Sex & Relationships

"Abstinence Plus": Soothing to Parents, or Still Lying to Teens?

Will abstinence-only programs continue to get funding to misinform kids about sex?

As expected (or at least Obama promised during the campaign), the process of zeroing out funding for abstinence-only programs has begun, and there's even an emphasis in the new appropriations bill on using evidence-based evaluations of the programs to receive federal funding for sex education, instead of the hope and tweaking method used by the religious right to evaluate their own abstinence-only programs.  While this is all very good news, however, sexual and reproductive health advocates have every reason in the world to be cautious and skeptical of the new standards. As Jodi points out in her report on the new bill, the narrow language of using teen pregnancy as the sole standard for evaluation leaves out the various other important aspects of sex education that also need to be considered, such as STD and violence prevention. 

On top of that concern, I'd like to also argue that the skittish emphasis on abstinence shown by legislators might cripple the efforts to even achieve the stated goal of reducing teen pregnancy. With such a narrow stated goal like "reducing teen pregnancy" instead of something more comprehensive, there's a lot of room for programs that, while teaching contraception, still engage in slut-shaming and other shaming and scaring tactics.  Could that mean there's a risk that abstinence-only programs could make minor changes to their sexist, retrograde, ineffective programs and continue to get funding to scare and misinform your kids about sex?

These aren't idle fears.  I've been fascinated by the evolution of the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy into the newer, shinier, but appallingly conservative  National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a name change that suggests the very real expansion of their focus to include young women who are legal adults.  There wouldn't be anything wrong with this, except that while the Campaign isn't anti-contraception like abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are, they also are not particularly realistic about the likelihood high school and college aged students will experiment with sex, nor are they willing to be positive and upbeat about sex, even though most human beings actually have pretty positive feelings about sex (for themselves, though the popularity of scare programs shows that people are willing to be negative about sex for others).  And by being sex negative, the good information the Campaign has to offer will fail to get through to their intended audience, which will be turned off by the horror show tactics. 

On the podcast, I've been having some fun with the National Campaign-funded website Sex, Really, which I find representative of some of the major issues I have with the National Campaign's tactics. Even a casual perusal demonstrates that the site is more about throwing a temper tantrum that dating styles are different for young people now than they were in the 1960s, and just generally promoting male dominance over women than it is about finding realistic strategies for women (who seem to be the only intended audience, because of course Sex, Really doesn't seem to know or care that men can take contraceptive responsibility) to take control over their sexual health.  Site manager Laura Sessions Stepp's real mission is more about persuading young women to date according to a specific plan Sessions Stepp has than about helping young women make the best decisions for them.  According to Sessions Stepp, there is only one real way to date, and that's what I like to call the baiting method.  It assumes that men have no natural ability or desire to spend time with women, and so in order to extract love from men (which is all that women are supposed to want), women have to manipulate men using the only thing men think we're good for, which is sex.  You're supposed to give the man small tastes of what sex might be like, but not have sex with him until you've extracted a commitment from him after a long dating process. 

Sessions Stepp justifies flogging the hell out of this model -- and shaming women who follow their own sexual star by having sex because it feels good when they want to, and not because they're trying to trick a man into being their husband -- as a matter of protecting women's mental health by shielding them from heartbreak.  And that would be a legitimate argument, if there wasn't a honking logical error in her system, which is that if a man's interest wanes after he's had an orgasm inside your body, then it probably will if you've dated him 10 days or 10 months, and that getting dumped after 10 months instead of 10 days actually hurts more.  Oh yeah, and none of that has anything to do with pregnancy, because sperm swim just as well on your 50th date as on your 1st.  Or that not all women are straight, or that not all straight women are interested in securing a commitment and getting married as soon as they can.  Or that men actually might like women's company, and that's why people aren't lying when they say they had sex right away and ended up together, because they discovered they loved each other for real, not because they're manipulating sexual desire to secure commitments.  Or that women may not all be needy and easily broken-hearted, but are perfectly capable of having fulfilling lives regardless of relationship status.

Sex, Really, and the entire National Campaign is what I fear we might be getting with the new funding guidelines.  Which means that while they may have real information about contraceptive use, you're still getting a dose of shaming, anti-feminism, and just plain old nose-wrinkling fuddy-duddyness that will cause the students to tune you out at best, or at worst, absorb the ideas that will erode their own willingness to reason and make decisions for themselves.  In the latter case, this will merely continue the long-standing problem of young people not taking basic safety precautions because they don't feel they have the right or the power to demand what they know is right for themselves and their own health.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
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