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How Sex Ed Fails Us

My sex ed classes were of the “don’t have sex, but if you do, please use condoms” variety. We were given glow-in-the-dark condoms, later to be tucked into wallets along with the hopes of making use of them before their expiration date. Others turned into water-balloon missiles during gym class. That was 1998, and federal sex ed policy was better then.

October is Sexuality Education Month, but it seems clear that things are in a pretty bad state for sex ed. The decline began in 1996 when Congress implemented what has become known as “welfare reform,” they also allocated $50 million per year to abstinence-only programs for schools. Before the abstinence policy was instituted, America saw a decade of decline in teenage pregnancy rates, but in 2006, rates actually increased by 4 percent and estimates show that they have continued to climb since. This means that each year three-quarters of a million American women ages 15 to 19 become pregnant; 82 percent of those are unplanned. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS are also on the rise, with a total of 9 million new STIs and over 2,000 new reported cases of HIV occurring among those aged 15 to 24 each year. Syphilis, a disease the Centers for Disease Control once had hopes of completely eliminating, experienced 565 new cases among 15 to 19 year olds in 2006. Even scarier, perhaps, is that these sets of statistics only account for the reported cases, with 1 in 4 sexually active teens admitting that they have not been tested for STIs or HIV recently. In essence, today’s teenagers are quite possibly walking, talking versions of the worst puss-filled pictures seen in high school health classes without knowing it.

But there is some hope. This fall, some urban school districts in Texas will be shifting from teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage programming to a more comprehensive, also known as abstinence-plus, sex education curriculum. Perhaps it is because Texas has the third-highest teen birth rate in the country despite receiving $14 million a year in federal abstinence funding, which was set to dry up by 2010. That was until Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) attached an extension of the welfare reform funding in an amendment to the Senate Finance Committee’s markup on the health care bill, which would allocate $50 million per year through 2014 to abstinence funding. Hatch did this despite the fact that no strong evidence exists that abstinence-only programs delay the initiation of first sexual encounter, hasten the return to abstinence, or reduce the number of sexual partners among U.S. teens.

A smiling condom

It seems sexuality education curricula experienced a 180 degree shift from what I was taught to the curriculum in classrooms today. More than one in five adolescents received abstinence education without receiving any instruction about birth control in 2002, compared to one in 15 in 1995. Put another way, one-third of teens have not received any instruction on methods of birth control or condom use before the age of 18. This is problematic because 6 in 10 teenage girls and 5 in 10 teenage boys have had sexual intercourse before they turn 18, with 7 percent of those experiencing their first sexual intercourse before the age of 13. Perhaps even more important, young people who received abstinence-only or no instruction about birth control tend to be minorities and from low-to-moderate income, not intact families. These young people arguably experience the harshest economic hardships and health costs in the case of infection or pregnancy.

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia mandate that public schools teach sex education, while 22 states requiring schools place an emphasis on abstinence. Only 15 states and the District of Columbia require sex education programs to cover contraception. Not a single state requires that contraception be emphasized in sex ed programs. Abstinence-only programs have cost taxpayers over $1.3 billion since 2001. Nine in 10 teachers and 82 percent of adults say that they support comprehensive sexuality education and would prefer to see that type of curriculum being taught in schools.

There is, however, the hope of re-energizing (read: funding) comprehensive sexuality programs. Studies comparing the success rates of abstinence-only and comprehensive programs have found that two-thirds of students who participated in comprehensive programs demonstrated positive sexual behavioral effects over their peers who received abstinence-only, including a 40 percent success rate of delayed first-intercourse, reduced number of partners, and increased condom or contraception use.

Legislators like Hatch aren’t listening to Texas schools or the parents and teachers who want their kids to know the facts—that is, all the facts. The continuation of abstinence-only programming could be waved off as simply failed democracy-in-action—that in time we will elect politicians that aren’t scared of comprehensive sex ed and correct the issue—except that with each day that passes teenagers are unprotected and ill-equipped to handle what hormones will relentlessly throw at them. Teenagers today are set up for social, economic, and health failure so long as we fund abstinence-only programming. Surely not even the most protective parents in Texas would want such a future for their children.

Isabelle Gerard is the special assistant for Campus Progress.

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