-shaming.” Campbell explained, “Many students felt uncomfortable with her outright condemnation of any and everyone who has ever had premarital sexual contact.”

A male student, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Gazette, “While her intentions may have been good, her tone was very loud, like she was shaming everyone in the audience. She was making girls cry. There were pregnant girls in the audience and she was implying, if you had sex, you’re not an OK person. The only reason I am standing up against it is so other schools in West Virginia don’t have to hear this.”

Other students took to social media to condemn what they had just heard, with one saying, “She doesn’t like you if you’re not a virgin. I hope people are calling in about the sex ed speaker this morning. Shaming girls for having sex isn’t teaching abstinence.”

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Stenzel’s Modus Operandi

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Stenzel, who has been shaming teenagers across the country since before these students were born, and getting paid a pretty penny to do so. (Her presentations cost between $4,000 and $6,000, according to the Gazette, though reportedly no school funds were used to pay for her recent appearance at George Washington High School.)

In my old job running the Community Advocacy Project for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), I had the task of tracking speakers like Stenzel who would go into schools a provide “sex education” in the form of motivational speeches and even comedy routines that seemingly without fail contained the abstinence-only-until-marriage program trifecta: inaccurate information, fear, and shame. Stenzel was always most heavy on the shame.

Stenzel is a graduate of the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University and spent her early career as a counselor at crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), organizations that claim to help women facing unintended pregnancies make the best choice but then do almost anything to convince them not to have an abortion. In her promotional material, she claims that while at the CPCs she saw too many women who did not think about the consequences of their actions so she dedicated her life to helping them think about them ahead of time.

I’ve never seen Stenzel speak in person, but I’m aware of her performance thanks to a 2007 video she created called Sex Still Has a Price Tag, which is a follow-up to her earlier video and road show, The Price Tag of Sex. The video was filmed in front of a live audience of teenagers; in 2007, Stenzel was going around the country with a presentation of the same name. According to her website, she now has new videos called The High Cost of Free Love and Take a Look in the Mirror, among others. Though she may have updated her material a bit, based on the reports from students in West Virginia, she appears to be the same old Stenzel. (The quotes that follow are from the review I did for SIECUS as well as a speech I gave on Capitol Hill about a number of abstinence-only speakers, Stenzel included.  You can read the full review here but the speech is not available online.)

She Yells, A Lot

Stenzel’s style comes off like a cross between a tent-show evangelist and a stand-up comic. As I wrote in my review for SIECUS, “She uses a preacher’s cadence and often yells at her audience in attempts to emphasize her points.” When she’s not yelling, she is talking in patronizing or condescending tones, and she frequently adopts a high-pitched, whiny voice to imitate what teenage girls might be thinking or saying.

While she tells students nicely in the beginning that she didn’t come here to make decisions for them, but rather to give them the benefit of her experience, her tone quickly goes from “kind friend” to “pissed-off parent.” And her message is simple: “No one has ever had sex with more than one partner and not paid.”

Early on Stenzel tells her audience this: “If you forget everything else I told you today, and you can only remember one thing, this is what I want you to hear. If you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous—and monogamy does not mean one at a time, that means one partner who has only been with you—if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay.”

For a 16-year-old in the audience who might challenge her absolutism, perhaps knowing friends who have had sex and did not in fact come out of the experience with a sexually transmitted disease (STD), a pregnancy, or emotional scars, Stenzel is ready with one of the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry’s favorite tropes: gun imagery. She warns: “Who’s to say the next time you decide to put this gun to your head it doesn’t go off?”

Virginity is Very Important

As the students who saw her last week noted, it becomes increasingly clear during her presentation that Stenzel doesn’t like teenagers who are no longer virgins. The essence of her slut-shaming is as simple as this: Virgins are good people and non-virgins are not.

