Choice! Magazine

Just Say None of Your Business

On January 26, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it would continue to fund Community-Based Abstinence Education programs, further restricting the sexuality education of America's young people.

Like past years' decisions to continue funding for abstinence-only education, this recent announcement, which introduces a new set of guidelines, emerges not from logic or evidence, but from extreme right-wing ideology.

A History of Big Money and Bad Policy

From its inception, the abstinence-only education initiative has promoted a biased moralistic agenda instead of a public health agenda.

One billion federal tax dollars have gone into abstinence-only programs since 1996, and $115 million dollars will be allocated to Community-Based Abstinence Education programs in the 2006 fiscal year. These programs stress abstinence as the only way to prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and do not provide information about birth control methods, except to stress their failure rates.

Abstinence-only education has spilled into international funding, as well. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which grants funding to 15 countries that have been affected by HIV/AIDS, requires grantees to allocate at least 33 percent of their prevention spending to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

What's New?

The new ACF guidelines require programs receiving funds to teach that abstinence before marriage guarantees a happier life, complete with greater wealth, healthy children, longevity, freedom from psychological problems, and better educational opportunities. The guidelines fail to provide evidence to support this guarantee.

The ACF also now requires that programs receiving funds define abstinence in the strictest terms: "voluntarily choosing not to engage in sexual activity until marriage." Sexual activity is defined as "any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse." Suggestions for staying abstinent include avoiding television and not staying out late.

Marriage is defined as "a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife." This implies that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) teens have no choice but to embrace a lifetime of abstinence. Sexually active teens are also marginalized, as the ACF associates depression and suicide with premarital sex -- again providing no evidence to back up its claim.

Instead of funding effective, medically accurate sex education programs, which address both abstinence and birth control, the ACF has continued to fund programs that forbid discussion of safer sex and contraception. And with these new guidelines, programs that receive funding must now sign a statement promising not to provide information about contraception, even if they want to do so with non-government funds. (Signing this statement used to be voluntary.)

The Facts About Abstinence-Only Programs

From its inception, the abstinence-only education initiative has promoted a biased moralistic agenda instead of a public health agenda, withholding vital information and promoting misinformation. Abstinence-only programs prohibit information on contraception services, sexual identity, and human sexuality -- leading to censorship within the public school system.

Abstinence-only funding has also often crossed the constitutional line separating church and state. Many abstinence-only federal grants have gone to religious organizations, with instructions that they are not to spend any of the money for religious purposes. But making sure these instructions are followed is difficult, if not impossible.

Silver Ring Thing -- an abstinence-only education group that has received more than $1 million from HHS since 2003 -- advocates in its mission statement "offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to a sexually pure life." Only after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against HHS was federal funding of Silver Ring Thing suspended.

In December 2004, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a report that exposed many of the factual inaccuracies presented in abstinence-only curricula, such as the erroneous claims that condoms don't work 30 percent of the time and that HIV could be transmitted through tears and sweat.

The new guidelines attempt to address these inaccuracies by requiring references for all contraceptive efficacy and STI data from ACF grantees. But there are no standards in place to ensure that these references are legitimate, or that the information presented is medically accurate, making the new requirement useless.

Reality Check

No research has proven that abstinence-only programs actually work. What the research does show is that Americans, by and large, are not abstinent people. More than 60 percent of high school seniors are sexually active. The median age at first intercourse for women is 17.4 years, whereas the median age at first marriage is 25.3 years. For men, the median age at first intercourse is 17.7 years, and the median age of first marriage is 27.1 years.

And while virginity pledgers may be more likely to delay sex (on average they have sex a year and a half later than non-pledgers), they're less likely to use contraception when they do have sex, exposing themselves to an increased risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs, including HIV.

Sexually active teens have the highest rates for many STIs and the highest unintended pregnancy rates, and are estimated to account for nearly half of new HIV infections. The numbers are troubling, but abstinence alone has not been proven to be an effective tool to combat these statistics. And contrary to what abstinence-only programs suggest, no scientific data has shown that consensual sex between teenagers is psychologically harmful.

What's Next?

The new guidelines have increased federal grant periods from one or three years to five years, ensuring these programs are funded through fiscal year 2010. Hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars will support these programs even after President Bush leaves office.

Abstinence is certainly an important aspect of any sex education curriculum. But to limit discussion of pregnancy and STI prevention to abstinence alone, omitting any information about contraception, not only flies in the face of what the scientific community supports -- it also threatens the health and safety of young people.

Teenagers need comprehensive sexuality education to make reasoned decisions about their sexual health and to become sexually healthy adults. By mandating a biased attitude toward sex and withholding crucial knowledge, the federal government is putting the lives, health, and emotional well being of young people at risk.

