Sex, Drugs and Doctrine

When policymakers advocate rigid, abstinence-only drug and sex education programs, they put our young people in real jeopardy.
Politics trumped science once again today as the President officially proclaimed April 14, 2005 "National D.A.R.E. Day." Heaping praises on the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, Bush said, "Across America, law enforcement officers, volunteers, parents and teachers are helping to send the right message to our nation's youth about illegal drugs and violence through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) Program."

Yet despite 22 years of drug-free pledges, T-shirts, bumper stickers and plenty of abstinence-only rhetoric, the program does not seem to be getting the "right message" across to the D.A.R.E. generation, many of whom are saying "maybe," "sometimes," or even "yes" to alcohol and other drugs.

As in years past, the 2004 Monitoring the Future survey of drug and alcohol use by high school students revealed that three-quarters admitted to using alcohol prior to graduation, and half had tried illegal drugs. Dismissal of "just say no" is so widespread that even the Bush twins were caught imbibing before they were of legal drinking age.

Perhaps teens are cynical about the simplistic "drugs are bad, don't use them" messages they have received since early childhood. Or maybe they don't find police officers, however well-meaning, a credible source of information. Whatever the reasons, the "feel-good" D.A.R.E. program has proven to be little more than that for everyone involved, except students themselves.

Evaluations over the past decade have consistently found, as the General Accounting Office noted after assessing the research, that, "D.A.R.E had no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use." To add to the ever-growing chorus of critics, the Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education and the American Federation of Teachers have deemed D.A.R.E. ineffective. And although D.A.R.E. has tried to re-invent itself of late, preliminary evaluations are faring no better than those of the original, which is the program still currently used in a majority of school districts in America.

By officially praising D.A.R.E., Bush not only demonstrates a fundamental disregard for science, but also contradicts his own education policy. The No Child Left Behind Act recommends only programs approved by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. D.A.R.E. is glaringly absent from that prized list of "evidence-based" drug education programs.

While the Bush administration continues to tout an ineffective program, a growing number of big cities are refusing to go along. Most notably, Los Angeles, birthplace of the program, gave D.A.R.E. the ax last year. And after receiving a scathing report from the Independent Budget Office, New York City abandoned D.A.R.E. last year, citing ineffectiveness as well as a savings of $2.5 million to the city.

Sacrificing sound programs in favor of doctrine, a palpable disservice to teens, is also apparent with the parallel issue of sexuality education. The House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, has been looking at federally funded, abstinence-only sex education programs, which now dominate the terrain, and found that such programs deliver distorted and inaccurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Just this month, authors of a joint Yale/Columbia University research study reported on the impact of teenage virginity pledges pushed by the "True Love Waits" movement. In the prestigious Journal of Adolescent Health, sociologists Hannah Bruckner and Peter Bearman revealed that the majority of pledgers ultimately had sex before marriage. Pledgers were less likely to use condoms than their non-pledging counterparts, and those who remained virgins were "more likely to substitute oral and/or anal sex for vaginal sex."

The ultimate item of bad news: there was no difference in rates of sexually transmitted disease in pledgers and non-pledgers, prompting the authors to write, "The all-or-nothing approach advocated by many abstinence-only programs may create additional barriers to knowledge and protection for adolescents."

We hear lots of rhetoric these days about family values and safety. As the mother of four, I share other parents' concerns about the worrisome issues of sex and drugs. Abstinence, of course, would be ideal for teenagers. But in the end, we have no choice but to accept the reality that young people make their own decisions, and they are not always consistent with our preferences. When policymakers advocate rigid, abstinence-only drug and sex education programs of questionable value, to the exclusion of safety-oriented approaches that dare to provide an honest, comprehensive fallback strategy, they put our young people in real jeopardy. If sex and drug prevention programs prohibit the discussion of practical information about how to take precautions if one is not abstinent, they are neither education nor protection.
Marsha Rosenbaum directs the Safety First drug education program at the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco. She is the author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs and Drug Education (2004).