She claims that numerous boys have told her they plan to “fool around and sleep with every girl who’s stupid enough to sleep with me but when I get married then I don’t want that girl—who has slept with half the football team—then I want a virgin.” Her response to these foolish young men: “Why would a virgin want you?”

My favorite story of hers, however, comes when Stenzel tells of the 6’8” basketball player who ran up to her after one of her speeches to tell her that he was virgin. He complained that his teammates often teased him about his choice. “I said young man, the next time your friends start to tease you because you’re saving yourself for your wife I want you to look at your friends and I want you to say this: Any day, tonight, I could choose to be like you, but you will never again be like me.”

That’s right—once you give away that virginity you are damaged goods.

Oh, and in case there was any confusion as to what counts as being a virgin and what doesn’t, for Stenzel you lose the right to call yourself a virgin if you have had any genital contact. She refers to genital contact as “the medical line over which you cannot step, and if you have stepped over this line, you’ve risked disease, you’ve risked disease, and you need to get tested and don’t you dare tell anyone you’re a virgin. Don’t you dare.”

STDs Are Going Kill You

Stenzel is not alone in telling young people that HIV is a deadly disease; with each passing year and medical advancement this becomes increasingly less true, but HIV is still scary. To remind her audience of this, Stenzel says, “And then there is HIV. We won’t spend time on it. It’s the virus that causes AIDS. It’s deadly. You don’t want it. Equal opportunity virus, hurting boys and girls the same. Death is death.”

In Stenzel’s world, other STDs are going to kill you as well, but first they’ll make you infertile: “Ladies, you contract Chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.”

Not quite. If treated promptly, chlamydia will not affect a woman’s fertility. Chlamydia becomes a bigger problem when it is left untreated and leads to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptomatic PID occurs in only about 10 to 15 percent of women with untreated chlamydia, and infertility occurs in only about 10 to 15 percent of women who get PID.

According to Stenzel, infertility is also a common outcome of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. To illustrate this, Stenzel provides this hypothetical story about an audience member: “You’ve found this girl you love. I mean this is it, all those other girls, they were just messing around. This is the real thing. Pull out that diamond, look her in the eyes, if you’re really cool guys you get on your knees, you say marry me—by the way, I’ve got genital warts, you’ll get it too, and we’ll both be treated for the rest of our lives, in fact you’ll probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death, but marry me.”

While I have to applaud her delivery, which made me laugh, this story plays fast and loose with the truth. HPV is ubiquitous; according to the CDC about 79 million people in the United States have it, and about 14 million contract it each year. Most people’s bodies will clear the virus without any permanent damage. Of these, about 12,000 women each year will develop cervical cancer. For women who are infected with the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer, it takes 10 to 15 years for this type of cancer to develop, and with regular screening pre-cancerous changes to the cervix can be caught and treated before cancer ever develops.

If You Don’t Die, You Will Be Punished

Stenzel also likes to focus on the ways in which society is going to punish bad sexually active teenagers for their behavior. In one fascinating diatribe, she addresses all the male audience members as potential deadbeat teen fathers and says this: “The laws have all changed. Boys, I don’t care if your older brother, some uncle, or a cousin got away with this, it’s not happening to you. … We are now requiring in all 50 states the Social Security number of both parents on every birth certificate for every baby born in this nation.”

Then, she makes fun of an 8th grader who was so “cute” because he thought the government collected this information so the baby could know who his father is when he grows up. So naive, she laughs: “Money is what we are after and it’s going to cost you. … Let me make it clear, this is not a bill the state’s going to politely ask you to pay. We’re not collecting. It’s coming out of your pay check taken out by your employer before you ever see it.”

Yep, Pam Stenzel will personally hunt down any dead-beat teen dads and garnish their wages. The only problem is she is totally wrong about the law here. As I reported for SIECUS, women are never required to reveal paternity or provide the father’s Social Security number. In truth, unmarried fathers may have a hard time getting their names onto their child’s birth certificate.

