President Obama, Sex Education, and Life After Ab-Only

When I began writing this piece,
it was the first time I ever combined the words "President" and
"Obama" as in naming the man: President Obama.  I am
elated and with the election over, it is a time to celebrate. 
It has been eight long years of one disastrous policy after another coming
from the Bush Administration, and for those of us in the weeds trying
to make good sexual and reproductive health policy (and stop the all
too frequent bad policy from getting rammed down our throats), the disaster
has been particularly acute. 

I won’t rehash all the disasters
here, but will focus on the remedy to one of these areas where President
Obama can lead: the restoration of evidence-based programs to provide
sex education, prevent teen pregnancy, and reduce incidence of HIV and
other sexually transmitted diseases. 

First, President Obama must
end the nearly $200 million a year going into abstinence-only-until-marriage
by zeroing it out of the budget he submits to Congress in February. 
He has pledged to end funding for programs that do not work and, after
almost 30 years of federal funding and $1.5 billion in tax payer money,
the evidence is clear that these programs do no work.  The Democratic
Party platform also calls for their end so we have a very clear policy
statement and priority in print.  Many abstinence-only programs
are also homophobic and anti-woman, so it is important to stress these
arguments as well.  And last but not least, the vast majority of
recipients of these dollars are the base of the extreme right wing in
this country.  It is now time to end the gravy train. Doing so
benefits our youth, our communities and oh yeah, incidentally, benefits
the progressive common good against which these same groups, by their
very nature, consistently rail. 

But, ending ab-only has always
been part of a broader vision of what young people really need. 
The other side of this coin, of course, is the second part of what President
Obama must do: establish the first ever federal funding stream for a
comprehensive approach to sex education.  As a member of the Senate,
Obama was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL)
Act and, again, his party’s platform supports a strong move toward
more comprehensive programs because they work.  For example, we
now have the evidence to show that more comprehensive programs do a
better job of helping young people wait to have sex than abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs.  I don’t play chess but I believe that is checkmate. 

Many groups from the broader
reproductive health community, as well as the HIV/AIDS community, have
assembled requests to the Obama Administration for a new pot of money
to support comprehensive sex education.  We know that is an uphill
request given the budgetary situation but it must be a priority nonetheless
and cost-savings from cut programs must be redirected.   

Of course, President Obama
cannot do this alone.  His budget will send the strongest of signals
to Congress to follow suit.  But will they?  It is a real
question.  Even the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry’s
lobbying arm, the National Abstinence Education Association, pondered
in their day-after-the-election lament: "Remember that naysayers
expected abstinence education to go
away when leadership in the Congress first changed from Republican to
Democrat two years ago. But it didn’t." 

Indeed.  So, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid will also
play key roles in getting this done by exercising discipline over wayward
Members and remembering the platform that brought about the most momentous
political shift in our lifetime.   

Thankfully, the ascendency
of Barack Obama and a new agenda represents the repudiation of the culture
wars that have dominated and impoverished our domestic political discourse
since Reagan.  Make no mistake:  these same culture wars are
embodied in the work of most abstinence-only-until-marriage programs
and their many providers.  It is no wonder that they are facing
repudiation from at least half the states across the country that no
longer even take the money to do these junk programs.  

Let history be our guide. 
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were part of the socially conservative
Republican "Contract With America" when they swept into power in
the early 1990’s.  President Obama, let’s make a clean start. 
It is a new day in America and change has indeed come.  Let it
include a change in how we empower young people to make responsible
decisions.  Let it start with an end to extreme abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs and a renewed commitment to our youth by investing in comprehensive
sex education. 

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  • invalid-0

    It is simply frightening to read your words…”Obama must end the nearly $200 million a year going into abstinence-only-until-marriage”. What a scary thought! Do you have any concept of self-dignity or self-control? Why can we not teach our young people that sex is something sacred and should be saved until the commitment of marriage? I know, I know, they’re going to do it anyway, so we have to give them all the tools they need, to make the right choice…what a great attitude. We need to get back to notion that we can say no…yes we can…instead of promoting a philosophy that leads to everyone governing their own actions and deciding what is right for them…we need absolute truth, otherwise, it is just a free for all!

