Archive for the ‘Ab Only’ Category

Comprehensive sex ed is essential, not “too racy” for youth

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

2014 brought many fresh starts for me, most predominately the start of a new job in HIV/AIDs policy.  I spent much of my first week at my job better familiarizing myself with HIV/AIDs policy by plowing through many research studies and reports.

I happened upon a report by the Center for American Progress and my alma mater UC Berkeley School of Law exploring barriers to prevention and treatment of HIV among communities of color; making the case for a holistic approach to eliminate racial disparities in HIV/AIDs.  The report includes a recommendation for free comprehensive sex education. While comprehensive sex ed seems like a given for combating the epidemic of HIV, the report notes that despite the effectiveness of sex education, “conservatives have often opposed programs such as condom education and distribution.”  Such opposition to comprehensive sex education has led to “abstinence-only” education, most notably in the South, where the report also noted that the prevalence of abstinence-only education likely contributes in part to why residents of the South are  “significantly less likely to obtain treatment to [HIV] once infected” than people in all other parts of the U.S.

It did not take long for the reality of this to come to light for me, as the same day I read this report one of the top stories in my google alerts was about how some parents in Charlotte, North Carolina find a sex education curriculum “too racy”to be taught at large to their ninth grade students because it includes a chapter entitled “How to Make Condoms Fun and Pleasurable.”  Teaching about how condoms can be fun and pleasurable is an effort to increase use of condoms among teens engaging in sexual activity to prevent unplanned pregnancy and transmission of HIV and other STIs.  Including a section in sex education curriculum that presents condoms in a way that tried to increase their use is a valuable and essential because it promotes safer sex practices among teens and the adults they will grow up to become.

As a former Law Students for Reproductive Justice fellow, it is obvious to me how reproductive justice intersects with health equity and justice issues, I only wish all policy makers and parents alike did too.

Taking the Morality out of Abstinence

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

In our quest to destroy the virgin/whore dichotomy by de-vilifying those who do not conform to or believe in the idea that abstinence equates with inherent moral worth, we may inadvertently alienate those who do happen to conform to (but not necessarily believe in) this ideal. This presents the danger of continuing to play into the dichotomy while simply switching the moral values assigned to each role instead of destroying both roles completely and allowing women to assign moral worth to themselves on their own terms.

Perhaps because abstinence is so often considered an ineffectual waiting period rather than a tool (like a condom or an HPV vaccine) that one uses to acquire and maintain a level of security while achieving one’s goals, it is easily glossed over in conversations about sexual health and as a result is presented as a non-option for “normal” and “sexually healthy” individuals.

One harsh result of this inadvertent oversight is that aside from reiterating the media’s insistence that having sex must be our primary concern (billboards in a major city or ten minutes watching television will confirm this), it teaches those who have ever had a previous sexual encounter, whether consensual or not, that continued sexual activity is always the healthy course of action moving forward. Reclaiming one’s sexuality in the case of rape or other sexual trauma takes various forms as unique as the individual doing the reclaiming, but here the dismissal of abstinence as a valid and affirming decision actually limits the choices of survivors.

As much as we want to be sex-positive, we must not forget to affirm the importance of choice. The type of birth control a person chooses to use should not define her worth as a person, and the decision not to have sex should be just as validated as the decision to be sexually active. It’s high time we stopped aiming for extremes and began focusing on aligning in the center, away from competing notions of sexual liberation versus sexual repression. Let’s take the morality out of abstinence.

Moving Backwards: Silver Screen Portrayal of Teen Sexuality

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

A week or so ago, my classmates and I were arguing one of the most pressing questions of our nostalgia-obsessed generation: What is ultimate high school movie – Clueless or Mean Girls? (Answer: Neither, it’s obviously Heathers.) Amid the heady discussion and subsequent teen movie marathon planning, I started thinking about how high school movies have portrayed teen sexuality, contraception, and pregnancy over the years. In so many of the teen movies I grew up watching, sex was something that characters are obsessed with and defined by, and pregnancy is the ultimate horror. But is this moralizing cast on teen movies a modern thing? Maybe so.

