Sex education in the United States is a clusterfuck; this is news to no one. Each state creates its own guidelines, meaning that students in different states receive wildly different variations on sex ed – if they receive any at all. For example, only thirteen states require their sex ed programs to be medically accurate, and five states dictate that homosexuality must be framed negatively if discussed at all.
Last July, the Department of Health and Human Services told organizations which receive five-year grants through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program that their funding would be cut off this coming June – two years early. Several of these organizations sued HHS in federal court in order to keep their grants, and many of them won their cases this spring.
While the FY 2018 budget bill maintained funding for the TPPP, HIV prevention programs, and PREP (the Personal Responsibility Education Program, which also gives grants to organizations providing comprehensive sex ed), it also increased grants for abstinence-only education programs.
There is a ton of research studying the efficacy of abstinence-based programs versus comprehensive sex ed programs; while I encourage you to do a deep dive into those numbers, that’s not what I want to focus on. I wrote my master’s thesis on the impacts of abstinence-only education and would like to impart two things:
- States that stress abstinence in their schools have higher teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates, and
- The explicit and implicit messages to young people in abstinence-only curricula are incredibly harmful.
I’d like to expound on the second point. These programs don’t just tell students not to have sex; they tell students that people who have sex before marriage are damaged. For my thesis, I got my hands on the teaching materials for three different abstinence-only curricula*; the words risk, life-threatening, promiscuous, addictive, depression, guilt, and shame are used repeatedly throughout these texts to describe young people who have sex. They describe sexually young women specifically as feeling cheap, used, empty, and full of self-loathing. One says that abstinence means “freedom from guilt, disappointment, losing respect, and compromising values.” The curricula that mention sexual harassment, coercion, and rape are chock-full of victim blaming; one even tells girls that “provocative dress is disrespectful to the man you’re with.” One doesn’t mention sexual coercion at all.
They frame abstinence as a choice, but having sex as a lack of will power. Gender and orientation spectrums are never addressed. There is no mention of divorce, adultery, or any family structure that’s non-nuclear (making several student populations invisible). Don’t even get me started on gender roles: According to abstinence-only education, women are weak, emotional victims who need “hours of mental preparation” for sex, while men are irresponsible, predatory liars who “see intimacy as competition.” The teacher’s guide for one of these programs directs the teacher to “ask a girl” to read the part of a rape victim and to “ask a guy” to read the part of a porn addict. They tell young people that women need to be provided for and that male partners shouldn’t be criticized because men need to feel competent in order to feel loved.
These language choices are NOT a mistake; the funding guidelines for receiving Title V grant money for abstinence-only programs state that the materials must teach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical affects (italics mine).”
AO curricula also frame sex as something to be given and taken, which brings me to one of many reasons why comprehensive sexuality education is so important: Abstinence-only programs are incredibly misogynistic and lack any component regarding communicating about wants, needs, boundaries, and agency within relationships. AO curricula reinforce a lot of the shit that members of misogynist movements believe – and that’s a big fucking deal. A lot has been written about these movements in the past few weeks; what I’d like to contribute to that conversation is that abstinence-only education programs back them up by posing sex as transactional, by propping up binary, stereotypical, and dangerous gender roles, and by saying that women provoke men into predatory sexual behavior. Detrimental messages about gender roles aren’t just propagated by the media and held up by people we know; some of them are directly taught in schools.
Congress funds AO programs at more than $100 million / year.
In order to survive, PREP and TPPP need a lot of public support, especially now; if you live in the United States and write or call your members of Congress on the regular, you might want to mention this the next time a budget bill comes up. If you don’t, please start. If you are a parent, please, PLEASE tell your school board that you want your child to receive comprehensive sexual health education. Not just STI and contraception information, but conversations about healthy relationships, gender, sexuality, and media critique. It is absolutely imperative that young people have access to curricula that validate their families and lived experiences, that humanizes them, that gives them agency, and that gives them tools to critique the world around them and communicate with love, compassion, and clarity.
Want to know what kind of sex education is taught in your state? You can find out on the SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US) website.
*DM or email me if you want the names of the curricula I read.