The Kids Are Alright

Orson Morrison is a 32-year-old clinical psychologist from Toronto. Jesse Carr is a 23-year-old non-profit staff member from a rural Pennsylvania town. Jessie Voors is a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Fort Wayne, IN. Erinne Kovi is a 29-year-old businesswoman and mother of one from Ohio.

What do these four people have in common? They all have gay or lesbian parents. Each of them recognizes that in many ways they are unique. But a new study, published in the journal Child Development, confirms what they have always known: They're just as well-adjusted as people with heterosexual parents.

A New Generation of Research

Researchers have been studying the children of gay and lesbian parents for almost 50 years, trying to find out if they have more problems than other kids. Do they have more behavior problems, a harder time making friends, or difficulties with sexual identity? The answer, time and again, has been a resounding "No."

Before now, as critics are quick to point out, research in this area has had various limitations - in particular, small sample groups and a lack of educational or socioeconomic diversity. But this most recent study is helping to usher in what lead researcher Charlotte Patterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, calls a "new generation of research."

Patterson and her colleagues used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of more than 12,000 high school students from across the country. "Using a national sample makes us more confident that the findings are stable and applicable to the broad range of adolescents in the U.S.," says co-author Stephen Russell, associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.

The sample size is larger, and the results are still the same. "What this study shows, and what countless other studies have shown, is that sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of promoting and rearing a healthy child," says Suzanne Johnson, associate professor of psychology at Dowling College and co-author of The Gay Baby Boom. "What matters is who the person is, not who they love."

Relationships Are Key

Teens with same-sex parents were identical to those with opposite-sex parents in almost every area analyzed, from anxiety levels to autonomy, and even grade-point average. It was kids' relationships with their parents, not the gender of their parents' partners, that clearly influenced their development. Those with warm, caring family bonds were doing better at home, in school, and in their social lives than those without them. Other studies have also found parental warmth - being a caring, understanding, and accepting parent - to be one of the most powerful forces behind the healthy development of children and adolescents, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, family structure, and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian parents are just as likely as heterosexual parents to meet - or to fail to meet - their children's needs for healthy development.

This comes as no surprise to those with experience in child development, including Aimee Gelnaw, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition (, a lesbian and gay organization, and a mother herself. "There's so much that we know about the ingredients to well-being," she says, emphasizing the importance of loving, stable households. "When you bake a cake, it doesn't matter who dumps in the flour. It's just got to be there."

Finding Strength in Difference

It may not matter who dumps in the flour, but, as children of gays and lesbians often point out, their family structure does affect their lives. "A lot of the emphasis has been on proving to the world that we're normal, we're not different, we're no different than you," says Orson Morrison, who, in his work as a clinical psychologist, has studied other adult sons of gay men. "I think that once it's accepted that we're normal, then we can start talking about how we are different."

Those differences may make life more challenging sometimes, but they may also be advantageous for some children with gay and lesbian parents. According to Morrison, the men he studied felt they were more multifaceted and freer from rigid gender roles than children of opposite-sex parents because their gay fathers provided an alternate model of masculinity. Erinne Kovi says that, for her, having a lesbian mother helped to make her open-minded and accepting of many different kinds of people and lifestyles. "It's something that I'm praying I teach my own child," she says.

And while being open-minded and rejecting of gender roles are qualities that any parents - gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual - can instill in their children, some children of gays and lesbians may have particular insights from witnessing the struggles and experiences of their parents, including struggles with homophobia and discrimination. Jesse Carr learned to deal with obstacles in his life from his mother and her lesbian partner. "They definitely gave me a lot of strength and encouragement and humor skills for coping with people who are going to mess around with you [because you have gay parents]," says Carr, 22, who's a staff member at COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) (, a nonprofit organization that offers advocacy, education, and support. "[My parents] would basically say, there's always going to be a bully on the playground, until you die. You just have to find lots of different ways to win anyway."

The Push to Belong

As long as homophobia exists, there will likely be a need for research that proves gays and lesbians are fit parents. This fact hits close to home for researcher Suzanne Johnson, who has two daughters with her lesbian partner. It was especially difficult when their 10-year-old's homework involved watching the news. "So before the election, there's the president saying that there shouldn't be marriage between two women or two men," Johnson says. "And there are our kids, looking at us and saying, 'Why is he mean?'"

Researchers, activists, people who grew up in gay and lesbian families, and others hold out hope that the cold hard facts will triumph over political agendas. In the meantime, groups like COLAGE and the Family Pride Coalition focus on both research and education, pushing for schools and other institutions to fully recognize and involve children of gays and lesbians. Activists like Gelnaw at the Family Pride Coalition believe that nothing - not even the proverbial bully on the playground - will keep the children of gay and lesbian parents from fighting for what every human being wants and needs: a sense of belonging.

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