One of my favorite teen movies is the cult classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (FTaRH). For a film that came out in 1982 – smack dab between two landslide election wins for Reagan – it’s shockingly open-minded. One of the main characters, Stacy, is a 15 year old freshman. She has sex for the first time with a 26 year old man and then initiates an encounter with a classmate, Mike Damone, from which she gets pregnant. She decides to get an abortion and tells Damone that he owes her half of the fee and a ride to the clinic. When Damone turns out to be a flake, Stacy’s brother deduces what has happened. He picks her up from the clinic, agrees to keep it a secret from their parents, and takes her out for lunch. Her best friend get revenge by vandalizing Damone’s car and locker in a classic act of high school public humiliation. Stacy, rather than being ostracized or shamed, is shown as being supported by her social circle and loved ones. It is Damone who is ridiculed for shirking his responsibilities, not Stacy for being sexually active. Stacy shows no signs of trauma and the abortion is never brought up again. Instead her narrative becomes one of her blossoming romance with Rat, a boy who has long harbored a crush on her. Rat angrily brushes aside Damone’s veiled insult that Stacy is “a very aggressive girl” (undertones of slut-shaming fully in force). Stacy continues to be assertive by giving Rat a picture of herself with her phone number on it and kissing him. Her reputation, as well as her confidence in herself and her sexuality is unshaken and unpunished.

I can only imagine the outcry such a story line would cause now. It’s a testament to how much we’ve gone backwards to imagine the complaints that would hound FTaRH for giving teens license to have wild, unprotected sex because the movies told them there’d be no penalties! The climate we live in today even mistakenly accused Juno, a movie in which the young woman chooses adoption rather than abortion, of glamorizing teen sex without consequences. In reality, teen pregnancy and teen moms face a great deal of stigma that is racially charged and makes it difficult to continue their education.

Turning to a classic of the aughts, Mean Girls is a film that has people endlessly quoting and referencing it eight years later. It was written by Tina Fey who promisingly said last week, “If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m going lose my mind.” And Mean Girls does have some golden reproductive justice moments. For example, it makes fun of a health curriculum that tells students that they’ll die if they have sex (taught by a teacher later revealed to be in a relationship with an underage student no less). And yet it leaves some things to be desired. When arch-Mean Girl Regina is in her bedroom with her boyfriend, her mother pops in and asks, “You guys need anything? Some snacks? A condom? Let me know!” It’s part of a larger characterization of Regina’s cold personality resulting from a dysfunctional family in which her mother sets no boundaries because she wants to be a “cool mom.” But is it really being a bad mother to make sure your daughter is equipped to deal with her sexual decisions rather than trying to control her sexuality? Not according to the way many families treat teen sexuality in the Netherlands. Apparently acknowledging that teens have sex, having open communication about contraceptives, and allowing sleepovers actually encourages trust and responsibility rather than the opposite.

Even if Hollywood is unlikely to portray teen sexuality in this way anytime soon (because of both conservative backlash and the lack of narrative drama), hopefully the actual experiences of American teenagers can begin to approach it.

 

Back to Reality: Why Abstinence-Only Education Needs an Upgrade

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

In a scene from the most recent Twilight movie, Bella tries to convince Edward that she wants him and wants to take the next step in their relationship by having sex.  While Edward makes it clear that he definitely wants her back, he tells her that in his time, there would be a whole process before any of this could take place.  He would have wooed her, they’d hold hands, he’d get permission from her father to marry her, they’d get married, then they’d do the deed.  Bella informs him that it’s now her day in age, and that’s definitely not the way it works.  Who knew that Twilight would have such a brilliant metaphor for why abstinence-only education doesn’t work?

