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.

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