Few public policy subjects stir the pot as fiercely as abstinence-only education. Proponents of abstinence education hold to the belief that it is not up to people outside of the family to discuss sensitive matters like sexuality. Some also believe that if schools are discussing and even handing out contraception, they are tacitly encouraging sexual activity.
On the other side of the coin, those who favor comprehensive sex education take what they would say is a realist viewpoint, in that once puberty hits, many kids are going to have sex whether the rest of us like it or not. Hormones dictate the outcome, not a taught moral code.
As is the case in many debates, both sides of the sex education debate have merits and faults. But first, let’s take a trip back to when schools started their sexual curriculum.
Sex Ed: A History
Modern foes in the debate over whether sex should be taught in schools are, in the most general terms, religious conservatives and social liberals. There’s some irony in the origins of school sexual education. Those who taught sex education in the early part of the 20th century did so from a very socially conservative viewpoint. It’s not like education at that time was overcome by what conservatives would have considered the morally suspect.
Sex education in the United States began in the 1920s. Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of U.S. school systems in the 1920s had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. Schools experimented with films to get their points across. And given the time, a strict religious morality permeated the work. The Gift of Life, an explicit sex-ed film, produced by The American Social Hygiene Association, scolded masturbation, also referred to as the “solitary vice.” The film stated that “Masturbation may seriously hinder a boy’s progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit.”
To modern eyes and ears, even the most conservative, would have a hard time legitimizing that viewpoint… at least the “vigorous manhood” part. It took some time for sexual education to evolve into what it is today.
In the 1930s, the U.S. Office of Education published materials and trained teachers. In the decades that followed, courses in human sexuality started to be available at colleges. It was in the 1960s, during the surge of the sexual revolution, when sex ed became politicized. And by the late 1960s, the rigid sides were firmly entrenched. Conservative groups like the Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society made accusations that sexual education in schools was a way of indoctrinating children into communism. They also propagated rumors of classroom nudity and sexual acts.
In his pamphlet published by the Christian Crusade Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?, Dr. Gordon Drake stated “If the new morality is affirmed, our children will become easy targets for Marxism and other amoral, nihilistic philosophies – as well as V.D.!”
Communist and diseased. The double whammy.
Modern Times: A More Serious Debate from Both Sides
Proponents of sexual education took hold of a moral ground for their cause with the advent of AIDS in the early 1980s. Now, they could claim that if kids were ignorant to the ways of sex, it could mean death. It wasn’t long before every state had some form of mandated AIDS education, which was often tied to regular sex ed.
Conservatives were faced with a minor setback. They, in essence, conceded a sort of sexual education in the light of a disease that could mean death… once most of them finally got past the idea that AIDS was not only contracted by homosexuals and drug users. But, their concession was a minor one – abstinence-only education. Whether or not there is a direct tie between the advent of the abstinence-only education initiative and AIDS is unsure, but conservatives (most, at least) no longer fight for an outright ban on any and all sexual education. Because if you are teaching abstinence, you are at least addressing sex in a peripheral way.
New Study Gives Conservatives Ammo
Up until recently, the conservative argument came predominately from faith-based moral beliefs, while sex ed proponents have had quantitative studies backing their claims that their way works best. But, a new study headed by Dr. John B. Jemmott III of the University of Pennsylvania gives some positive research to back up the abstinence-only champions.
The new study found that abstinence-only education helped to delay sexual activity. “This is a rigorous study that means we can now say that it’s possible for an abstinence-only intervention to be effective,” said Dr. Jemmott.
The study compared two groups, one of students who participated in a weekend abstinence-only class, and another who attended general health information, or safe sex classes. Only about a third of the abstinence-only students started having sex within the next 24 months. That compared to about 42 percent of those in sex ed classes having sex within 24 months.
In an editorial meant to address the political sensitivities of the study’s subject, the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, the journal that published the findings, they downplayed the findings a little, saying that one study does not mean public policy should change.
“The results may be surprising to some in that the theory-based abstinence-only curriculum appeared to be as effective as a combined course and more effective than the safer-sex only curriculum in delaying sexual activity,” said the editorial.
And while it is true that one study needs more to back it up, there are a few issues with the first one. First, the average age of the children in this study was 12. While kids are having sex early these days, not in the great numbers that you may think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer than half of all high school students report ever having sex. So, is it a victory to say that a group of preteens haven’t had sex two years after an abstinence class, when statistics show that they will often not have sex regardless until that time or later?
Another way of looking at it is that the abstinence group was only 10 percent less likely to have sex than the sex ed class. In other words, a group of kids who were explicitly told they should not have sex were only a little less likely to have sex than those who were, as conservatives would say, “encouraged” to have sex.
Abstinence-Only on The Ropes… For Now
Abstinence-only funding is in for hard times, at least during the next few years. The Obama Administration has cut federal funding for abstinence-only education, leaving them scrambling for funding options. It also doesn’t help the abstinence cause that statistics collected during the Bush Administration show a rise in teen pregnancy in 26 states… during a time when the abstinence cause had a champion in the White House.
Starting in 2009, at least 24 states and the District of Columbia were moving from abstinence teaching curriculum to a comprehensive approach that includes STD prevention and contraception.
Should parents have the right to choose whether their child is taught sex in school or their own home? Sure. But, should those who are against sex education have the right to completely exclude educational materials that may play a small part in lowering teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases? Absolutely not.