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Abstinence Double Standard Threatens Girls' Health

Not only is abstinence education ineffective; it can have dangerous health effects on girls.
 
 
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The U.S. government has a solution for unwanted pregnancies, AIDS and cervical cancer. It's called abstinence education, and the government funds it to the tune of around $178 million per year. The only problem is that study after study shows that abstinence education has no effect on the rates of premarital sex or STD infection. Perhaps that's because, as a 2004 report [pdf] from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., showed, over 80 percent of federally funded abstinence programs contain false or misleading information about sex and reproductive health. But then abstinence-only education isn't about keeping teens safe -- it's about reinforcing traditional gender roles and ensuring girls are "pure."

Martha Kempner, vice president for information and communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says that abstinence-only programs aren't giving a health message, they're giving a social one. "This is a social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention," says Kempner. "They're going so far backwards in the messages they're giving women -- that purity is the most important thing and what you should be striving for is a wedding. Saying that the most important thing you can do is get married and have children isn't the most empowering message."

SIECUS has been keeping track of abstinence-only education programs and dissecting their curriculum -- their findings are terrifying. The shame- and fear-based teachings are chock-full of sexist stereotypes, outdated notions of gender roles and even dangerous messages about sexual assault.

The sexist theme that seems to come up the most often in these classes is that girls just don't like sex, and therefore their main "job" is to keep boys, who do like sex, from getting any. A workbook from Sex Respect notes that "because they generally become aroused less easily, females are in a good position to help young men learn balance in relationships by keeping intimacy in perspective." But beware ladies, the increased sexualization of pop culture could interfere with your natural disdain for intercourse. The same workbook tells students that "a young man's natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone … females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well."

Since girls don't like sex, it's their job to keep boys' desire at bay and to be the arbiters of chastity. "Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy." (Student Workbook, Reasonable Reasons to Wait) Because, after all, he can't help himself. "A woman is far more attracted by a man's personality while a man is stimulated by sight. A man is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is physically attracted." (WAIT Training manual, Friends First)

The only messages put forward about boys' sexuality is the idea that their urges are uncontrollable, and it's up to young women not to "tease" them. "A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?" ( Sex Respect) Another classroom activity tells the story of Stephanie and Drew, a couple trying to save sex until marriage. Stephanie is too affectionate and wears tight clothing: "Drew likes her a lot, but lately keeping his hands off her has been a real job!" Even though Stephanie has been clear that she doesn't want to have sex, "her actions, however, are not matching her words." ( Why kNOw?) No means yes, anyone? In fact, when abstinence curricula contains information about sexual abuse or assault (which they often don't), the message is similar. Girls should be preventing it, not boys.

Other teachings reinforce traditional gender roles that have nothing to do with sex. A program highlighted in the Waxman report teaches that women need "financial support" and men need "admiration." Another says: "Women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."

"[These programs] are about getting to this '50s vision of a family with a mom who stays home and dad who works," Kempner notes. "And no gays, ever."

And this return to traditional gender roles is not just being pushed in our schools. The same conservative religious organizations that are creating and promoting abstinence-only education programs are also doing their best to insert themselves in family life.

You only need look at the increase of social programs and events specifically created for young girls, like Father-Daughter Purity Balls. Perhaps the most disturbing attempt at enforcing sexual "purity," these events feature young girls making abstinence pledges to their fathers in a prom-like event. One abstinence organization, the BRAVEheart Teen Initiative, features the following message to girls considering taking part in the ball:

"Have you ever wanted an opportunity to grow closer to your daddy? The Father-Daughter Purity Ball is the stellar event for you to be honored as his beautiful princess."

Oddly, there are no Mother-Son purity balls.

As much as abstinence-only proponents claim that their message is for both young men and women, abstinence for young men is treated as an afterthought in educational and social programs. While the curriculum talks about both boys and girls, the messages they get couldn't be more different. Remaining abstinent is girls' responsibility -- as is making sure that boys are.

While some legislators are attempting to limit federal support of these programs, it's been a slow battle. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jim Moran, D-Va., have introduced the Guarantee of Medical Accuracy in Sex Education Act, which Focus on the Family tellingly calls a bill "to cut funding for purity," but it's not likely to go very far. The House Appropriations Committee recently refused to increase funding for abstinence-only education, but the programs are already getting $178 million a year in federal funds and have received over $1.1 billion since 1996. While some progress is being made in terms of awareness -- 15 states have evaluated their abstinence programs and found them ineffective -- abstinence groups aren't slowing down their pace.

Recently conservative organizations and abstinence educators have turned their focus to the debate over the new HPV vaccine--yet again, something that will overwhelmingly affect young women. The vaccine has proven to be extremely effective in preventing cervical cancer, which kills 200,000 women a year worldwide. Leslie Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse has said, "If you don't want to suffer these diseases, you need to abstain … I personally object to vaccinating children against a disease that is 100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior."

Unruh's cavalier attitude about cervical cancer reveals one of the underlying problems with these programs. Under the guise of helping young people, abstinence education is actually putting girls' health and lives at risk. For these programs, "purity" is not about sex, health or even happiness. It's about a return to "traditional" gender roles at any cost.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.