With the New Year upon us, it seems only right to examine the state of sex education in the U.S. Launched in June 2005, this blog has witnessed a great deal of change. Back then, only a handful of states had rejected federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — in 2008 at least 14 states have joined their ranks. Others are set to lose funding as new state requirements conflict with the federal “just say no” policy. In recent weeks, federal representatives told Washington State that its proposal for new federal abstinence-only funding will likely be rejected because of state requirements mandating that schools provide “medically accurate information about preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” — a loss that at least one paper in the state is celebrating.
In 2005, congressional funding for abstinence-only programs was on a seemingly unstoppable ascent, as few in Congress were willing to fight the increases. Three years later, Congress has yet to turn the tide (but at least for the time being the increases have stopped).
Perhaps of greatest import, the debate over just what teens should (or shouldn’t) learn when it comes to preventing pregnancy and STDs has become a frequent topic in the national dialog. People are starting to examine the bigger picture, recognizing that the problem is much larger than whether or not teens are able to get the facts.
Before the holidays, AlterNet ran a great piece called Virgin or Slut: Pick One. The article examines federal funding for abstinence-only programs, but it doesn’t stop there:
Welcome to contemporary American adolescence, where sexuality is either up for sale or moralized into nonexistence.
On the one hand we have a hypersexualized and pornified pop culture… The message to young women is loud and clear: Your body is your power. Flaunt it. Use it. Get attention. The message to young men is also unmistakable: Your gaze is your power. Your role is to judge and comment on women’s bodies.
On the other hand, we have a federally funded (over $1 billion thus far) abstinence-only sex education program in this country…. Regardless of this reality, health teachers from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Newark, N.J., are taught to emotionlessly repeat… “The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence.”
Here, the message to young women is also resolute: Your body is dangerous. Control it. Ignore it. Don’t ask any questions…. The message to young men is more subtle. In this fairy tale written, produced and directed by abstinence-only advocates, teenage guys are both potential villains — the oversexed, hormone-crazed young men who must be refused continuously by good girls — or potential knights in shining armor….
In between pornified culture and purity balls, in between the slut and the virgin, the stupid, lascivious dude and the knight in shining armor, in between the messages directed at young women — your body is your power vs. your body is dangerous — and young men — your gaze is your power vs. your gaze is dangerous — are real young people trying to develop authentic identities and sexual practices. And they are struggling mightily.
The recent tabloid flurry surrounding Jamie Lynn Spear’s pregnancy has brought the issue to an even larger audience. After Jamie Lynn called the pregnancy a “surprise” and noted that she and her boyfriend should have waited to have sex, a USA Today editorial remarked that “[i]f more girls were taught all their options in Sex 101, those words might be heard less often.”
Over at The Huffington Post, Cristina Page went even further calling Jamie Lynn (and other teen mothers) the “the victims of a one and half billion dollar social experiment.”
For the duration of the Bush administration, the policy of preference is to simply tell teens not to have sex before marriage. Like the Just Say No to drugs campaigns of the Reagan years, it too has been a colossal failure. Abstinence-only programs have not succeeded in convincing kids not to have sex, but have led many not to use contraception. To scare kids away from sexual activity, abstinence-only programs focus on the dangers of sex. If contraception is ever mentioned it is to highlight (and exaggerate) its failure rates. If a girl is told that even if her boyfriend uses a condom she’ll get pregnant once every seven times — as the popular abstinence program “Choosing the Best Way” instructs — the incentive to use one dissipates.
And while there’s no doubt that the problems surrounding teen pregnancy and STD transmission extend beyond what teens learn in our schools, it is still true that fixing these problems will come bit by bit, one win at a time. Take for instance the recent news that the abstinence-only-until-marriage program Heritage of Rhode Island closed up shop this past fall. The battle against Heritage began when a mother in Pawtucket read her son’s abstinence-only textbook and contacted her local ACLU. The ACLU wrote Rhode Island’s Education Commissioner, “charging that the curriculum invaded students’ privacy rights, promoted sexist stereotypes, isolated gay and lesbian students, and did not appear to comport with the state’s comprehensive sex education standards.” After many ups and downs Heritage finally left town.
Little wins, like the one in Rhode Island, add up, and one mom in a small town can make a big difference for thousands of teens. Yes, the factors that contribute to teen pregnancy extend far beyond the classroom. But in 2008 let’s resolve to remember that little things can make a big difference and keep up the fight.