  • invalid-0

    Thanks, Bill, for saying what needs to be said and repeated for however long it takes to *end* the sham of abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. Ab-only has been proven to be a sham and in any other area, if programs were proven to be ineffective, the money would be taken away immediately. Instead, neocons have hijacked this issue of pregnancy/HIV/AIDS prevention and turned it into a *preachable* moment instead of a “teachable” moment.

    @J.D., please join us here in the real world. Sex “should be SAVED until the commitment of MARRIAGE?” Marriage should never be the end all, be all and for adults to preach that message to young people is appalling. We live in a country where 50% of all marriages end in divorce, yet that’s what we’re supposed to promote for our young people? Rather teaching young people about safe sex, we’re supposed to teach step E of the ab-only Federal definition: that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.

    BTW J.D., in case you haven’t heard, there’s a large population of people who CAN’T marry…but I suppose they don’t qualify as people, right?

  • invalid-0

    Dear J.D. —

    I’d encourage you to set aside the fear you find in my blog. I share your desire to help young people delay sex and in fact, the programs SIECUS supports do a BETTER job of helping young people wait to have sex than abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do. That is not our conclusion, but the consensus of people who study these things to determine what works best. Further, these comprehensive programs do not lead young people to have more sex partners or more sex. New research being published in January and presented at the most recent conference of the American Public Health Association will add even further evidence that pledging abstinence means next to nothing in the real world in which our young people live.

    What is frightening to me is the notion that some absolute truth exists out there somewhere and apparently you have your finger on it with such preciseness that 300 million Americans should be compelled to live under it. Absolute truth — as such — is completely beyond the realm of human comprehension even though we may gain approximations of what constitutes good living through historical experience and even revelation. But, history is chock full of examples of the disastrous consequences of positing the knowability of absolute truth into wholly human affairs and pretending like there is a fit. Thus, we live in a pluralist society that protects us from the tyranny of absolutism while at the same time setting high standards for human action. Comprehensive sex education does exactly this — sets high standards for responsible behavior but doesn’t expect humans to be angels.

  • invalid-0

    Where can we find proof that ab-only is a sham? I think the real sham is teaching young people that self-control is beyond their realm. You argued with JD that the notion of absolute truth was frightening. May I ask, where are you empowered with your knowledge of truth? Merely upon history and self experience? That would really be quite frightening… If we can’t base truth on the absolute belief that everyone human person has dignity and that needs to be respected, then we are living in a society that is destroying itself. I hope you and the Reproductive Rights people are not aiming to destroy us. The apparent ab-only “junk programs” are based on nurturing respect between people. It would be great to see this Reproductive Rights group encouraging respect between people.

  • invalid-0

    First, I don’t meant to be flip, but your comments lead me to think you really did not read or comprehend what is written here. For example, I specifically included revelation as a source for proper human conduct and while I know it is a frequent ploy to cast all progressives as moral relativists….sorry…not this time.

    Second, our experiment in self government is only possible if it is founded on the notion that each person has dignity and is worthy of respect. If you are questioning the reproductive health community’s assumption in that common belief, you have a very skewed and inaccurate understanding of the wellsprings of our actions

    Finally, if by “nurturing respect between people” you are in support of programs that stigmatize and discriminate against gays and lesbians, that slap a scarlet letter on anyone who has ever engaged in sex outside of marriage, and tells anyone who has ever had sex outside of marriage that they are not fit to live in society, then you should indeed support abstinence-only-until-marriage programs but understand that we have profound definitional disagreement over the term “respect.”

  • invalid-0

    It is simply astonishing that the same people who probably staunchly support the essential idea that America is a free country where the individual is entitled to and capable of their own choices, good or bad, that somehow the very same people think that rationale must not apply to choices that individuals make in regards to their own personal sexuality. Your statement, J.D., is living proof.

    You say in your post, “[…] instead of promoting a philosophy that leads to everyone governing their own actions and deciding what is right for them…we need absolute truth, otherwise, it is just a free for all!”

    Now, if that thought were applied to other areas of life, such as a person’s career aspirations and, for argument’s sake, maybe even freedom of speech, I am sure you would be foaming at the mouth over such blatant disregard for personal liberty.

