If ONLY This Abstinence Poll Were Honest: Debunking NAEA


RH Reality Check has been watching with interest as the newly formed National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA):

  • recruits and instructs members how to use your tax dollars to promote its narrow mono-theological political agenda;
  • assembles a board of directors with questionable ethics;
  • hires hit men to prepare a media blitz to acquire more taxpayer dollars for failed ab-only programs.

The latest step in NAEA's fledgling efforts to preserve the Bush billion dollar abstinence-only boondoggle, is a poll conducted by NAEA to test messaging for their upcoming media blitz.

Most people only hear the top-line data from polls, the "support for abstinence programs shifts from 40 to 60 percent" sort of information that Valerie Huber at NAEA is pushing. Without critical analysis, that data gets repeated and sometimes people who know better, believe it, like Skip Brown, the spokesperson for Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA). He said, “By killing this [ab-only funding], Democrats are going against the wishes of most parents.” What was a shift in a poll suddenly became the will of the American parent. Not so fast Skippy.

Today RH Reality Check is going to debunk the recent NAEA poll, in substance and in form, and help Valerie Huber at NAEA and Rep. Pitts' staff understand why their statements simply are not true.

Borrowing from the analytic resources available at Public Agenda, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization founded by public opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, we'll take a look at several red flags this poll has.

Step 1. Who conducted and paid for the poll? In this case Zogby International, a reputable firm conducted the poll, and NAEA, an organization with an agenda — preserving ab-only funding — paid for it. No harm in having an agenda, the only harm comes when you try to pass off polls as being something that they are not, which NAEA's Executive Director Valerie Huber is trying to do.

From Public Agenda's advice to journalists on how to cover polls:

Reporting on a survey by a special interest group is tricky. For example, an environmental group trumpets a poll saying the American people support strong measures to protect the environment. That may be true, but the poll may have been conducted for a group with definite views. That may have swayed the question wording, the timing of the poll, the group interviewed, and the order of the questions. You should examine the poll to be certain that it accurately samples public opinion — and does not simply push a single viewpoint.

NAEA's poll is clearly crafted for one purpose, test messaging for media to persuade people that abstinence-only education works. That is a hard sell when independent researchers have concluded that ab-only does not work, and other research indicates that students exposed only to ab-only are more likely to contract STDs.

Step 2. What questions were asked?

Again, from Public Agenda:

You must find out the exact wording of the poll questions. Why? Because the very wording of questions can make major differences in the results. Perhaps the best test of any poll question is your reaction to it. On the face of it, does the question seem fair and unbiased? Does it present a balanced set of choices? Would people you know be able to answer the question?

The most curious part of the NAEA poll is not what is in it, but what is missing: the word ONLY. Take a look at one question:

5. Abstinence Education permits an age appropriate discussion of contraceptives within the context of promoting abstinence as the healthiest choice.

In fact, in the entire 27 question poll, never once does the word ONLY, as in abstinence-ONLY-until-marriage, appear. These programs are defined to teach ONLY abstinence.

This question suggests that NAEA supports discussions of contraception which is false and misleading. To do that would be to support comprehensive sexuality education, the very evil they will spend the rest of poll creating.

NAEA's poll can be dismissed on this alone, because if what NAEA is talking about is educating teens about abstinence as one part of sexuality education, we could end this debate right now. The fact that in their own polling, ab-only advocates realize they cannot accurately portray what they promote underscores the lies upon which this entire federal program is built.

Step 3. In what order were the questions asked?

From Public Agenda:

Sometimes the very order of the questions can have an impact on the results. Often that impact is intentional; sometimes, it is not. The impact of order can often be subtle. In political polls, campaign consultants often ask a series of questions about various issue positions of the candidates–or various things that could be said about the candidates. After these questions are asked, the horse-race question is asked, usually for the second time in the poll. This second horse race question is then examined to see if the questions about issues and positions swayed any opinions. This may be a good way to test issues. It is a poor way to test the candidates' true standings in the public's mind.

This is also true of issues.