Laws about birth certificates vary from state to state, but the CDC has developed the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth, a model birth certificate. According to the CDC, if the parents are not married, both parents need to sign a paternity acknowledgement form before any information about the father can be included on the birth certificate. States across the country adhere to similar rules. For example, Vermont law states that “[i]f the mother does not wish to identify the baby’s father, she is not required to do so. If the parents are not married, no record of the father will be entered until both parents complete a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage, or a court or agency has established paternity. The form must be signed and both signatures witnessed.” Similarly, Arizona law “requires that if a mother is not married at the time a child is born and has not been married any time during the preceding 10 months, no father will be named on the birth certificate unless both parents file sworn statements or unless so ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Emotional Anti-Abortion Plea

Stenzel’s tone changes from “disciplinarian” to “sad-but-knowing aunt” when she starts to talk about the options young women have if they find themselves pregnant before they are married: “I have had to tell a lot of young girls that their test was positive. Immediately they want an easy painless way out of this pregnancy they didn’t plan, and I have to look at this little girl and say, guess what sweetheart, your choices at this point are bad, terrible, and even worse. You had a good choice; that was before you had sex. Now all the choices you have are going to carry life-long consequences.”

It turns out that this is a very personal issue for Stenzel, who gives her audience an emotional explanation of how her biological mother was 15 when she got pregnant as a result of rape. She says, “I have not met my birth mom. Some day I hope to. And if someday I get that chance, I’m going to wrap my arms around her and I’m going to tell her I love her because she loved me enough to give me my life, and she loved me enough to give me the next most special gift I was ever given, and that’s my family.”

She continues, “My biological father is a rapist. I don’t even know my ethnicity. But my life isn’t worth any less than any of yours just because of the way I was conceived. And I did not deserve the death penalty because of the crime of my father.”

While she, like everyone else, is certainly entitled to her own opinion about whether she would ever have an abortion, this presentation is emotionally manipulative and unfair. There is something about screaming at teenagers for the better part of an hour and then asking them to agree with you out of sympathy that seems almost abusive to me.

High School Administrators Not Swayed

I can’t promise that Stenzel said exactly any of these things last week in West Virginia. She may have updated her presentation. But I find it highly unlikely that she’s change her tone much in the last few years, given what the students who sat through her presentation describe. Unfortunately, their complaints seem to be falling on deaf ears.

It’s important to remember that unlike curricula, which often have to go through a long review process including educators, committees, and ultimately a school board, speakers can be invited into a school at the discretion of the principal or one teacher. In the heyday of the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, these presentations were often free to schools because a community-based organization or CPC would have a federal grant to sponsor such speakers.

At George Washington High School, Stenzel’s appearance was reportedly paid for with unspecified private donations.

District administrators do not seem to be nearly as upset about the talk as their students. Principal George Aulenbacher told the Gazette that he watched most of the presentation and didn’t hear anything out-of-line: “Anytime you talk about sex with any teen student, it can be uncomfortable. The only way to guarantee safety is abstinence. Sometimes, that can be a touchy topic, but I was not offended by her. The intent was to educate and talk to kids about making good decisions.”

I can’t imagine sitting through Stenzel’s presentation and not being offended. Within two minutes of the start of the Price Tag of Sex video, I was throwing things at the screen. It’s not OK to assume teenagers are going to behave badly and alternate between yelling at them and talking to them like they’re morons. It’s not OK to give them misinformation. It’s not OK to lie to them. It’s not OK to manipulate them. And it’s not OK to make them feel bad about themselves or convince them to look down on their peers.

Given the administration’s lack of a reaction, it will be interesting to see if the students’ complaints have any legs and if the ACLU can help them. Though Stenzel comes from a religious background and her talks have religious undertones, she offers two versions of her speeches: a secular version for public schools and another one for parochial schools. The student who is filing a complaint with the ACLU acknowledged that Stenzel did not include any overtly religious messages in her speech, which may limit the ACLU’s power to get involved.