The problem with abstinence-only education is not so much that it wants teenagers to prolong sexual activity until they are married, but more that it’s completely out of touch with today’s modern teenager.  Suporters of ab-only education seem to believe that sex should only occur during marriage, and anything outside of that concept is morally wrong.  They suggest that comprehensive sex education that teaches students about condoms and other forms of contraception is what causes teenagers to engage in sexual behavior.  As if saying, well if kids don’t learn about condoms and contraception from their sex-ed teacher at school, then they will magically never be curious about sex or have any idea what it is.  Apparently, they’ve never turned on their TV.

The simple truth  is, teenagers are exposed to sex on a regular basis, whether their parents want to accept it or not.  It’s on TV.  It’s in music videos and song lyrics.  It’s in magazines and print ads for their favorite clothing store.  And on that little thing called the internet.  Sex is a part of our society and our culture, plain and simple.  Sexuality is part of the human condition.  And it’s complicated. (more…)

Discovering Courage: An Abortion Provider’s Daughter

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

The first time I answered the question, “Nice to meet you. What do you do?” with the complete, whole truth I found it hard to breathe. I waited to see the faces change, the hand pull away. That was because, until that moment, when I first met people, I never revealed my full job description. To my relief, no one attacked me, judged me, or even looked at me strangely. I didn’t lie, but I definitely had perfected a watered down, vague answer, a safe answer, to that dreaded question. However this time, taking a deep breath, I declared proudly, “I work in women’s reproductive healthcare. I am a business manager for offices that provide reproductive health care and we specialize in abortion care.” Huge sigh of relief.

Why I couldn’t just say this from the beginning was something that I had reflected on constantly since my job had transformed into a career. I was certainly not embarrassed about what I had chosen to do every day for a living. In fact, in direct contrast, I was (and am) proud to put my values in action working in a field about which I care deeply and for a cause I believe in, heart and soul. However, my beliefs regarding women’s healthcare did not form based on the field I work in, but rather from where I grew up.

(more…)

Human Rights on the Home Front: Achieving Reproductive Justice in our Schools and Beyond

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

In a recent interview, an employer asked me “what legal arguments can you make against states that accept federal funding for abstinence-only sexual education programs?” After a couple of “ums” and “wells” and “I uhs,” I had to accept temporary defeat. But I don’t go down that easily.  I’m willing to admit that my inability to articulate a satisfactory response to this question may be indicative of my legal ignorance. But it also indicates a lack of effective domestic legal tools to challenge federal efforts to curtail youths’ access to accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health.

 

As I thought harder about the question, I realized that while the civil rights delineated on our Constitution may not demand comprehensive sexuality education, various international human rights documents and directives do. Like the American Constitution, human rights law applies to state action. Unlike the Constitution, however, human rights law demands that nation states take affirmative steps to ensure that all persons have the means and conditions necessary to enjoy their rights.

 

Several treaties specifically support adolescents’ right to comprehensive information about sex and sexuality, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The rights enshrined in these documents do not carry binding legal force in U.S. courts because Congress has not ratified them. However, many courts—including the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas—have cited human rights documents and doctrine as persuasive authority.

 

Even though international human rights law has various applications to the domestic struggle for reproductive justice, most law students—past and present—have to go outside the classroom to learn about them.  Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ), a national nonprofit organization that supports law students around the country in their efforts to promote reproductive justice, is filling the gaps left by our coursework.   With resources like the new Human Rights Law Primer and Human Rights on the Home Front Easy Event in an Envelope, LSRJ provides the next generation of legal experts with the information and skills we will need to make reproductive rights a reality for all people.  With these tools, aspiring legal scholars and advocates like me can enter practice ready to articulate well-reasoned arguments that demand access to a full range of reproductive health services and induce government action to effectuate those rights. (more…)

‘Millennial’ Misunderstandings and the Multi-Generational, Multi-Issue Movement We Call Reproductive Justice

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009


In her feature on the supposed generational divide in the pro-choice movement, which ran in Sunday’s New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg correctly observes that abortion has hit the headlines recently in the context of health care reform and the horrendously restrictive Stupak amendment—and it’s not something reproductive rights advocates are happy about.  But there isn’t much else I can relate to in her assessment of the current landscape in reproductive rights advocacy and activism.  In fact, I think the story—which argues that there is a chasm between the “menopausal militia,” meaning the generation of feminists who came of age before Roe v. Wade and view abortion in “stark political terms,” and the “millennials,” the younger set for whom Stolberg suggests abortion is a personal issue—misses the mark in a sad but revealing way.

