Abstinence-Only Education in America
Slumping in my desk, I sat bolt upright as my biology professor Mr. Slater said we would be watching “that movie” which required a note from home and those who had not brought a signature for permission ambled out to read a book in the library. The rest of us blinked as the lights dimmed and we watched, horrified, as the birth of a baby unfolded in front of our sixteen-year-old eyes. Long after the projector’s bulb dimmed, the memory of that woman and her baby’s entrance into the world stood as a glaring example of emerging sexuality and becoming a mother in our society. Mr. Slater, oblivious to our distress at seeing such technocracy in action, began sharing the stories of his wife’s births – all nine of them, and oh, she was due any day again! He stated his Catholic beliefs in accepting, with grace, as many children as God gave him, and that abortion was no different than killing a baby in a crib. It took many years before I was able to comprehend Mr. Slater’s agenda and supplant it with my own knowledge and beliefs.
Abstinence-only education - sex education that espouses no intercourse until marriage - has, since its inception in 1981, blossomed into an entire political and ideological movement despite our constitutional requirement to separate church and state. Publicly, religious conservatives do not feel abstinence-only programs have anything to do with the church. It is, in their opinion, a health concern that keeps young people safe from not only pregnancy, but also the multitude of sexually transmitted diseases lurking in our midst (Teicher). Privately, religious leaders consider abstinence-only programs as upholding the tradition to keep oneself “pure” for marriage. The “True Love Waits” program, upheld by most Christian churches around the United States, includes a ceremonial pledge in front of parents, ministers, friends, and God. The promise, kept on a card with the teen, reads:
Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship (Lifeway).
Over 200 similar programs are in effect around the country although True Love Waits®, considered different from the others, is most often espoused by churches for its religious and God-centered focus (Curry).
Counter to fundamentalist beliefs that teens should – and can – be taught to remain abstinent until marriage are the more realistic and broad educational realities coming from teachers, counselors, and physicians who answer the myriad of questions regarding sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, date rape, as well as the growing gamut of situations teens face today. Unlikely companions in the on-going debate on what exactly should be taught in our school systems include Planned Parenthood of America, Human Rights Watch (which calls abstinence-only programs “Ignorance-only programs”), and the American Academy of Pediatrics – all of whom believe that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do a grave disservice to not only American youth, but also has far-reaching effects on countries that depend on funding from the United States. All too often, these resource-starved people find the requirement to limit HIV/AIDS education to abstinence-only as part of the package deal with which they must comply (Human). Those who value and promote sex education in the schools, including birth control information, certainly do not promote teenage promiscuity despite vocal assertions to the contrary (Pardini, “Two Approaches”).
Abstinence-only education does not acknowledge the statistical realities of teen-aged behavior in our country today and could certainly be taught as part of a comprehensive sex-education program in the school system, but should not be the exclusive idea to which our youth are exposed. According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2002 study on teens and sexuality, thirty percent of never-been-married girls fifteen to seventeen-years-old were sexually active. By eighteen and nineteen years of age, sixty-nine percent were. For boys, the statistics were nearly identical (CDC). During my tenure as Prenatal Case Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties, it was not unusual to see fourteen-year-olds with children or even thirteen-year-olds pregnant. The idea of abstinence-only, especially after the fact of being sexually active or even having a child, would have been absurd to the inner-city girls I worked with throughout their pregnancies. Without the cultural understanding of why a young teen might become pregnant even with ample information and availability to birth control, it can seem logical that if she had just been shown the option of abstinence-only, she might have made different choices. However, in many inner-city communities, the visible options for teens are limited to three: join a gang, sell drugs, or have a baby. For the girls and young women I mentored, having a baby was the safest, and wisest, decision of their young lives. Certainly their choice had far-reaching ramifications, but in their minds, they did the best they could with the situation at hand.
