How Ab-Only Changed My Life: Testifying To Congress

This morning, I testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the first-ever hearing on abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education — a flawed policy that has transformed my life.

I testified as a 23-year-old living with HIV who has spent the last six years working to prevent new infections. I wanted to give a face to this $1.5 billion government-funded failure while explaining how the lessons I've learned apply to other young people, who now comprise 15 percent of all new HIV infections.

The hearing coincided with today's release of AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families' policy report, In a Position to Know: Youth and Parents Living with HIV Speak out on Sexuality Education. The report inspired my testimony by providing the first review of what abstinence-only programs mean to people living with HIV. In a Position to Know shared my story, among others.

Let me give you an idea of my testimony:

I experienced abstinence-only education taught by my junior high school gym teacher. He told me and my male classmates that sex is dangerous and that we should think more seriously about it when we "grow up and marry." He made clear that only heterosexuality ending in marriage should be discussed. Already aware of my sexual orientation, his speech might as well not have happened.

When I was 17, I began seeing someone six years older than me. The first time we had sex, I took out a condom but he ignored it. I did not know how to assert myself further. I knew enough to suggest a condom, but I didn't adequately understand the importance of using one, and even if had I understood that, I had no idea how to discuss condoms with my partner. The abstinence-only message did not prepare me for life, and I contracted HIV from the first person with whom I consented to have unprotected sex.

I was still in high school.

More individuals have this virus now than ever before in history. Most children born with HIV no longer die; they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Within and outside of marriage, these young people must know how to prevent transmission of HIV to their sexual partners and how to protect themselves. Instead, abstinence-only disparages HIV-positive youth by suggesting they are dirty, dying, and unfit for love.

While most abstinence-only programs are more extensive than the class I experienced, they rely on similarly exclusive and stigmatizing messages that lack basic information about sexual health. What I experienced is a routine example of the messages of abstinence-only that children across still experience today. These programs ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are at high risk for HIV, and use government dollars to condemn them. They also compromise young women's safety by portraying sexually active females as scarred and untrustworthy. From a healthcare perspective, it's essential that scrutiny of these programs focuses on the consequences of abstinence-only's condemnation of young people.

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  • invalid-0

    Great post, Max. Thanks for speaking up and sharing your experience.

  • invalid-0

    and your testimony was probably the best among any of the speakers. I loved seeing some of the congressmen reaction to your story – and I loved the idea that your unique and personal story is now “on record”

    I hope they listened.

  • scott-swenson


    Your story cuts through all the lies and misinformation of ab-only programs, and your courage demonstrates the wisdom and intelligence youth today can share to help wake the world up to the need for change. Thanks, and good luck on your efforts to make up for the failures of our education system. The world needs more voices like yours.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • emily-douglas

    Just want to second how moving your story is. It’s a reminder that withholding information has real consequences. Thank you for your bravery.

  • invalid-0

    It’s important that people keep talking about this issue. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education, and abstinence-only hurts people. Thanks for sharing your story! It is imperative for real people to come forward and fight for everyone’s right to truthful and accurate education.

  • invalid-0

    It’s simply tragic that “we” continue to allow this type of behavior to wreak such continuous and STUPID havoc in our lives. I’m 70 and I can’t believe that it’s STILL happening. I could easily contribute a huge litany of stuff & nonsense on this subject… and how sad it is to even contemplate the need or even the reason to do so. MY disappointment re this state of affairs pales in comparison to Max’s experience(s). My thoughts & heart are with him, as well as with all our other wonderful young people who are having to deal with this crap – mostly because of the ‘ostriches’ among us.

    Keep on keepin’ on, y’all –

  • invalid-0


    Thank you for your tireless dedication to the sexual education of our young people. I admire the bravery of your presence and testimony. May those in Congress hear the sincere candor of your voice and understand the urgency of your message; and may they act swiftly.

  • invalid-0


    Great job at the hearing last week. I just now had time to read your blog. I am so happy to finally see some action on this issue which I worked on for the last 2 years at AIDS Alliance and continue to work on locally here in the District. Keep up the good work!

    I would also encourage others to read the report from AIDS Alliance – mainly the other testimonies that were collected and distribute widely! The voices of HIV-positive youth and parents are rarely heard in the debate around sexuality education and their stories are in my opinion some of the best defense against our ab-only opponents.

  • invalid-0

    Good job speaking out in front of Congress. They need to understand that hard science does not change along with politicians’ ideals.

    25 years ago, my school was pioneering abstinence-only sex education. As a result, I too didn’t have the knowledge to insist on a condom for my first sexual encounter. I was luckier than you. I “only” caught gonorrhea and the HPV virus (associated with cervical cancer) AND had an unwanted pregnancy. Luckily for me and my education, that pregnancy ended early with a miscarriage. I did later contract a pre-cancerous cervical growth due to HPV, and was treated. This first sexual encounter happened before my senior year of High School, when condom use was FINALLY discussed in a health class.

    Fast-forward 25 years, I have my college degree, am happily married, and I am a mom with a 13 year old son. Every year after sex-ed classes at his school, my husband and I spend LOTS of time undoing the damage of erroneous and biased information they teach in the abstinence-only program. I hope and pray that what we do is enough and that he doesn’t have to find out the hard way, like you did, that abstinence-only education does NOT help anyone. And I always have to wonder if and when the HPV will cause me to have another fight with cancer… all thanks to abstinence-only “sex ed.”

  • invalid-0

    Every year after sex-ed classes at his school, my husband and I spend LOTS of time undoing the damage of erroneous and biased information they teach in the abstinence-only program.

    It’s great that you try to correct the misinformation your son receives, but why let him be misinformed in the first place? Why not hold him from the class and write a letter to the school telling them that you refuse to let your child be misinformed? It may get them to change the policy, and that would help kids who aren’t so lucky to have parents that care about keeping them informed.
    < br/>
    That aside, I am so sorry about what happened to you, Max. I try to tell people that things like that will happen if we misinform young people (or leave them uninformed), but they just shrug it off as if it could never really happen, or they have this attitude like “it wouldn’t happen to my child”. That, or they try to tell me that kids are already learning about sex from the media to counteract ab-only (as if the media is much better!).

  • invalid-0

    I am so sorry to hear about your story but it perfectly demonstrates why people should wait to engage in sexual behavior. If you were older (and by the way having sex with someone 6 years older than you when you are under 18 in most states in considered statutory rape) then you may have been able to be more assertive. I do believe there are many kids who choose to wait not only for faith reasons but also because of the staggering statistic that 1 in 4 teenagers has an STD. I have met many young women through my job who had been taught comprehensive sex ed and yet realized putting a condom on a real boy was nothing like a cucumber or that you actually have to take the birth control pills everyday for them to be effective. I have reviewed the abstinence only education taught in my children’s school system and I found it accurate and consitent with what is taught in comprehensive except it ultimatle taught that kids do have control of their bodies and that they were physically able to wait. Again I am sad to hear stories like yours and the many others I hear on a daily basis but I have learned we make choices in our lives and we can’t be the victim forever. I hope someday you will heal from what that older man did to you and not blame a middle school teacher for it.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t know what is so bad about abstinence, I am practicing it and so far I have not caught a STI. I have learned to have self-respect and respect for others, to see them as person not not an object. I plan to save myself for the person I will marry. And hopefully he will do the same.

  • invalid-0

    But,it misses the point by a few miles. As adults, we owe kids the straight stuff on sex and we shouldn’t stand idly by while our government funds unrealistic abstinence only programs which LIE to kids or scare them with made-up “facts”. We are raising a generation of kids who are ignorant about sex and birth control. That isn’t right.