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How the Latest Abstinence Findings Could Turn Into a Classic Sex-Ed 'Bait and Switch'

The religious right is rallying around a study that supposedly proves their legitimacy. In reality, the findings just demonstrate how important comprehensive sexual education is.

Big news last week for the "sex is evil and should be avoided" crowd -- big media organizations all over the country trumpeted that abstinence-only education "works". Naturally, I was skeptical that the sex-phobes had actually produced a curriculum that convinced young people to put off sex for the 15 years between the onset of puberty and getting married, and indeed, a quick perusal of the story demonstrated that the program in question only delayed the onset of sexual activity for 2 years for a percentage of the students. As usual, by their own measurement, abstinence-only proponents were a miserable failure, and the 95 percent number (that's the percent of Americans that have had premarital sex) remains unchanged.

But knowing as I do how much the religious right loves a bad faith argument, I was also not surprised to see abstinence-only supporters pretend that an utter failure to convince kids to wait until marriage was a win for them. Apparently, the war on sex is a war of attrition and any reduction in orgasmic activity is a plus in their book. But upon investigating the claims that the abstinence-until-marriage crew was "right", I found that their declarations of victory were even more dishonest than usual. Because the program trumpeted by the anti-sex crew had no relationship to the abstinence-until-marriage programs promoted by the religious right and funded under the Bush administration. This successful program very narrowly taught a bunch of 6th and 7th graders to wait until they were ready, accepting that for the vast majority of them, "ready" is going to come before marriage. "Wait until prom" is a much different message than "wait until marriage". There was no denouncing of contraception you get in the standard abstinence-only curriculum, and in fact the teachers were told that if a student expressed misinformation about condoms, that they were to correct them. As Jill Filipovic noted in the Guardian, "In other words, the programme was exactly what the abstinence portion of a good comprehensive sex-ed class would look like."

Very few people in the comprehensive sex education camp think that 12-year-olds having sex is usually a good idea. Most kids that age want the ability to say no more than they want the right to say yes, and so crafting programs to their needs is exactly the sort of thing a good sex educator should do. But as Hanna Rosin noted, it's silly to think that this approach will do much for 15- and 16-year-olds whose sexual activity is far more likely to be exactly what they want. At best, what we've learned is that teaching negotiation skills to say no is good for younger kids, and then older kids are probably still going to need and want sex-positive, medically accurate information, so that they sex they instigate on their own is safer.

Since this program that worked openly flouted the abstinence-only curriculum promoted by people like the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, you'd think that Valerie Huber would oppose it. But instead, Huber told the New York Times that this is great news. And was shockingly honest about why she'd think that:

"The current recommendation before Congress in the 2011 budget zeroes out abstinence education, and puts all the money into broader comprehensive education," Ms. Huber said. "I hope that either the White House amends their request or Congress acts upon this, reinstating abstinence education."

So, in other words, she hopes that by misrepresenting this study, she can get funding reinstated for programs that have nothing in common with this single one that's been proven effective. This shouldn't be surprising at all -- abstinence-only is big business. Lisa Lerner at Politico wrote an interesting article demonstrating how politicians seeking political gains among conservative supporters have cynically exploited abstinence-only earmarks, and it's interesting to see in just examining Arlen Specter's earmarks that are the beneficiaries of the funding.