James Wagoner is President of Advocates for Youth.
Recently, people were stunned when they learned that the new Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs encouraged grantees to target unmarried adults up to the age of 29.
With the government's own center of health statistics documenting that over 95% of adults in their late 20's have already had sex, public disbelief quickly turned to outright disdain for a government program that seemed to be so drastically – and willfully – out of touch with reality.
As participants in the effort to draw attention to this "29-year-old-virgin campaign", my colleagues and I were surprised to discover that conservative talk radio hosts were among the more outraged audiences. They were all over this story and eager to discuss how the campaign violated core conservative values by promoting big government, wasteful spending, and intrusion into personal choice. Oh, and I shouldn't leave out the "just plain nuts" reaction either.
It seemed to me that the criticisms were driven by a deeper, underlying disconnect with the "social engineering" philosophy behind these efforts – the goal is to transform majority behavior in the culture to fit tidily within the dictum that there should be no sex outside of marriage. And here, the traditional conservatives have hit the proverbial nail on the head.
Back in 1996 when the program was authorized by the Welfare Reform Act, a legislative history was created to clarify the law's purpose and intent. The authors stated:
"Regardless of how one feels about the standard of no sex outside marriage, we believe both the statutory language and, based on our talks with the Members of Congress who wrote this provision and their staffs, the intent of Congress is clear. This standard was intended to align Congress with the social tradition – never mind that some observers now think the tradition outdated – that sex should be confined to married couples. That both the practices and standards in many communities across the country clash with the standard required by the law is precisely the point….the goal of the abstinence education programs is to change both behavior and community standards for the good of the country".
There you have it. This policy is out of touch by design! Targeting 29-year-old adults with abstinence-only messages is not a bureaucratic aberration – it is a logical consequence of the program's intent.
Preaching abstinence to these adults is lunacy from a public health perspective. We should be focusing on condoms, birth control, and emergency contraception. But from a religious right ideological point of view, it makes perfect sense. And the deep divide between these religious right conservatives and traditional "small government" conservatives has been surfaced and highlighted by these new regulations. Stay tuned!