Today marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and for the fourth time bloggers all over the nation are participating in Blog for Choice. We have been asked to answer the following question: What is your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress?
After eight years of Bush, it was a difficult task to choose just one thing. I decided that my top pro-choice hope for President Obama, and the new Congress, is for the elimination of federal funding for abstinence-only education. We have to start using our tax dollars to provide comprehensive sexuality education that teaches prevention and tolerance—and that does not rely on sexist attitudes about boys and girls, marginalize gay youth, or insist on using ideology to educate. The new Congress should pass the Prevention First Act, and President Obama should eliminate funding for abstinence-only education programs in the federal budget and instead resolve to only approve funding for comprehensive sex ed programs.
$176 million a year is spent on abstinence-only education. In order to receive federal funding, state grantees’ sex ed curriculum must adhere to a strict eight-point definition of abstinence-only education. For example, abstinence-only education must teach “that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Abstinence-only programs may only mention contraceptives in terms of failure rates.
Abstinence-only education has been rightfully criticized for containing medically inaccurate information, its reliance on sexist stereotypes, and for failing to require educating teens about sexual assault. Back in 2004, a study was commissioned by Rep. Harry Waxman on the content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs. The study found that 80% of commonly used sex ed curricula contains false, misleading, or inaccurate information about sex and reproductive health. Curricula commonly stated factually inaccurate information about the risks of abortion and consistently relied on sexist stereotypes, presumably in an effort to teach kids that girls and boys deal with sex differently. For example, the Waxman study found that one curriculum listed “financial support” as one of women’s “5 Major Needs” and “domestic support” as one of men’s “5 Major Needs.” Several curricula continue to refer to a now-discredited study that erroneously found that condoms fail to prevent HIV 31% of the time.
More recently, a 2008 study found that abstinence-only education is particularly harmful to girls by undermining social ideals of gender equality and by denying life-saving information about reproductive health to girls, who are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of unprotected sex (with respect to both STIs and unplanned pregnancies). And, a 2009 report on virginity pledges—many of which are included in abstinence-only curricula—concluded that the sexual behavior of teens who took a virginity pledge did not differ from that of non-pledgers, but that pledgers were less likely to use protection when they did have sex. (This is worse than what the same researchers found in 2001, which was that virginity pledgers did actually delay the first time they had sex compared to non-pledgers, but were less likely to use birth control when they did.) Basically, virginity pledges don’t work—and teens who take them don’t have the information they need to protect themselves when they do have sex.
So, why are we still funding programs that portray girls as helpless gatekeepers and boys as uncontrollable bundles of hormones? Both depictions are unfair, stripping both teen girls and boys of their sexual agency. Why are we funding programs that place a problematic emphasis on the socially constructed concept of “virginity” rather than giving students the information and tools they need to make healthy choices? And what is the point of teaching kids that men need “domestic support”? Of course, the answer is ideology. But it is a commitment to a radical ideology that prioritizes misinformation, scare tactics, sexism, and homophobia over science at the expense of teens’—and disproportionately teen girls’—health, safety, and self-determination.
So, that is my number-one hope for the Obama administration and the new Congress. Congress should pass the Prevention First Act, reintroduced on