The Costs of Enforced Sexual Ignorance

A Texas Monthly study reveals again that abstinence-only education doesn't work, writes Eric Alterman.

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This article contains a correction.

The current Texas Monthly features an extensive investigation by Katy Vine into the success of the state’s sex-education program. Some of its key findings include the startling revelations that:

  • Texas gets more than $4.5 million a year through Title V, a stream of federal funding for abstinence programs—more than any other state.
  • The Texas Education Code, written by the state legislature, requires that classrooms give more attention to abstinence than any other approach and that they must present abstinence as the only method that is 100 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, and the “emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity.”
  • No law mandates that methods of contraception be included in sex ed classes, and condom instruction is not encouraged anywhere in the code.
  • Only one of the four state-approved high school student health textbooks uses the word “condom,” and that book reaches only a small percentage of the Texas market.
  • “In the entire state we found two people that were involved in these programs that had degrees in health education,” Texas A&M researcher, B. E. “Buzz” Pruitt said. “Two of the curricula didn’t contain a single fact.”

This lack of sex education is certainly taking a toll:

  • Texas ranks number one in teenage births, costing taxpayers there over $1 billion a year. And 24 percent of those births are not the girl’s first delivery.
  • The rate of teenage births in Texas is decreasing at a slower rate than the nation at large.
  • Texan teenagers say they are having sex at a higher rate than the national average (52.5 percent vs. 47 percent).

The Texas story is merely an extreme version of a phenomenon that is taking place all around America. Under current federal standards, any sex education program receiving federal funds must conform to “abstinence only” guidelines, which means mentioning contraception only to discuss its failures and teaching, among other things, that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

These programs are chosen as if specifically designed not to work. One long-term evaluation of 10 state abstinence-only programs concluded, “Abstinence-only programs show little evidence of sustained (long-term) impact on attitudes and intentions. Worse, they show some negative impacts on youth’s willingness to use contraception, including condoms, to prevent negative sexual health outcomes related to sexual intercourse. Importantly, only in one state did any program demonstrate short-term success in delaying the initiation of sex; none of these programs demonstrates evidence of long-term success in delaying sexual initiation among youth exposed to the programs or any evidence of success in reducing other sexual risk-taking behaviors among participants.”

Of course, these programs are less oriented toward giving teenagers reliable information about sexuality than toward indoctrinating them with conservative Christian views about sex. A single grant-making program at the Health Resources and Services Administration, federal aid to abstinence education, for instance, has doled out more than $50 million in federal grants to such organizations as Care Net Pregnancy Services of DuPage, Illinois, an evangelistic organization that exists to help women who experience unplanned or unwanted pregnancies “choose life for their unborn babies”; Door of Hope Pregnancy Care Center in Madisonville, Kentucky, an organization “committed to the belief in the sanctity of human life, primarily as it relates to the protection of the unborn”; and Bethany Crisis Pregnancy Services in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which warns women considering abortion, “Your pregnancy ends with death. You may feel guilt and shame about your choice. You will remember taking a life.”

In a larger study by the Centers for Disease Control, researchers found that although teenagers who take “virginity pledges” may wait longer to initiate sexual activity, they are more likely to enjoy oral and anal sex, and they are just as likely as other students to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Eighty-eight percent eventually have premarital intercourse. While abstinence-only programs show little evidence of sustained effect on a student’s sexual activities, they do reduce the use of contraception, including condoms, when sex does take place.

The large-scale failure of these program is at least partially attributable to the fact that they are purposely, indeed transparently, dishonest. Of the 13 federally funded programs studied in a minority staff report by the Committee on Government Reform, just two provided students with accurate medical and scientific information, a finding that was consistent with a U.S. Government Accountability Office study released two years later. In the rest, students learned such “facts” as:

  • Half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus. 
  • Touching a person’s genitals “can result in pregnancy.” 
  • A 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person.” 
  • HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears.
  • Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse. (The actual rate is less than 3 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
  • Women who experience abortions “are more prone to suicide,” and as many as 10 percent of them become sterile.


The right-wingers who continue to promote these programs refuse to accept that their false information is in any way responsible for increased pregnancy and STIs. According to the conservative Christians in the Family Research Council, however, the relative failure of their lessons merely indicates that even more of the same may be needed. Upon the announcement that yet another study—this one congressionally mandated and published by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in the spring of 2007—had demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such education, the group insisted that these very same failed “programs must be intensive and long-term, so that the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to reject sex before marriage are constantly reinforced—particularly in the pivotal high school years.”

By way of comparison, Canadian and European young people are about as active sexually as Americans, but teenage American girls are five times as likely to have a baby as French girls, seven times as likely to have an abortion, and 70 times as likely to have gonorrhea as teenage girls in the Netherlands. In addition, the incidence of HIV/AIDS among American teenagers is five times that of the same age group in Germany. Is it any wonder, therefore, that 17* states have so far chosen to forgo federal matching funds rather than submit their children to the dishonest, propagandistic programs of conservative abstinence-only ideologues toward nearly all forms of sexual activity.

As if to demonstrate where its own priorities in this area lay, in November 2006, the Bush administration nominated Dr. Eric Keroack to the post of deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, overseeing a number of Health and Human Services programs, including the Office of Family Planning and what is called “Title X,” a Nixon-era program that distributes contraceptives to poor or uninsured women. A favorite guest speaker of the National Right to Life Committee, Keroack teaches that there is a physiological cause for relationship failure and sexual promiscuity that he calls “God’s Super Glue,” which results in a hormonal cause and effect that can be short-circuited only by sexual abstinence until marriage.

And though he enjoyed the position of full-time medical director for A Woman’s Concern, a chain of Boston-area crisis pregnancy centers that regards the distribution of contraceptives as demeaning to women, he was not even a certified obstetrician-gynecologist at the time of his appointment. (Keroack resigned this post shortly after the Massachusetts Office of Medicaid announced an investigation into his private practice.)

What is perhaps most infuriating about the use and abuse of teenagers as proxies for the right’s culture war against all forms of non-marital sexuality is the fact that it has little democratic support. An extensive survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University asked voters whether “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose” or if “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.” The condom/contraceptive option won the day by a margin of 67 percent to 30 percent. Unsurprisingly, a similar number (65 percent) said they worried that refusing to provide teens with good information about contraception might lead to unsafe sex, while only 28 percent were more concerned that such information might encourage teens to have sex.

In other words, a tiny, extremist minority in Congress is ensuring that the rate of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases remains unnaturally high because it prefers to cling to its ideological dicta rather than accept the facts that demonstrate the cost of its misinformation.

Sound familiar?

Kudos to Ms. Vine and the Texas Monthly for helping to illuminate the human side of democratic, scientific, and educational failure.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, from which parts of this article have been drawn, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

*Correction, May 13, 2008: This article incorrectly stated the number of states that have opted not to receive federal funding for abstinence-only education. The correct number is 17.


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Eric Alterman

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