Ignorance Is Bliss: Preaching Abstinence in America

teens and sex

Under twinkling lights and shimmering tulle, 150 or so teens in Central Texas made a solemn pledge.

Most of them had on their Sunday best, as they stood on stage in front of smiling family and friends to receive their rings, tiny, tangible testaments to their lifelong promises. After the ceremony, they ate lavishly decorated cake and partied with loved ones into the February night.

Although the event bears a striking resemblance to a mass wedding, one crucial difference would become clear by night's end: None of the ceremony participants would be getting busy.

Those who participated didn't promise to love another person unconditionally; they pledged to not have sex until their wedding nights. The McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project (McCAP), a non-profit organization in Waco, Texas that provides area schools and community groups with abstinence until marriage education programs sponsored the chastity ceremony, called, "A Night to Last a Lifetime."

Earlier in the day, in another part of Waco, bowls of brightly colored condoms sit mostly ignored by the local high school girls who visit the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Waco to pick up their birth control pills. When clinic staff asks the girls why they don't take the condoms, says Waco Planned Parenthood president Pam Smallwood, the girls say it's because they don't work. Smallwood says that it's likely the girls shun condoms because they've heard so much about condoms' inability to protect them from STDs in their sex education classes in school that they figure, why bother?

But they're still having sex. And premarital sex without condoms is one unintended result of the abstinence-only message that's sweeping through schools all over the U.S -- and receiving more federal funding every year.

Fighting about Sex
Waco is just one of many American communities caught up in a battle over teens' sexual health: On one side are the abstinence-only proponents, who say that because not having sex is the only 100 percent effective method in preventing STDs and pregnancy, it doesn't make sense to tell teens to do anything else. On the other side are comprehensive sex education and abstinence-plus advocates, many of whom also feel that abstinence is a healthy option for teens, but also want to provide information about contraception, based on the core belief that, in the end, teens will make their own decisions.

In 1988, only 2 percent of public schools taught abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. In 1999, that number rose to 23 percent, according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study, "Sexuality and Abstinence Education Policies in U.S. Public School Districts." Today, some studies put the percentage at about one third, thanks to the Bush administration's recent funding increases.


Although advocates on both sides say that both schools of thought should work together more to give kids the most effective messages about sex, it's clear which side has the support of the highest office in the land.

Despite the lack of evidence that abstinence-only education has a positive impact on adolescents' sexual behavior, President Bush's 2003 budget proposal asks for $135 million for "abstinence-until-marriage" sexuality education programs, which is a $33 million increase over this year's funding.

This is a considerable increase, but it's nothing new. Abstinence-only education has exploded in this country since the early '90s. Abstinence-only education grants to the states were part of former president Clinton's welfare reform in 1996, and last year, the Bush administration increased funding for abstinence-only education as part of his budget for grants to community organizations, including ones that are "faith-based."

In 1988, only 2 percent of public schools taught abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. In 1999, that number rose to 23 percent, according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study, "Sexuality and Abstinence Education Policies in U.S. Public School Districts." Today, some studies put the percentage at about one third, thanks to the Bush administration's recent funding increases.

This number may not seem high, unless you consider the fact that numerous studies have shown that half of all high school kids will become sexually active in their teen years. However we do the math, that could mean that a significant number of the teens having sex today are not receiving any information in school about contraception and STD prevention.

What's even more notable about all of this is the fact that most abstinence-only programs, are only teaching kids about the harmful emotional and physical effects of premarital sex. While abstinence -only education proponents say this bolsters teens' resolve that having sex isn't worth the risk, critics argue that these fear tactics are backfiring.

Some teens who are educated in this system may indeed wait to have sex. But how many of them? And at what cost? Although teen pregnancy rates have fallen across the nation, alarming statistics abound about the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, among people under 25. That age group contracts about 65 percent of all sexually transmitted infections, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the same report, one in four new HIV infections occurs in people younger than 22.

Is pushing abstinence as teens' only healthy choice the best means of attacking this public health nightmare?

Fear and self-loathing
Although only one-third of schools say they have abstinence-only programs in place, fewer than half of public secondary schools provide information about where to get and how to use birth control (45 percent) and condoms (39 percent), according to a 1999 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Discussion of more sensitive sexuality issues is rarer still.

"While the large majority of public secondary schools -- 94 percent -- discuss abstinence as part of their sex education, and most cover HIV (97 percent) and other sexually transmitted diseases (96 percent), as many as one in two schools do not bring up... abortion (48 percent) and sexual orientation (50 percent) in their sex education programs," the report continues.

Those controversial topics are some of the most important issues to those who oppose the abstinence-until-marriage message. One criticism is that the focus on "purity" and virginity until marriage alienates kids for whom such states are physically or legally impossible, such as kids who've experienced incest or those who are gay and can't marry in almost every state in the country.
"I don't think it is a good idea to teach [only abstinence] because it makes the kids who haven't remained abstinent have lower self-esteem," says Bianca, a 14-year-old freshman at New Richmond High School in Wisconsin. "We should learn about how everyone isn't perfect, and how people hardly ever wait until marriage to have sex. We should be taught how our generation is, not how the previous generation wishes we would be."

Even for kids who don't face those obstacles, staying virginal for the next 10 or so years of their lives often seems like an unrealistic feat.

"I don't think it is a good idea to teach [only abstinence] because it makes the kids who haven't remained abstinent have lower self-esteem," says Bianca, a 14-year-old freshman at New Richmond High School in Wisconsin. "We should learn about how everyone isn't perfect, and how people hardly ever wait until marriage to have sex. We should be taught how our generation is, not how the previous generation wishes we would be."