 

Relying on quotes from Naral Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan, Stolberg promotes this political/personal dichotomy without actually explaining how this supposed shift to the personal manifests itself—other than the fact that the post-Roe generations seem less responsive to single-issue pro-choice calls to action.  Provocative accompanying artwork, which consists of a black rectangle with brightly colored letters spelling “WE” floating above “ME,” implies that younger women are selfish in neglecting abortion politics.  Yet Stolberg acknowledges that “a clear majority of Americans support the right to abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those over 30 and under 30.”  In fact, she herself points to several examples of young people organizing right now to stop the Stupak amendment (including LSRJ’s recent webinar on abortion and health care reform legislation).  So what’s the issue?

 

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg concludes that young people don’t respond to email alerts about contacting their legislators because they know abortion is legal and believe “if you really need one you can probably figure out how to get one.”  Which means not only are we selfish, but we’re also foolishly complacent.  But what about the millions of poor women, immigrant women, and young women who can’t ever “figure out how to get one” because the barriers we’ve erected to accessing legal abortion are simply too high?  Such women may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or to induce an abortion through other means, with serious consequences for the health and security of themselves and their families.  And what about those of us who aren’t poor, immigrant, or under 18 but believe deeply that how our society treats those women reflects on all of us, individually and collectively? (more…)

What can the harm reduction movement teach us about reproductive justice?

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009


Drug policy has benefited from the harm reduction movement’s innovative approach to improving personal safety.  The application of a harm reduction model to reproductive justice has the potential to transform the way we view reproductive justice issues and mobilize support for issues that are traditionally marginalized within the movement.  I want to consider what we can learn from the harm reduction movement in advocating for sex workers’ rights and comprehensive sex education.

 

Harm reduction is a public health philosophy that emphasizes individual safety, regardless of lifestyle choices, over prohibition.  This approach acknowledges that some individuals may continue to engage in risky behaviors and aims to address the needs created by those behaviors.  The harm reduction movement spearheaded efforts to improve safety and provide services to substance abusers, such as safer injection sites for heroin addicts—the theory being that if addicts were going to use, at least providing them with clean needles would benefit the addicts themselves as well as the overall public health.  Because harm reduction focuses on social and environmental aspects of risky behavior, its application to sex work is intuitive.  

 

Sex workers face violations of basic human rights on a daily basis, including violence at the hands of clients as well as police brutality.  Additionally, many sex workers must cope with homelessness, substance dependency, and extreme poverty and desperationBecause street-based sex workers are predominantly indigent women of color, selective law enforcement practices disproportionately target poor, minority women.

 

Sex workers are isolated from health care services because of fear of arrest and prosecution, as well as the increasingly inaccessible cost of such care.  Street-based sex workers in particular face health risks that the average worker does not, such as violence (perpetrated by police and clients), exposure to sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, and exposure to the elements.  When sex workers do access health care services, it is generally because of an emergency; thus, lack of access to preventative services is a serious health concern for sex workers.

 

In the context of providing services and outreach to sex workers, then, an application of the harm reduction model must take into account how various and overlapping forms of oppression create unique challenges for sex workers:  namely, substance abuse problems and lack of resources to access health care.  Services should include the provision of safer sex kits to sex workers and training in condom-negotiation skills, as well as free and confidential STD testing and information about HIV/AIDS.  Holistic services should also embrace substance abuse counseling and clean needles for drug use and hormone injections for transgendered sex workers who utilize hormone therapy.  Programs that collaborate across disciplines would address sex workers’ needs the most effectively by tackling substance abuse, safe housing, domestic violence, and health care.