With NAEA's poll, again, no one is arguing with message testing, a perfectly valid reason to do a poll, and frankly, we're happy to see the results. But to pass that off as "this is what American's think about abstinence-only education" defies credibility. This is what a few hundred people think when presented with limited information that NAEA hopes to replicate in a media-campaign, and then hopes will similarly drive public opinion. This is not public opinion.

In this poll, NAEA asked some leading questions to test (some might suggest push) messages to see if they work on people.

For example, questions 6-10 cite data suggesting that condoms are not 100 percent effective, that adults don't always use them, and raises the specter of STD's before asking:

10. Level of agreement – According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the US, 15 million people get STDs each year and one quarter of these people are teens. Given the high number of STDs among teens, do you (agree/disagree) that it is important for schools to emphasize abstaining from sex?

A whopping 76 percent agreed, after being read four bits of information about condom effectiveness and STD's, no surprise there. But does "emphasize abstaining from sex?" equate to support of abstinence-only funding? No. Respondents in the poll were not able to consider that the American Medical Association suggests comprehensive sexuality education is more likely to delay sexual activity, prevent STD's and unwanted pregnancies and give students a better sense of self-respect than does ab-only education.

Now check out these question pairings, recalling the effect that ordering questions has:

12. Do you (agree/disagree) that promoting different forms of sexual activity in sex education classes, such as showering together and mutual masturbation as alternatives to intercourse encourages sexual activity among teens?

13. Do you (agree/disagree) that being sexually abstinent is best for your child's health and future?

Not surprisingly after thinking about little Johnny and Jennie showering together and learning about masturbation, 78 percent of the parents said abstinence was a good idea. Then there is this one:

15. Do you (agree/disagree) that sex education classes should let your child know about the potential negative emotional consequences such as worry, regret, and guilt that can occur as a result of becoming sexually active?

16. Do you (agree/disagree) that it is important that your child wait to have sex until they are married?

One sure way to get parents to say overwhelmingly that their kids should wait until marriage to have sex is to first conjure an image of their own regrets, the miserable guilt-ridden failed relationships past, and potentially present.

And then after that duo, the killer question:

17. Do you (agree/disagree) that the importance of the wait to have sex message in Comprehensive Sex Education ends up being lost when some of these programs demonstrate and encourage the use of condoms and other forms of contraceptives?

Most respondents were probably still lost in the guilt and depression of their own lives, or trying to walk the cordless phone through the house to see if little Johnny and Jennie were showering together to accurately process a complex question. Predictably, NAEA gets the result they want, more than half the respondents now doubt proven comprehensive sexuality education programs promoted by public health experts.

After asking a confusing question they lob the softball over the plate, ready for an emotional response:

18. Do you (agee/disagree) that Sex Education classes in public schools should place more emphasis on promoting abstinence rather than on condom and other contraceptive use?

59 percent respondents strongly agreed. But they didn't stop there, they kept pushing the emotional buttons even harder with questions that claim that comprehensive sexuality education spends only five percent of the time discussing abstinence. The questions suggest more time is spent promoting flavored and colored condoms, "alternative lifestyles", models of male genitalia, and raising the specter of disease, teen pregnancy, and more broken lives and hardships.

Alternating with these questions about the alleged evils of comprehensive sexuality education were questions like this:

25. If you knew that typical Abstinence Education Courses teach teens about increasing their self-worth as a method for reducing premarital sexual activity, would you be (more likely/less likely) to support teaching Abstinence Education in place of Comprehensive Sex Education?

Alternating dark and foreboding questions with fluffy happy images about a child's self-worth and associating that with abstinence-only education probably pushed poor mom and dad over the edge. They too were now likely contemplating how to explain to their spouse that they were choosing abstinence.

Again, its important to keep in mind, comprehensive sexuality education has done something ab-only has not, actually delivered results on delaying sexual activity and teaching self-respect and responsibility. Those facts were conveniently left out of NAEA's poll and will not make it into their media-blitz.

By the end of the poll, the beleaguered, guilt-ridden parents were ready to support "abstinence education" (absent the ONLY) as portrayed in this poll. This gave Valerie Huber the ammunition to misinform Skippy with the notion that this is really what Americans think.

