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What’s Not Being Said About Sex—And Who It’s Hurting
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What’s Not Being Said About Sex—And Who It’s Hurting

Abstinence-only programs are contributing to higher-than-ever rates of sexually transmitted infections among teen girls, writes Julie F. Kay.

While we’ve squirmed the past couple weeks about former Governor Eliot Spitzer’s sexual transgressions and tittered about other politicians’ sexual dalliances, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted infections among teenage girls, and the media barely blinked.

Perhaps this new information should come as no surprise given that federal policy on sex education rejects teaching prevention, and instead preaches abstinence only. Legal Momentum’s new report, Sex, Lies & Stereotypes: How Abstinence Only Programs Harm Women and Girls, provides a comprehensive examination of the nature and extent of federally funded abstinence-only programs. The report exposes the political motivations behind these ineffective programs and highlights the harm they cause to women and girls in particular.

Despite conclusive evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs, as well as mounting evidence of their harmful effects, such programs continue to receive unprecedented and increasing levels of government funding each year. Over $1.5 billion in federal and state funding has been allocated for abstinence-only programs since they began in 1982, and funding has flourished under the Bush administration.

Abstinence-only funding streams specifically invite applications from religious and secular organizations that oppose abortion and contraception. Comprehensive sex education programs that provide information about contraceptive use and practicing safe sex need not apply. The federal guidelines state that programs may not “encourage the use or combining of any contraceptives in order to make sex ‘safer.’” If abstinence fails, there is no back-up.

Girls and women bear the brunt of this nonsensical policy. Females have a greater risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection through unprotected heterosexual sexual activity and generally suffer greater life-long health consequences of these infections than males do. According to the new CDC data, one in four teenage girls has an STI, and African-American girls are at more than twice the risk of contracting STIs than white girls. HIV/AIDS is the gravest risk posed to young people by unprotected sexual activity, and right now people under the age of 25 are the fastest-growing category of new HIV infections. Again, young minority women are particularly at risk of contracting this disease.

Abstinence-only programs not only lack the accurate and complete sexual health information needed to combat this epidemic, but by failing to teach about condoms, and even disparaging condom use, they are likely to increase teens’ risk of contracting an STI. One study of adolescents who took virginity pledges—a common feature of abstinence-only programs—found that while pledgers delayed sexual debut slightly, when they did engage in sexual activity, they used condoms less frequently and were less likely to be tested for STIs than non-pledgers.

Students who took part in abstinence-only programs were also more likely to incorrectly believe that condoms do not protect against STIs. If teens are taught in school that condoms provide no advantage in preventing pregnancy or disease, they certainly have no reason to use them regularly.

Young women and girls are at great risk of unplanned pregnancy as well. CDC research shows that teen birthrates in the United States jumped 3 percent from 2005 to 2006 after more than 15 years of steady decline. A lack of information about how to prevent pregnancy—other than by remaining 100 percent abstinent—affects girls far more than boys for the simple reason that only women and girls become pregnant. Teenage girls who have given birth all too often bear primary or sole responsibility for raising their children and frequently end up sacrificing their own educational or career opportunities.

Just this week a national study of sex education programs confirmed that teens receiving comprehensive sex education were less likely to report a pregnancy in a 2002 federal survey than teens who participated in abstinence-only programs. Nonetheless, President Bush is requesting an additional $27 million in funding for the Community Based Abstinence Education Program, seeking a grand total of over $200 million for abstinence programs for Fiscal Year 2009.

As the evidence against them has grown, abstinence-only programs have become increasingly unpopular and face mounting scrutiny by state and national governments, public health experts, women’s rights advocates, the human rights community, and concerned parents and teens. Already 17 states have rejected federal funding for abstinence-only programs provided under the federal Title V program. These states recognize that spending the required state matching funds on such harmful programs is beyond wasteful. Similarly, surveys of parents have repeatedly shown they do not favor such an overly simplified “just-say-no” approach to sex education for their children.

A one-size-fits-all abstinence-only approach fits no one. It fails in practice and women and girls in particular get hurt. We need a more effective approach than abstinence-only to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease among young women and men. Young people need honest and comprehensive information about sexual activity to determine whether they should wait to have sex and to make healthy decisions if and when they do engage in sexual activity.

Yet the federal government continues to preach abstinence-only and fund it heavily. It is past time to stop spending state and federal funds for such ineffective and dangerous programs. It’s time to stop talking about politics and sex and instead start talking about the real politics of sex. It’s time to teach young women how to live sexually healthy lives.

Julie F. Kay is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Sexuality and Family Rights Program at Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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