Ab-Only Curricula Stoke Fear, Propagate Inaccuracy

Today, SIECUS, in partnership with
the National Education Association and the National Education Association
Health Information Network, is hosting our 6th Annual "Back
to School" Briefing on Capitol Hill.  In this briefing, we will
be releasing our reviews of three fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs: Reasonable Reasons to Wait (RRTW), Healthy Images of Sex
and A.C. Green’s Game Plan.  Each of these
curricula, in one way or another, presents a skewed view of sexuality,
relies on outdated or biased information, and has, as its top priority,
the goal of promoting one particular life style over all others. 

As we prepared the reviews for our
briefing today, there was a flurry of activity as we double and triple
checked the quotations and examples we had pulled from the programs. 
Some of the examples were so outrageously incorrect or offensive that
we were sure we must have read them wrong. Reading some sections of
the curricula was like watching Britney Spears drive with her baby on
her lap – you know what you saw, but it is so reckless that you hope
you must be mistaken.  Sadly, we are not. 

Try this one, for example, where
likens premarital sex to drug and alcohol use and notes that
just because other people are doing it, young people should not compromise
their values: "No matter how many people accept a dumb idea, it is
still a dumb idea," the curriculum states.  Two of the examples
used to illustrate this point are slavery and Hitler.  That’s
right; RRTW compares premarital sex, a choice that the vast majority
of Americans make, to owning slaves and exterminating human beings. 

Not to be outdone, HIS compares
premarital sex to other "powerful stuff" in a photo montage that
includes pictures of a sports car, a syringe, a gun, fire, and a plane
about to slam into the World Trade Center.  "If you have sex
outside of marriage," the point seems to be, "you are no better
than a mass murdering terrorist."  Messages such as this, which
are extremely disturbing and offensive, serve no purpose other than
to instill feelings of fear and shame into young people, when what they
really need is guidance, support, and information. 

Unfortunately, these curricula are
short on information, and what is included is often misleading or blatantly
wrong. "Any kind of sexual activity can spread STDs from one person
to another," says HIS, which includes masturbation, a safe
and risk free activity, in its definition of sexual activity. 
Of course, the most blatant inaccuracy comes in RRTW which after telling
teens that "sexually transmitted diseases affect teenagers’ dating
relationships. AIDS can kill. It can kill you. It can kill your date,"
the curriculum goes on to say: "AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin
contact."  That’s just wrong.  But in case students weren’t
already scared enough, RRTW asks them to name "the percentage of people
who will die from AIDS."  The answer: 100%.  There are a
lot of things wrong with this statement but let’s just start with
the obvious – it fails to even mention the role of HIV.  Clearly,
the authors of RRTW can’t believe that 100% of mankind will die from

While these quotations and examples,
by themselves, provide reason enough for any moderately competent school
system to yank these curricula from classrooms in a New York minute,
they are not the entire problem.  All three of the curricula that
we recently reviewed (and the dozens more we have reviewed over the
last decade) have a clear agenda: to promote the heterosexual marriage
as the only morally acceptable life path. These curricula may be sold
as teen pregnancy and STD prevention programs (or worse sex education)
but when you really look at them you see that their goal is to promote
a conservative social agenda. Not only does this focus instantly exclude
any gay and lesbian students who happen to be in the class by telling
them they have to wait for sex until marriage, even though in almost
every state they are not allowed to marry, but it demeans both women
and men, relies on not-so-subtle religious messages, and lessens the
worth of any student who might come from a single-parent family. 

Sometimes, when we talk about our
reviews of fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, we are
accused of being, well, fear-based – of picking the worst of the worst
and taking quotes out of context to support our claims. If only that
were true.  We feel that the quotations we highlight are truly
representative of the content and tone of these programs, and we include
them verbatim in our reviews (spelling mistakes and all).  

In our space here today, we could only give you a very
brief idea of what these curricula include, but sincerely hope that you will
read the full reviews or shorter summaries on our website at www.communityactionkit.org/reviews.
These curricula, and many others just like them, are out there spreading fear
and misinformation among young people, and the first step in fighting them is
knowing exactly what they say.