    Why can’t sexuality be a private matter which is up to the individual? If you feel that abstinence until marriage is right for YOU, more power to you and God bless, just remember that there are people out there who disagree. There is no such thing as “absolute truth” in life, and hardly in matters of human sexuality. Everybody has to make their own choices based on whatever works for them. Least of all should they be forced to live by moral standards that are forced upon them by extremist minorities.

    It’s also no secret that in its eight-year celebration of dogmatic anti-intellectualism, the Bush administration has ignored study upon study showing that abstinence-only is ineffective, a waste of taxpayer money and essentially putting young people at risk by keeping them in the dark about the birds and the bees. Ideology must no longer trump sound science. Speaking of which, J.D., why do you think it is that modern developed countries around the world have implemented safe-sex education strategies instead of abstinence-ed and are faring infinitely better? The U.S. with its head-in-the-sand approach has levels of teen pregnancy and STDs which are simply unheard of in Canada and Western Europe. It is because in those countries, sex ed is based on reliable science and the individual, even in his or her teen years, is seen as capable of making healthy and reasonable decisions while celebrating sexuality as a healthy aspect of human life to which they are entitled to.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for a well written discussion, and responses, on this important issue. No one has the right to use the law, or government funding, to force their religious beliefs on everyone in a pluralistic society. The Europeans, with a thousand more years of civilization than US, have long recognized this important truth; they went through centuries of conflict over religious control of government – and we should learn from their history and maybe avoid some of the tragedy and slaughter it produced. The battle over Prop 8 in CA is a case in point – it will be found unconstitutional because the majority has no right to inflict their beliefs on matters of the heart – and the US mantra of ‘equal treatment under the law’ will eventually prevail. It will not destroy society but will make it stronger – Love always does!

  • invalid-0

    and if your nice comment is any indication, Joshua’s got a great grandma indeed.

  • invalid-0

    The following was taken from an article in the Seattle Time discussing comprehensive sex-ed: “UW researchers analyzed records of 1,719 straight teens aged 15 to 19 taken from a 2002 federal survey on families. Sixty-seven percent of the adolescents had taken comprehensive sex-education classes; 24 percent had received abstinence-only education, which emphasizes the safest sex is no sex and which discourages premarital sex. The remaining 9 percent received no sex education.

    When differences in race, age, gender and family makeup were taken into account, students who’d had comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to report a pregnancy than those without any sex education and 50 percent less likely than the abstinence-only group.

    Neither comprehensive nor abstinence-only education appeared to affect the odds that a teen would contract a sexually transmitted disease.”

    emphasis is my own. you want to know why i think ab-only is a sham? 50% lower pregnancy rates. and comprehensive sex-ed emphasises the magnitude of the choice to have sex. it talks about the reasons to say no, and what to do if you decide to say yes. comprehensive sex-ed doesn’t teach kids to run off and have sex at the first opportunity. if anything it does a better job of keeping kids from engaging in the kinds of behaviors you’re trying to keep them from. if it works better and gets better results shouldn’t it be the thing we’re promoting?

  • invalid-0

    Thank you so much for this article, it is great to see
    that Obama will be funding Comprehensive Sex Ed, after so many years of failed policies it is great to see the people’s voices being heard, Ab-Only simply doesn’t work!!! Its good to know that Obama, and caring companies such as One Condoms are promoting and funding safer sex and sexual education so one may decide whether to be abstinent or not.

  • invalid-0

    I agree , Sex educations should be developed further and better financed because I believe this will work a lot better than ” Abstinence-before-Marriage”.

    Let’s be realistic here , Abstinence-before-Marriage is a bit unrealistic , sure there are people who will be able to follow this , but what are we going to do to the vast majority who will not abide to this? just let them get into sexual relationships uninformed?. I think not

    -Dino Delellis

  • invalid-0

    Though abstinence before marriage is a good ideal , I think it’s wiser to also teach sex education. At least young people will know that they are getting into and the possible consequence that will happen when they enter a sexual relationship.

    I lost count the number of times when I saw pregnant teenage girls who say that they didn’t know that sex leads to conception of a child. Let’s not allow any more of our younger generation fall into this problem , let them be informed so that they can make the right decision.