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Why Is the Religious Right Obsessed With Other People's Sex Lives?

Abstinence-only sex ed is a tool of ideological management that is deeply entrenched in American culture and social policy.
 
 
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The Osseo Public School District is in most ways a typical Minnesota suburban system: three high schools, scores of athletic teams, and a graduation rate of 94 percent. But for the past ten years, it has run a dual-track curriculum in sexuality education. Students can choose between an abstinence-only health class and a comprehensive sexuality education class -- the result of a prolonged, and expensive, debate among community members of the district's human sexuality curriculum advisory committee.

While ending in a "compromise" of maintaining two separate classes that cost over $100,000 for abstinence textbooks and curriculum planning, the debate resulted in a school board decision that defined sex as something that happens between a husband and wife. The split in Osseo is emblematic of the national stand-off on how the subject should be taught.

Sexuality education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield is public education. It is no coincidence that the struggle happens in schools. Public education has long been recognized as a major tool in imparting more or less universally accepted societal values such as hard work and civic engagement, but it also sparks debates over the value of competition, individualism, and unquestioned patriotism. Because schools define what knowledge is useful for the populace, the arena of schools is the locale for "ideological management," according to educational philosopher Joel Spring.

Struggles over what should be taught and who gets to learn it are as old as public schools. Teaching the German language was prohibited in schools during World War I. Conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler were famous for five decades beginning in the 1960s as their homegrown Education Research Analysts group deeply influenced the content of Texas textbooks. Controversy over the constitutionality of school prayer was heightened in the 1950s and early '60s as proponents sought to protect the country from godless communism. Recent debates over evolution, bilingual education, the celebration of multiculturalism, the teaching of Arabic, and LGBT rights all reflect controversies about appropriate topics, activities, and services in public schools.

With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, concerns about teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), health and family life education classes have been scrutinized by forces wanting to insert their perspectives into the curriculum. The battle over sexuality education has settled into two polarized camps, much like Osseo's classes. Sexuality education is just one link in a long line of power struggles over who determines what is taught; the opposing frames in this case are public health and conservative values.

There is widespread agreement that teaching adolescents, especially younger teens, to postpone sexual intercourse is a good idea, but what that teaching entails is controversial. Abstinence-only education advises students to abstain from all pre- or extra-marital sex and deliberately omits factual information on such topics as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. A favorite theme is the unreliability, and resulting danger, of condoms. Comprehensive sexuality education, on the other hand, includes education on abstinence but emphasizes that if a person is sexually active, they need knowledge and skills about a wide range of topics, including contraception and abortion, to make informed decisions and stay healthy. Many abstinence-only education supporters occasionally call their approach "abstinence-until-marriage" education and brand comprehensive sexuality education as "condom-based" or "pro-sex."

Although there is scant evidence showing the effectiveness of abstinence-only education over time, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on the strategy. This sum supports three annual multi-million-dollar federal grant programs, grantees, and a lobbying infrastructure that works hard on Capitol Hill. Although a majority of states refuse to accept what has come to be called "abstinence-only money" and have opted out of the state-based grant program, this development has apparently only served to stir the resolve of abstinence-only supporters and their backlash campaigns.

 
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