In a recent post, I reported that since the inauguration of Donald Trump (shudder), the federal budget for sex education has been heavily favoring abstinence-based programming, and I said exposure to sex education based on abstinence is the worst thing for anyone whose parents want them to practice safe sex. I realize that sounds like a pretty outrageous claim, so it seems prudent for me to show my work here.
A brief history of sex education in the U.S.
The following is an adapted version of a timeline of the history of sex education that I composed as part of a journalistic research project I completed during my freshman year of college at the University of Oregon:
- 1981: Republican senators Jeremiah Denton and Orrin Hatch sponsored the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), which was designed to prevent premarital teen pregnancy through quote-unquote family-centered programs to promote chastity and self-discipline. The statute emphasized so-called religious, charitable organizations. In the opinion of many religious and human rights groups, this inherent fusion of church and state flouts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
- 1986: A group of priests and activists challenge the AFLA.
- 1993: The AFLA is ruled unconstitutional.
- 1994: Social conservative Representative John Doolittle unsuccessfully proposes limiting the content of HIV-prevention and sexuality education in school-based programs, indicating to conservative groups that to make headway in abstinence policy, it will be necessary “to circumvent the federal laws by restricting, and shaping, education programs through health policy and funding…without drawing Congressional or public debate.”
- 1996: During the final version of welfare reform debates, Congressmen Ernest Istook and Tom Coburn persuade Speaker Newt Gingrich to include $50 million annual federal funding for an abstinence-only-until-marriage program (Title V).
- 1998: The ruling deeming the AFLA unconstitutional has expired, paving the way for an eight-point, (a)-(h) definition of abstinence education, requiring states that accept federal funds to match every four federal dollars with three-state raised dollars and to teach abstinence only.
- January 2001–January 2009: Federal abstinence-only sex education (AOSE) funding doubles under the George W. Bush administration, peaking at $1.76 billion.
- Spring 2009: Half the states have rejected Title V funds, and President Barack Obama calls for the elimination of AOSE programs.
Comprehensive sex ed > AOSE
It’s more effective at delaying teen sexual debut.
Studies show that teens who receive comprehensive sexuality education are more likely to have sex for the first time later in life. According to a publication of Advocates for Youth*, “Evaluations of comprehensive sex education and HIV/ STI prevention programs show that they do not increase rates of sexual initiation, do not lower the age at which youth initiate sex, and do not increase the frequency of sex or the number of sex partners among sexually active youth.” Teens exposed to AOSE, on the other hand, tend to have sex earlier and are less likely to practice safe sex when they do (see below).
It’s more effective at teaching teens to practice safe sex.
Comprehensive sex ed has been proven to be more effective at teaching teens to engage in behaviors that reduce the likelihood of spreading sexually transmitted diseases: According to a fact sheet of the CDC, “Research shows that well-designed and well-implemented HIV/STD prevention programs can decrease sexual risk behaviors among students,” including delaying first sexual intercourse; reducing the number of sex partners; decreasing the number of times students have unprotected sex; and increasing condom use.
It’s more effective at preventing teen pregnancy.
There’s an abundance of evidence that when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy, comprehensive sex ed is the way to go. This is because it includes discussions of contraceptive use (see above). Unfortunately, according to a September 2017 fact sheet by the Guttmacher Institute, “Many sexually experienced adolescents … did not receive formal instruction about contraception before they first had sex; fewer received instruction about where to get birth control.”
It isn’t heteronormative.
Modern comprehensive sex ed incorporates discussions of sex beyond just male-female intercourse. AOSE, by contrast, provides an incomplete version of a practical sexual education to the 52 percent of teens who don’t identify as “exclusively heterosexual.”
It teaches teens that sex isn’t wrong or shameful, but a a simple ‘fact of life.’
Last but not least, as Amie Newman of Our Bodies, Ourselves puts it, “Young women who are exposed only to “just say no” programs learn little or nothing about what it means to find pleasure in sex and in their own bodies.”
What lies ahead for American sex ed
As I mentioned, sex education (or rather, a lack thereof) under the Trump administration has been seriously lacking in evidence-based, effective because comprehensive, sex education. If this isn’t rectified, the Republican Party will have more welfare mothers to deal with and a more exhausted public health budget for its citizens’ HIV/STI treatment. And since virtually every aspect of Trump’s public persona flies in the face of Christian goodness or any religious influence, it would be in his best interest to bring back the Obama-era sex ed days — and fast.
* In this post, I cite articles from the websites of pro-comprehensive sex ed advocacy groups. While I’m aware that such groups can’t be taken as credible sources on their own, their claims are supported by scientific evidence, the citations of which are included in said articles.