Still, it is heartening to know that there is a new generation of kids out there who are not willing to sit back and take Stenzel’s abuse. Now all we have to do is get the adults to wise up as well.

Commentary Sexual Health

Art Imitating Life—Parks and Recreation Takes on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policies

Martha Kempner

Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation took on the ridiculousness of abstinence-only-until-marriage policies. Between jokes about old people having sex and mushy bananas, the episode provided some good information and made important points about the sex education debate.

For a while it must have looked like all I ever did was watch TV. I was frequently discussing the most recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, or Teen Mom, or bemoaning TLC’s latest melodramatic “reality” show about 50-year-old pregnant virgins who are addicted to hoarding sex toys (or whatever). But it’s been awhile since I’ve praised the good portrayal of the abortion debate or ranted about the ridiculous exploitations of people’s sexuality. In truth, I started to feel like watching this kind of TV was too much like work and I went on hiatus. 

Then last week Parks and Recreation, a show that has made me laugh on the few occasions I’ve seen it, took on sexuality education and I had to watch. I’m glad I did. Amy Poehler is just funny and the writers did a good job researching the issue and putting real world information into a farce about the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. 

Though it might not have been ripped from the headlines in the same way that Law and Order: SVU’s 50 Shades of Grey episode was, it did mirror some actual controversies and shed light on real issues. 

Here’s what we learned from this mockumentary-style sitcom last week:

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Old People Have Sex:  The episode starts with Amy Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope, announcing to her staff: “Good news people, old people have Chlamydia.”  Apparently, the elderly community in Pawnee is hopped up on ED drugs and desperately in need of some safe sex information. 

They’re not alone; more than 60 percent of adults over 60 have sex at least once a month and they are getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6,700 people ages 45 to 65 were diagnosed with Chlamydia in 2000 and that number had jumped to 19,000 by 2010. Similarly, syphilis in this age group rose from 900 cases in 2000 to over 2,500 in 2010. And the number of new HIV infections in people over 50 doubled between 2000 and 2009.   

Older adults are at increased risk for STDs for a number of reasons. Physiologically, post-menopausal women often have vaginal dryness which can lead to small vaginal tears during intercourse thereby increasing their risk of contracting certain STDs, including HIV. In addition, the immune system is less effective as we age which can also increase the risk of contracting an STD. But much of the risk is behavioral.  Many older people find themselves single – due to death or divorce – for the first time in many decades and though they enter into sexual relationships they are unlikely to consider themselves at risk for STDs and unlikely to use condoms.     

While pointing out an important and overlooked topic, the writers and actors of Parks and Recreation also had a lot of fun with the safe sex lecture for seniors. When Leslie asked the room full of octogenarians what they were risking by having sex the answers included: “a heart attack,” and “your partner dying on top of you.”  And when she took out the requisite banana and condom, one old man asked what to do if the banana was “soft and mushy and leaning a bit to the left.”

Safer-Sex Presentations Violate the Policies of Some States and School Districts:  Leslie’s condom demonstration was interrupted by city employee Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) and the leaders of the local Society for Family Stability Foundation who inform her that the city has an abstinence-only-until-marriage mandate and she has to stop her presentation immediately.

Though it’s doubtful that any real-world community has an abstinence-only mandate that would be wide-reaching enough to shut down a presentation to senior citizens, such mandates frequently silence those who teach high school seniors (and all other grades as well). 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided with 16 states requiring that abstinence be stressed and 11 saying schools should cover it; 19 states require that information on importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage be provided; and 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy.  

Under many of these laws, Leslie’s condom and banana would be specifically banned. In Mississippi, for example, the law states that education: “shall not include instruction and demonstrations on the application and use of condoms.”

It’s important to remember that school districts often adopt their own policies about how they will approach sex education (though they can’t go against state law) and choose their own curricula. Districts also make their own decisions about condom demonstrations.