 

So, why is this an issue of reproductive justice? First, this approach recognizes that sex workers are often in the industry for reasons beyond their control, such as economic hardship or inability to enter or reenter the workforce due to lack of recognized work experience or a criminal record.  In this respect, this acknowledgement of the multiplicities of oppression reflects the values of the reproductive justice movement—harm reduction recognizes that the decision to enter or remain in the sex industry can be (but is not always) a result of economic, racial, and gender injustice.  Accordingly, rather than criminalize, patronize or demonize sex workers, harm reduction seeks to provide safer options for those who choose to continue in the sex industry.  And, because a harm reduction approach ascribes no moral judgment to the activities of others, the traditional hierarchy assumed by service provision is disrupted.  Significantly, this challenges the notion that those in positions of power “know best” while empowering sex workers to make the healthiest choice possible for themselves under their individual circumstances.  This approach also empowers sex workers to use contraceptives and educate themselves on sexual health issues.  Importantly, then, application of the harm reduction model does not demean the work that sex workers do because it both identifies the intersection of race, class, and gender-based oppression that often create the need to continue working in the sex industry and recognizes that some sex workers remain in the industry by choice.

 

I already blogged about abstinence-only education, but I think it’s important to consider sex ed in light of harm reduction as well.  The philosophies which underlie harm reduction call for the elimination of funding for abstinence-only education in schools and implementation of comprehensive, sex-positive sex ed.  Abstinence-only education does not actually result in teens abstaining from sex, and instead denies them critical information about sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy prevention, and, yes—sexuality itself. 

 

Harm reduction acknowledges that people—and, in this case, young people—make choices that may put their health or well-being at risk, and seeks to provide information to most safely make those choices rather than administer judgment or condescension.  Like the earliest manifestations of the harm reduction movement—safer injection sites combined with resources and support for substance abusers who were trying to stop using drugs—comprehensive sex education presents young people with information and options.  And, like its predecessors in the movement, this information is health- and life-saving.  For teens who are having sex or are going to have sex, comprehensive sex education equips them with the tools and information they need to make that decision in a way that protects them from diseases and unwanted pregnancies as well as providing them with a healthy outlook on sexuality. 

 

Reproductive justice posits that all people have a right to information required to attain sexual and reproductive self-determination.  Providing students with comprehensive sex education reflects the principles that motivate the harm reduction movement, and as such gives students the tools they need to make healthy decisions about their bodies, their relationships, and their futures.

 

-Amanda Allen

 

Sex in the MTV Generation

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Today, we have a special guest blog post from Sheena Bosket, co-coordinator of LSRJ’s chapter at Georgia State University.

Last night, I watched 2 episodes of the MTV show “Sex…with Mom and Dad.” The show attempts to facilitate a dialogue with teenagers and their parents about sex, where both parties can air their grievances, concerns, etc. with the help of board-certified sex and relationship therapist Dr. Drew. Both episodes that I watched dealt with teenagers who had been with a number of sexual partners and parents/siblings that were concerned about them. However, in the first episode, the teenager was female and in the second episode, the teenager was male. I was struck, though not surprised, by the contrast in treatment of the two teenagers by Dr. Drew and by the voiceovers used to describe them. In the voiceovers in the episode featuring the female teenager, she was repeatedly referred to as “promiscuous” and was said to “sleep around.” In the voiceovers for the male teenager, he was referred to as a “player” and a “male whore,” a phrase that is offensive to women because by using the qualifier “male,” the suggestion is made that usually a “whore” is female.

