Sex & Relationships

What Obama Should Do About Sex Ed

Obama has the chance to help empower young people to make responsible, smart decisions about sex.
When I began writing this piece, it was the first time I ever combined the words "President" and "Obama" as in naming the man: President Obama. I am elated and with the election over, it is a time to celebrate. It has been eight long years of one disastrous policy after another coming from the Bush Administration, and for those of us in the weeds trying to make good sexual and reproductive health policy (and stop the all too frequent bad policy from getting rammed down our throats), the disaster has been particularly acute.

I won't rehash all the disasters here, but will focus on the remedy to one of these areas where President Obama can lead: the restoration of evidence-based programs to provide sex education, prevent teen pregnancy, and reduce incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

First, President Obama must end the nearly $200 million a year going into abstinence-only-until-marriage by zeroing it out of the budget he submits to Congress in February. He has pledged to end funding for programs that do not work and, after almost 30 years of federal funding and $1.5 billion in tax payer money, the evidence is clear that these programs do no work. The Democratic Party platform also calls for their end so we have a very clear policy statement and priority in print. Many abstinence-only programs are also homophobic and anti-woman, so it is important to stress these arguments as well. And last but not least, the vast majority of recipients of these dollars are the base of the extreme right wing in this country. It is now time to end the gravy train. Doing so benefits our youth, our communities and oh yeah, incidentally, benefits the progressive common good against which these same groups, by their very nature, consistently rail.

But, ending ab-only has always been part of a broader vision of what young people really need. The other side of this coin, of course, is the second part of what President Obama must do: establish the first ever federal funding stream for a comprehensive approach to sex education. As a member of the Senate, Obama was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act and, again, his party's platform supports a strong move toward more comprehensive programs because they work. For example, we now have the evidence to show that more comprehensive programs do a better job of helping young people wait to have sex than abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. I don't play chess but I believe that is checkmate.

Many groups from the broader reproductive health community, as well as the HIV/AIDS community, have assembled requests to the Obama Administration for a new pot of money to support comprehensive sex education. We know that is an uphill request given the budgetary situation but it must be a priority nonetheless and cost-savings from cut programs must be redirected.

Of course, President Obama cannot do this alone. His budget will send the strongest of signals to Congress to follow suit. But will they? It is a real question. Even the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry's lobbying arm, the National Abstinence Education Association, pondered in their day-after-the-election lament: "Remember that naysayers expected abstinence education to go away when leadership in the Congress first changed from Republican to Democrat two years ago. But it didn't." Indeed. So, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid will also play key roles in getting this done by exercising discipline over wayward Members and remembering the platform that brought about the most momentous political shift in our lifetime.

Thankfully, the ascendency of Barack Obama and a new agenda represents the repudiation of the culture wars that have dominated and impoverished our domestic political discourse since Reagan. Make no mistake: these same culture wars are embodied in the work of most abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and their many providers. It is no wonder that they are facing repudiation from at least half the states across the country that no longer even take the money to do these junk programs.

Let history be our guide. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were part of the socially conservative Republican "Contract With America" when they swept into power in the early 1990's. President Obama, let's make a clean start. It is a new day in America and change has indeed come. Let it include a change in how we empower young people to make responsible decisions. Let it start with an end to extreme abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and a renewed commitment to our youth by investing in comprehensive sex education.
William Smith is Vice President for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).
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