Most disturbingly, all of our examples come from programs
that received federal funding.  Congress has been educated time and again
of the profound problems with these federally funded programs and yet, they
continue to fund them.  We are pleased that no increases have been
approved for years, but it is time for Congress to work with a new
administration to end all funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage
initiatives.  Many of us have labored over the past decade to gather the
evidence and political cover our leaders need to end this experiment and the
time has come to call our policymakers on the carpet.  We’ve done
our part.  Now it’s their turn.

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  • invalid-0

    I am a product of the abstinence only education and let me tell you it didn’t do me a darn bit of good but only made me feel guilty about myself, my body and my thoughts. The other thing that I love about comp sex ed is that (from what I heard could be totally wrong on this)it teached young girls and boys how to keep themselves safe from child predators. I had an experience as a child with a friend of my family that scarred me for life and if I had said education in PreK or K then maybe I could of done something more about it. I am sickened to hear the facts that you have shared with us here Joseph. To tell kids that about STIs well is just so wrong! Personally we didn’t have it that bad in the south and I lived in the deep south in the 90s and they told us some stupid things about sex but never that dumb. I knew this abstinence only crap was just that but I didn’t know exactly the lows of it. Thanks for keeping us informed, Joseph and good luck with the good fight, Liz.

  • http://www.tellthemsc.org invalid-0

    Your observations are very well taken. Thank you for bringing attention to the negative consequences of fear-based, and in many cases, medically inaccurate curricula.

    In South Carolina, we are aware of these issues, and are actively combatting the effects of abstinence-only programs as many of them do not offer effective solutions to adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

    TellThem!, an online network of about 3,000 people in South Carolina, supports medically accurate information in comprehensive sex education curricula, as well as unlimited access to reproductive health services.

    We hope that, through encouraging advocates to vote, we will improve reproductive health policy in South Carolina and that we will then, begin to see change and progress in the health of our community.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  • invalid-0

    I understand your concern, we would all like for students to be well educated so that they can make informed decisions about their sexuality. This is the reason that I work as the Director of an Abstinence Education Program. We got tired (just like everyone else) of seeing students be the victims of uninformed choices. We understand (just like everyone else) that some of the consequences of premarital sex can be life changing and permanent. I sincerely hope that the curriculum’s that were mentioned have been closely examined and that faulty information gets corrected. But let me give you my perspective from this side of the fence, students have to be educated. Here in our program, and in the abstinence movement in general, there has been a huge push for medical accuracy. I have been to several conferences just this year to insure that our program is medically accurate. I know personally for our program that the goal is never to scare students, but the current state of things does require that we let them know the severity of what can result from their actions. STD/I’s are a very real threat to their lives, and futures. While condoms can be effective, they are not the answer.

    We do educate youth on contraception: Birth Control Pills, Vaginal Rings and Patches, Spermicides, Male and Female Condoms, IUD, the Depo shot, and foams. We explain how they work, how effective they are, and what they protect them from. The reality is that there are at least 20 STD/I’s and that condoms will only protect them from at the very best 7. Condoms do not cover the whole genital region so diseases that are passed through contact can still be transmitted. In the case of HPV (the most commonly transmitted STD/I) there is no proof that condoms offer any protection at all. This is a disease that (according to Dr. Gary Rose of the Medical Institute)will cause more cases of oral cancer this year than cervical, and is transmitted through sexual fluids. How can anyone then, in good conscience, tell students to just “wrap it up”?

    Along the lines of federal funding for “failed programming”, the study that “outed” Abstinence programs was the Mathmatica study and it was flawed. I have a copy of it in my office if you would like to debate it’s credibility. What about the other studies that have been published more recently,like the one from the Heritage Foundation, that have found that abstinence programs can be effective? Comprehensive sex education has existed in schools since the 80’s and we see where that got us. The federal government spends 12 times more money on Comprehensive programs that it does on Abstinence programs, but nobody is writing articles about that. Also, as the recipient of federal funding I can tell you that you have no idea how much work is required to maintain those funds. There were hundreds of programs that applied for federal funds this year and less that 60 got approved. They aren’t just passing out this money like candy on Halloween.

    As far as the issue of sexuality is concerned, we don’t talk about it. That’s not our job, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation they can wait until they are in a committed, monogamous relationship.

    We would all like for our teens to be safe, in my opinion that is best done by stressing the benefits of abstinence til marriage. You feel differently and I respect that, hopefully we can get more done by working together that working against each other.

    That’s just my opinion from this side, take it for what it’s worth.