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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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Am I safe if I always use a condom?
If you always use condoms for vaginal sex, you can cut your chance of getting HPV by about half. [Actually, it’s about a 70 percent reduction in risk compared to non-condom users. (author)] To date, there is no evidence that condoms reduce your chance of getting HPV during oral or anal sex.

What can I do to avoid getting infected?
Avoid sexual activity if you are single. Be faithful to one uninfected partner for the rest of your life. Already had sex? See a doctor and get checked out.

As with other Christian Right campaigns, abstinence-only educators repeat unsubstantiated or misleading claims until they not only become a substitute for reality for the speakers but are accepted as facts by their audience. For instance, the condom industry and the government use scientific testing such as inflating and stretching condoms until they break. Those who oppose condom use on the grounds it would encourage sexual activity and act as a contraceptive argue that condoms are not reliable, using these tests or altered statistics as evidence. For over twenty years, abstinence-only educators have repeated the misleading claims that condoms are undependable, refining the basic message to respond to counter arguments from scientists and proponents of condom use. If sex can’t be "safe," it must be dangerous, goes the argument.

The Measure of Success

Proponents of abstinence-only education would like to tout their success using the same methods that other public health prevention programs do, and they have tried their best to do so by promoting their own studies. But public health researchers have disputed the claims made in support of abstinence-only programs. Those claims of success have been generated mostly by a single evaluation company, The Institute for Research and Evaluation, run by Stan Weed, a Mormon researcher, out of his home. Weed has over 20 years experience working with faith-based interventions and abstinence education and has evaluated over 100 abstinence-only programs in thirty states. He is the major scholarly defender of abstinence-only education, so it is important to note that critics such as William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have already debunked his studies:

Stan Weed ... interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100 abstinence-only programs. Okay, it sounds impressive ... until you learn that Weed has just one peer reviewed and published study in a refereed journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have a modest impact among seventh graders in delaying sex.

Contradicting Weed’s findings, a federally sponsored multiyear evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research demonstrated that abstinence-only programs did not have an effect on sexual abstinence of youth. Comprehensive sexuality education advocates see this report, released in April 2007, as a vindication of their efforts.

The scientific studies have not stopped the wave. Abstinence education is a tool of ideological management that is now well established in American culture and social policy. We can identify those elements that have helped to institutionalize the campaign. What began as isolated projects by individuals in the 1980s has grown into an elaborate network of people, places, and paraphernalia. Over 900 federally funded programs now exist, generating new and revised curricula, videos, and training materials, as well as supporting instructors, administrators and the organizations to house them.

The federally funded infrastructure includes parachurch ministries like Focus on the Family, crisis pregnancy centers, advocacy organizations like the Abstinence Clearinghouse, technical assistance centers for dealing with federal grants, and even a trade organization with a lobbying presence in Washington, the National Abstinence Education Association. While the level of federal funding for abstinence education has not reached that of another school-based prevention program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education or DARE, which hit the $1 billion per year mark in 2001, it has come a long way toward being institutionalized.

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