Fifty years ago, sex education constituted being gender-segregated then herded into the auditorium to watch “The Period Movie” (as generations of girls called the film explaining menstruation); this was the extent of information given – and no questions after the film, please (Dentinger). Today, in schools that allow it, every conceivable situation in which teenagers might find themselves is addressed and the facts about the proper use of birth control, how to disagree with a loved one without resorting to violence, how to determine if abuse is occurring, as well as the realities of living with HIV/AIDS, getting proper medical help if experiencing possible symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection, and what to do with questions about one’s sexuality all become topics for discussion and reflection. Abstinence, far from an afterthought, remains a highlight in the scope of information offered.
One bellowing question comes from every corner of this debate: Where are the parents?
In an Internet interview, a self-described Born-Again Christian stated she did not want schools teaching her children; she believes sex education is her responsibility as a mother to take care of those “delicate” topics. When asked what should be done with children whose parents did not, or would not, discuss sexuality with their children, she said she was unsure, but knew that it was right to teach abstinence-only in schools because that was “God’s way.” When I mentioned I knew thirteen-year-olds that had had babies, she felt “sick to her stomach” that it was even a possibility. Throughout the interview, I was reminded that many – perhaps too many – of the abstinence-only proponents live in a bubble of privilege and socioeconomic possibilities many in this country cannot even fathom. Is it even possible for a young girl to use her “True Love Waits” card as a weapon against sexual molestation from a family member? Might the boy kicked out of his home for homosexual questions think twice before trading sexual “favors” for food because he wants to remain abstinent for marriage? Those kids who are faced with the trio of evils – drugs, gangs, or pregnancy – what might they choose if they were girls living in seemingly inescapable poverty with nothing but a legacy of welfare and food stamps?
Our society thrives on contradictions, especially today, as advertisements flaunt heaving, overflowing breasts while simultaneously demanding that breastfed infants take their nourishment on a toilet seat in a public restroom – with the stall door closed, please. It seems, on too many levels, that abstinence-only education elaborates on this cultural contradiction. Statistics lie on top of statistics, each side celebrating that they have won the battle towards truth in sex education in the classroom. At the center of the debate, our young look from side to side, as if a bettor watching the ball in a tennis match, not a part of the game, but incredibly invested in the outcome.
Shelby Knox, an eighteen-year-old Southern Baptist, participated in the True Love Waits® ceremony when she was fifteen living in Lubbock, Texas, an abstinence-only school district. The regulations of the district did not allow for any discussion of condoms or other birth control options except in terms of failure rates. Despite Knox’s strong Christian beliefs, she became alarmed as fellow students got pregnant as well as receiving treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The girls vanished from the town, but Knox made a point of following their stories and because of inaccuracies and out-and-out untruths adults and fellow students were saying, she felt compelled to speak out. A heretic in her community, Knox was shunned by church members, fellow students, and parents as she began publicizing her beliefs that abstinence-only education was inappropriate at best and, in all probability, dangerous. Sex educators and physicians applauded her bravery. Believing her Christian beliefs and broad-spectrum abstinence combined with comprehensive sex education are absolutely compatible, she took her story to the press and featured on a PBS special entitled “The Education of Shelby Knox” in June 2005. Difficulties in her community precipitated her move to Austin, a more progressive city in Texas (Sheahen).
Shelby Knox’s attitude comes from seeing the realities and pain of abstinence-only education even through the filtered prejudice of her pristine upbringing. If only she could teach the lawmakers and policy writers in Washington, D.C. to develop some of that wisdom to look beyond what they wish to be true – a utopian world where sexuality is never utilized outside the marriage bed – and consider the impact of their denial of information for the exact population that needs it most. Sex education does not need to be either/or, but with patience and an open-mind, each side – abstinence-only as well as those who believe contraceptive information is appropriate – can meet and help the children swirling in the center of the controversy; children, all too often unheard and unseen amongst the din and flurry of politics and religion. Our children’s lives might very well depend on that cooperation.