George and Laura Bush have publicly agreed with abstinence-only proponents' contention that teaching kids about birth control sends them a "mixed message." Polls of parents and students by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, however, show that most kids don't find the "don't have sex, but if you must, use protection" message confusing or contradictory.

"It's a balanced message; adolescents get that," says Michael McGee, vice president of education of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "We [tell kids] 'don't drink and drive, it's against law and it's dangerous, but if you do [drink], call and we'll pick you up, or have a designated driver."

But many abstinence proponents say plainly that premarital sex doesn't have any benefits for young people, and getting them to think about the consequences of sex before marriage is the only reasonable message that a sex ed program should have.

Aside from the emotional and veiled religious tactics abstinence-only educators might use to dissuade kids from having sex, many have been accused of omitting and mis-using medical information. In other words, what's "truth" to some is a "scare tactic" or "misinformation" to others.

Marilyn Ammon says that students in McCap's programs learn that condoms don't minimize the risk of getting HPV, the virus that can cause genital warts. And because foreplay is also a risk, she believes that abstinence is the only solution. McCAP's programs also warn that the risks of premarital sex are particularly grave for girls.

"A teenage girl's cervix looks like a sponge," says Ammon, "If she gets exposed to HPV she's more likely to get cervical cancer or chlymadia and might end up sterile."

Some health educators say that condoms can decrease the likelihood that a woman's cervix will be exposed to HPV. And, out of the 30 distinct types of HPV that the Centers for Disease Control say can affect the genital area, McGee says, "Only two are precursors to cervical or ovarian cancer." Further more, he points out, "they can be detected early on by pap smears and prevented. It's relatively rare that someone would get cancer from HPV, that's why the pap smear is a normal part of gynecological care."

Another common message is that condoms don't work to protect one from HIV because the virus is smaller than the width of the microns in a condom. McGee and other proponents of teaching kids about safer sex options strongly disagree.

"I've seen that come up in a lot of abstinence-only curriculum. That may be a laboratory truth, but not in real life," he says. "In lots of studies with HIV-positive partners, condoms are 99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission. It's to scare kids away from sex."

Abstinence-only folks derisively dismiss the comprehensive sex-ed folks as the "condom crowd" and refer to birth control demonstrations involving condoms and broom handles or various phallic fruits and vegetables as "lewd."

Even more interesting is the implication in some programs that sexual pleasure before marriage is always a threat to future matrimonial bliss. "I've never heard an adult say 'my marriage is better because I had a lot of sexual partners,'" says Kathy Taylor, executive director of SHARE, an abstinence-until-marriage non-profit educational organization in Seattle run by Life Choices, the umbrella organization that operates "pregnancy decision centers" in Seattle and Colorado. "But I have heard them say they have a lot of regret."

How much does it cost to tell kids to stay virgins?
Of course, not everyone in a place like Waco agrees with the theory behind abstinence-only education, but as Pam Smallwood of the Waco Planned Parenthood points out, well funded abstinence-only programs are tempting for cash-strapped public schools.

"When McCAP comes in with a pretty package with a ribbon around it," she continues, "it's pretty hard to pass up."

"Ignorance is never the right approach when it comes to health," he says. "People don't suddenly acquire the skills to become sexually healthy adults at 21."


It's safe to say that the government has little idea what the grant recipients actually do with their money. Most abstinence organization directors will tell you that they set up programs tailored to what each district, community and school needs and wants. Each state, city and school district have their own laws and requirements regarding what, if anything, schools should teach about sex education, and abstinence programs in each area must adapt to those requirements. Therefore, what abstinence organizations should or can do with their grant money varies greatly. And the government leaves it up to them.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and polls by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and Advocates for Youth show that most parents and teens -- 70 percent -- agree that kids should learn about birth control methods and how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs.

This suggests that even pro-abstinence messages should not be taught in a vacuum.

Heather Amell, health educator at Albert Einstein High School in New Kensington, Md., believes that stressing the positive aspects of waiting "for someone special they can trust," has a positive impact on her students.

"They really get into it. I hear them talking afterwards, she says, "[saying things like] 'I'm definitely waiting; it's not worth it.' It has to do with their self-esteem. I find a lot of them have respect for the idea of abstinence."

But, as enthusiastic as Ammel is about teaching kids to abstain until marriage, she has learned to take a realistic approach. "I want to stress abstinence, but they need to be aware," she says. "Not all of them are going to abstain; that's reality."

Does education lead to promiscuity?
Increasing evidence suggests that kids won't be more likely to have sex if they're informed about birth control methods in school. In fact, the evidence also suggests that teens who are given the information to make healthy decisions will most likely do so.

In a report released in 2001 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, researchers found that sex education that discusses contraception doesn't make kids have sex any earlier, have sex more frequently or increase the number of sexual partners. And a 1997 study by the National Center for Health Statistics that showed that "teenagers who receive contraceptive education in the same year that they choose to become sexually active are about 70 percent more likely to use contraceptive methods (including condoms) and more than twice as likely to use oral contraceptives as those not exposed to contraceptive education."

Maybe Michael McGee puts it best. "Ignorance is never the right approach when it comes to health," he says. "People don't suddenly acquire the skills to become sexually healthy adults at 21; that has to develop as you grow up. That has to be a part of education, beyond just saying no."

Rachel, a 15-year-old freshman at Einstein High in New Kensington, MD, agrees.

"Kids are always curious about sex; they need no encouragement to make them try it," she says. "By making prevention [options] available, you merely make it less intimidating."
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