Her media team knows better, so they are busy gathering foreboding music, the grainy black and whites, the chilling deep voiced male announcer that will drive fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. They'll also have some soft fluffy ads, with lots of pastels and a gentle female voice talking about protecting teens, teaching self-respect, and raising our kids better. Yummy!

If ONLY any of what they preach and attempt to teach were based on reality.

Step 4. What other polls have been done on this topic?

From Public Agenda:

Do they say the same thing? If they are different, why are they different?

The polls listed below are different because they were done by independent research or media organizations in an attempt to measure public opinion, not influence it.

  • 82 percent support comprehensive sexuality education …. the University of Pennsylvania.
  • 15 percent support ab-only … Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR.
  • 58 percent do not believe abstinence programs are effective at preventing HIV; and,
  • 65 percent do not believe abstinence programs are effective at preventing unintended pregnancies … The Harris Poll.

While we appreciate knowing where NAEA and Creative Research Concepts (makers of the infamous swift-boat ads) are heading with their expensive, politically motivated misinformation campaign, what this poll represents is definitively not what American parents think.

Given people's real world understanding of sex, their reality-based concerns for their children, the dissembling of the Bush Administration and the mistrust in anything or anyone associated with it, NAEA has a tough message challenge ahead of them. Reality is simply not on their side. NAEA could follow this message-testing to the letter and put millions into media, and not move public opinion one bit.

People are ready for reality and authenticity in their politics, and that simply is not what NAEA's poll is pushing.

If ONLY they told the truth in their poll, they would know this too. But as the saying goes: Garbage in? Garbage out. It's time to take this garbage out.

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To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • scott-swenson

    Having studied hundreds of polls during 20 years of advocacy work I was troubled about this NAEA poll as I read it, so after writing this piece, I wrote to Zogby International asking how a reputable firm allows a client to abuse their data as NAEA is doing. Today, I got a reply from Fritz Wenzel, Zogby's Director of Communications:

    I received your inquiry to Zogby International, and wanted to respond to the question about our client's representation of a particular poll. Like many pollsters in the industry, we offer guidelines to clients about how polling data should be treated in the public arena, but we have no ultimate control over how they treat that data. As far as message testing, we are happy to offer that service to clients, but clearly advise them to use it for its intended purpose – to develop messages

    I truly appreciate the response, carefully worded as it is. As my article states, there is nothing wrong with message testing — it is a valuable and important part of public opinion work.

    But if you google "abstinence poll" you will find this article and dozens of social conservative "news sites" and blogs that are repeating NAEA's claim that this message poll amounts to current public opinion. From Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, One News Now, Life Site, Christian News Now and other sites that conduct polling all the time and thus also know better — they all treat this as though it represents public opinion. Scores of conservative bloggers, well intentioned and assuming that the information coming from the leaders they look to is accurate, repeat it verbatim.

    Most of those sites do not allow comments, so it is hard to engage their readers and share critical analysis of what they are misinterpreting as public opinion. Predictably, many of those sites have lines like "here's another poll you'll never hear about in the liberal media," completely missing the fact it would be irresponsible to report something as public opinion that clearly is not.  The few sites that do allow comments moderate them and curiously my links to this piece didn't make the cut on most of them. Just in case those conservative readers find their way outside their insulated information bubble, here is what I said:

    The poll you are referring to was done to influence public opinion, not accurately measure it. For good and moral people interested in discussing the truth about this poll and abstinence-only policies please check out the critical analysis provided here ….

     

    After his kind note, I asked Mr. Wenzel at Zogby if he thought NAEA was complying with the guidelines about how to use polling in the public arena. So far no reply, but unlike the far-right blogs, we welcome comments from Zogby, NAEA's Valerie Huber, Rep. Pitts, Skip Brown or any abstinence-only advocate who is reporting on this poll as though it represents actual public opinion.

    The floor is yours…..

     

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    I just got an automated push poll call from NAEA. After about six questions they asked me to call my representative “Earl Perlmutter” and ask him to fully fund abstinence education. Actually, his name is “Ed” not “Earl”. And they neglected to include the word “only” after the word “abstinence”. So they are both dishonest and ignorant.