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Materials Are Often Ridiculous: One of the best gags of the episode was the abstinence-only-until-marriage booklet on which Leslie was supposed to base her revised lecture: So You Think You Know More than God included a chapter entitled “There’s a Party In Your Pants and Nobody is Invited.” Reading from the pamphlet, Leslie tells seniors: “Our bodies are god’s gift but they’re also the devil’s playground. The devil likes to hide in all your private nooks and crannies and if you open to wide he might get out or in.”

Once upon a time, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula were this blatantly religious. The first draft of Sex Respect, for example, suggested teens take Jesus Christ on a date with them as “protection.”  Today’s programs —with names like Why kNOw, WAIT (Why Am I Tempted) Training, Passion & Principals, and HIS (Healthy Images of Sexuality)—are slightly more subtle but no less ridiculous:


  • “Getting involved in a physical relationship with someone can be like the pot of boiling water. First, you start kissing and then hands start roaming and then, oops! Sex just kind of happens!” (Worth the Wait, Section 2-26)
  • “Before Alan and Susie knew what had happened, they had sexual intercourse, because there was nothing left to satisfy their desires. Soon their relationship grew bitter, and they broke up, each feeling used, insufficient, and empty.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 35)

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Don’t Work: Leslie’s employee, Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones) makes several impassioned pleas against abstinence-only programs.  She says: “Objective studies have shown that abstinence only education doesn’t work people still have sex they don’t know how to use protection so the disease keeps spreading. We need to give people practical knowledge.” Later she points out that states with abstinence-only polices have higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. 

A federally funded evaluation of the “best” abstinence-only programs that received government money found that young people who received the program were no more likely than those in the control group to have abstained from sex and that they had similar number of partners and initiated sex at similar ages. Advocates for Youth notes that 11 states evaluated the impact of their abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and not a single one was shown to reduce teen sexual activity. And 80 percent of teens who pledged virginity (often as part of an abstinence-only program) became sexually active before they got married. 

Moreover, research found that an increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. As always correlations does not necessarily mean causation but it does mean that Pawnee’s Ann was right.

Some Communities Fight Abstinence-Only Restrictions: While it’s doubtful that Parks and Recreation will revisit the issue of sex education, the episode ends with Leslie on a local television show calling the policy antiquated and insane and vowing to change it.  The good news is that there are communities in which this does actually happen. 

According to SIECUS, Midland, Texas, the childhood home of former-President George W. Bush, was one of the districts that recently had this kind of epiphany. Though many of those involved with public schools had believed abstinence-only-until-marriage education was the way to go, a rise in pregnancy rates convinced them that it was time to change their approach. In 2011, the school district adopted an evidence-based program, It’s Your Game – Keep It Real, that provided more information to student in the seventh and eighth grade.  

That same year, the board of education of Oswego Community Unit School District in Illinois also considered abandoning abstinence-only-until-marriage education in favor of a program that would emphasize abstinence as the most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but would also add lessons on contraception (which had been banned until that point).

Sex Educators Get Called Names: At the end of the episode, Leslie Knopes holds up a local newspaper that takes on her support for sex education by calling her Loosley Grope. Funny but kind of sad because many sex educators I know have actually been called names just for their support of teaching accurate information to teens.  Heck, I was once called a tramp on national radio for suggesting that teens deserve comprehensive sex education.

In fact, there was only one place where I think the writers didn’t quite get it right. Apparently, 85 percent of Pawnee residents approve of the strict abstinence-only approach (and the other 15 percent are perverts).  Granted, Pawnee is fictional and I don’t know much about its politics (or perversions) but the good news is that most real polls show overwhelming support for comprehensive sex education across the country and across the political spectrum.  One study, for example, found that 95 percent of parents of junior high school students and 93 percent of parents of high school students believe that birth control and other methods of preventing pregnancy are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.

So, outside of Pawnee at least, Leslie Knopes would get a lot of support, that is if she wasn’t a fictional character.