 

As the episodes progress, Dr. Drew uses exercises to open up the dialogue between the teenagers and their parents. The first exercise is called “The Icebreaker,” which is meant to encourage both the teenager and her/his parents to share parts of their sexual past and openly communicate with each other. The second exercise is called “The Breakthrough” and is meant to show the teenager the potential consequences of his/her actions. After each exercise, the parents and teenager meet with Dr. Drew to discuss how the exercise affected them. In the episode featuring the female teenager, even before he assigned the first exercise, Dr. Drew took a noticeably paternalistic approach to discussing her sexual history with her by suggesting that her number of sexual partners was most likely a sign of internal turmoil, which may have been true, but does not necessarily have to be the case. When the teenager was hesitant to reveal to Dr. Drew how many sexual partners she had been with, Dr. Drew asked her if she was afraid that people were going to judge her if she revealed her number. When the teenager responded affirmatively, Dr. Drew told her that her fear suggests that she feels guilty about how many people she’s been with. I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think her fear shows that she is aware of the society she lives in. The fact of the matter is if you are a teenage girl in America and it’s decided that you’ve been with more than your fair share of sexual partners, people are going to judge you. That’s just true. Accept it Dr. Drew. Also, she may have been hesitant to reveal her sexual past because she knows that her peers watch this show and she didn’t want to be called names at school; a justifiable fear that should have been acknowledged by Dr. Drew. He also asked her how many sexual partners she planned on having in her life and told her that he was concerned about “the numbers,” a concern that was noticeably absent from his discussion with the male teenager who, interestingly enough, had had more sexual partners than the female teenager.

 

In the female teenager’s episode, her “Breakthrough” exercise was designed to show her the “weight of her choices.” She, her mother, and her sister all participated in the exercise, which involved all of them going on a nature walk together. Along the way, each person had to pick up a rock for each sexual partner they had been with and put it in a bucket that they carried with them for the duration of the walk. The teenager had the most sexual partners of the three and therefore, she had the heaviest bucket and the most to consider. I do not feel positively about this exercise because I feel the subtext of it was that the teenager should feel guilty about the number of sexual partners she’s had or that she should be punished for having as many partners as she’s had. If Dr. Drew was really concerned about this teenager understanding the consequences of her actions, a much better exercise would have been for each rock to have the name of a possible STI she could have gotten written on it along with a rock that had “pregnancy” written on it, as this is another consequence of her choices.

 

Now, I haven’t said all of this just to vent. Well, maybe some of it. I’ve said it to point out that this television show, which was meant to facilitate sexual dialogue between the teenagers who watch it and their parents as well, may also have a very substantial negative effect: instead of encouraging young women to talk to their parents about what’s going on in their lives, it may convince them to keep their sex lives to themselves and be ashamed of them as a result of the sexist treatment of young women on the show. By choosing to create a television show like this, MTV has also created for itself extra responsibility. We live in a society where some young people are still being “educated” about sex solely through “abstinence-only” programs. Many of these programs give young people erroneous information and if they feel that they can’t turn to their parents to discuss this information and possibly have it corrected, what these teenagers don’t know can hurt them. Some teenagers may only receive correct information about STIs, testing, pregnancy, etc. from a show like “Sex…with Mom and Dad,” but if this information is presented via a sexist framework, it can still be harmful. If MTV wants to appropriately address the issues that the young people face who have made the network so successful, this needs to change.


-Sheena Bosket, Co-Coordinator, LSRJ at Georgia State University

 

Blog for Choice Day: What is your top pro-choice hope for President-elect Obama and/or the new Congress?

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009


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 January 13, 2009, which aims to reduce unintended pregnancies, including by ensuring that all federal programs provide medically accurate information.  I hope that President Obama does not ask for any funding in his budget request to Congress for abstinence-only education.  I have high hopes that we will move into a new era where sex ed is science-based and, yes, sex-positive; where sex ed doesn’t teach kids that girls are responsible for denying boys’ sexual advances or tell bald-faced lies about contraception.  We need to as a society explore what it means for kids to have a right to information—and adjust sex ed curriculum accordingly. 

 


-Amanda Allen