News & Politics

As Attacks on Planned Parenthood Aim for Sex-Ed Funding, Let's Remember How Bad Religious-Backed Abstinence Only Programs Are

Live Action and Lila Rose want to replace Planned Parenthood's sex-ed funding with false information and religious fundamentalist preaching.

It is being reported that Live Action’s Lila Rose is planning the next step in her ongoing effort to defund Planned Parenthood: take away its sex-ed money. Rose is lamenting the fact that Planned Parenthood got federal money to implement evidence-based comprehensive sex education via PREP funding (Personal Responsibility Education Program).  

In preparation for what may eventually be another Lila Rose grainy expose trumpeted by the Right, it’s helpful to brush up on where millions of tax dollars are going to pay for sex “education” -- ineffective and stigmatizing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

Study after study has revealed the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs in reducing the number of teen pregnancies and reducing the spread of disease. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, virginity pledges, a staple of abstinence-only programming, not only did not decrease occurrences of teen STDs, but actually resulted in pledge-takers not seeking medical attention once infected, leading to an increased possibility of transmission.

Abstinence-only programs come under fire for questionable instructional methods and curricula as well. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) periodically releases in-depth reviews of abstinence-only programs and regularly finds they often rely on messages of fear and shame to encourage abstinence and promote biased views of gender, marriage and pregnancy options.

Yet Americans have spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only programs over the past 15 years through Title V of the Social Security Act and other federal legislation. The programs flourished under President George W. Bush, who created an injection of funding with his Community Based Abstinence Education grants. President Barack Obama did away with this funding stream, but during the fight in Congress over health-care reform, Republicans put $250 million for abstinence-only programs into the Affordable Healthcare Act.

I have covered two abstinence-only groups in the past year: Project SOS in Florida and WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) Training, now known as the Center for Relationship Education, based in Denver. I investigated their methods, connections and over $14 million combined in federal and state grants.

Project SOS has received over $6.5 million in federal money since 2002, but the group decided not to apply for funding this year. SOS had ties with the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda through one of its most vocal advocates, Pastor Martin Ssempa. The group’s founder, Pam Mullarkey, was an ardent supporter of Ssempa quoted on his website as saying, “Martin Ssempa is the man to watch. He’s the most powerful voice for abstinence in the world and his passion, charisma and character make his vital message irresistible.” Mullarkey says God described Project SOS in its entirety to her over the course of five evenings. And, like so many other ab-only programs, SOS was cited for peddling erroneous medical information in its curriculum and relying on shame and fear as means of instruction.    

WAIT/CRE has gotten over $8 million in federal funds and just this year was part of an end-run around former Colorado Governor Ritter -- who rejected Title V in favor of PREP -- to obtain an additional $233,000 a year for the next three years.

During an assembly in a Colorado high school, Shelley Donahue, one of WAIT/CRE’s motivational speakers told her audience that girls' brains are like spaghetti, boys' brains are like waffles…boys tuck schoolbooks under their arms at the waist, girls cradle theirs like babies...boys are made to pursue girls and girls are made to wait to be pursued by boys...we have an entire generation of girls looking for daddy just have to get that viable sperm close to her vagina and she turns on the little Hoover vacuum, because girls are very, very fertile.

At the same lecture, Donahue used a participatory activity outlined in the WAIT/CRE curriculum to show how sex prior to marriage negatively impacts a person’s ability to bond to a mate in the future. Donahue had a boy join her at the front of the auditorium. She instructed him to bare his arm, then ripped a long piece of clear packing tape off a roll and held it up to the audience; the boy's girlfriend. 

Donahue applied the tape to the boy's arm and rubbed it briskly to ensure that it bonded, talking about how the tape would probably not become the boy's wife. She then ripped the tape from his arm -- signifying their breakup -- and held it up for the students to see. The tape was covered with bits of the boy's dried skin and hair. Donahue commented on how gross the tape was and repeated the operation over and over again. Each time the tape pulled up more debris and lost more of its ability to make a tight bond.

The implication is that the girl is now dirty, soiled for her future husband. She will go on to have problems trying to “bond” with another man. This too is common in abstinence-only curricula. The girl is burdened with the actions of the boy, and is responsible for guarding her purity from him. There is lip service paid to the boy’s responsibility but mostly in the form of excuses: raging hormones, constantly producing sperm, the girl’s shirts are too low-cut. 

According to one Colorado blogger, an attendee of another Donahue WAIT/CRE lecture reported that Donahue told the group the HPV vaccine “will leave them sterile.” This is a familiar lie used by the right wing based on their belief that for young women, a potentially life-saving vaccine’s most dangerous side effect is immorality and promiscuity. 

You can watch the hour long video for yourself. Not only does the gender stereotyping and nonsensical explanations about how one becomes pregnant continue, it also reinforces heterosexual marriage as the only way to live a happy productive life. All of this is pulled directly from WAIT/CRE’s curriculum. Donahue says something akin to getting right with God in reference to pre-marital sex and mentions the deity several more times throughout the presentation. 

According to a GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network) study "a significantly greater portion of students in schools who used an abstinence-only curriculum reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and gender expression—64.8% of these students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation compared to 57.3% of all other students."

A new circular issued by the Administration for Children and Families, the government agency that distributes abstinence money, recommends that, “[Title V recipients] consider the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and how their programs will be inclusive of and non-stigmatizing toward such participants."

WAIT/CRE’s founder, Joneen Mackenzie, reported on her state application for Title V funding that, "The American Psychological Association Gay and Lesbian Issues Team have vetted the WAIT Training Curriculum for inclusive language and appropriate activities that include all students...only data driven curricula that is inclusive and not stigmatizing to this population will be utilized in this effort." 

The APA’s Clinton Anderson, associate executive director and director of the APA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office says otherwise, “we never conveyed any sort of approval to WAIT Training as being adequately inclusive or appropriate for lesbian, gay and bisexual students." In fact, the APA supports comprehensive sex education and has made recommendations for inclusive messaging.

Colorado Ethics Watch has called for an investigation as a result of Mackenzie misrepresenting WAIT/CRE as LTBTQ friendly, and ethical questions have been raised about the way Title V funding was obtained.

Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch said, “It looks like WAIT violated ethical standard here by claiming that the APA ‘vetted’ WAIT's LGBT inclusiveness criteria when the APA says that did not happen. Obtaining government dollars by falsely claiming to be inclusive and tolerant of gay and lesbian youth actually hurts those young people.”

Project SOS and WAIT/CRE are unfortunately representative, but they don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to outing the legion of discriminatory, shaming and medically erroneous abstinence-only programs. Fraudulent crisis pregnancy centers and state affiliates of Focus on the Family have received millions of tax dollars to talk to kids about heterosexual marriage in the guise of sexual education, probably in a school near you.

Two bills concerning abstinence funding are sitting in the House of Representatives. One introduced by Representative Barbara Lee is pushing to end abstinence funding and the other is an appropriations bill to re-up the funding introduced by the Republicans. Due to the state of the economy, rampant unemployment and a burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, the Lee bill is likely to go nowhere. 

The Republicans will probably find time to debate their bill, lobbying for abstinence-only programs, because the GOP hopefuls believe the real problem with the economy is the downfall of the family and traditional marriage. Perhaps the bill’s debate will coincide with the release of Live Action’s "expose" on Planned Parenthood, depicting teenagers learning how to have out-of wedlock sex by rolling a condom over a banana.

Andy Kopsa is a writer living in New York City. She has written for the Revealer, AlterNet, the American Independent and Westword.