Every year when I was in high
school in Lubbock, Texas, we were herded into the auditorium for a lecture
from a local youth pastor about the birds and the bees.
At the culmination of every
presentation, the pastor pulled a girl up on stage, produced a dirty,
dingy toothbrush from his pocket and asked if she would brush her teeth
with it. When she invariably said no, he pulled out another toothbrush,
this one in its original box, and repeated the question. When she said yes to that one, he brandished the rejected toothbrush above
his head and announced to the audience, "If you have sex before marriage,
you are the dirty toothbrush."
Leading advocates for a sensible, comprehensive federal sex education policy call on Congress to zero out funding for failed abstinence-only programs.
A report recently released
on the state of sex education in Texas details other bizarre things
students are taught in the classroom about sex, contraception and their
bodies, all subsidized by federal dollars. One skit titled "Jumping
Off the Bridge" concludes that giving a condom to a teen is like
saying, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off
the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads." Another presentation
equates pre-marital sex with instances of marital murder-suicide. Still
another compares women’s sexuality to crock pots that take awhile
to get warmed up, and men’s to microwaves that are ready to cook at
a moment’s notice.
An entire generation of American
teens has been confused, misinformed and endangered by abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs like these. They are not just paid for by the federal government;
states can’t use these dollars for anything else.
In the past fifteen years alone,
more than a billion taxpayer dollars have been doled out to every state
to teach curricula that often contain factual inaccuracies about condoms
and contraceptives, generalizations about sexuality that are based on
biases about gender and sexual orientation, and religious messaging
that probably violates the U.S. Constitution.
The programs were a pet project
of the Bush administration, and key to attracting votes and contributions
from the religious right. Now, much of the money is still being doled
out to faith-based organizations and crisis pregnancy centers, the latter
often stating as their sole purpose the convincing of pregnant women,
including ten and twelve year-olds and their families, that having an
abortion will mean a lifetime of regret.
Unbelievable as it may sound,
there is no federal law mandating or supervising the medical or scientific
accuracy of information taught in schools or given out in tax-exempt
pregnancy centers, a loophole used to tell young people that condoms
don’t work, homosexuality is never part of normal human behavior and
sexuality is the one academic subject in which students will be rewarded
for lack of knowledge.
In fact, abstinence-only sex
education is so damaging that 25 governors, Republicans and Democrats,
have refused abstinence-only funds. Rising rates of sexually transmitted
infections, unwanted teen births and an increased need for abortion
have dramatized the lack of efficacy and danger of such programs. And
last year, the Journal of Adolescent Health published its opinion that
abstinence-only funding may constitute a human rights violation.
The huge majority of Americans
agree. Eighty-eight percent think teens should receive information about condoms and
contraception as well as abstinence in the classroom. Yet, no moves
have been made in Washington to make good on these convictions.
If President Obama and Democratic
leaders were to fulfill their own promises it could only be a financial
win. The public costs associated with teen pregnancy alone total more
than nine billion dollars a year, with additional costs of treating
sexually transmitted infections. Economic impact statements have shown
that every dollar spent on comprehensive sex education would be one
of the few good investments these days. Failing to eliminate all funding
for abstinence-only programs would be a setback for human rights and
tempt a suit for taxpayer fraud.
President Obama and Speaker
Pelosi, if you have to throw a bone to the right wing, let it not be
the bones of the youth who elected you. The young people who so overwhelmingly
voted for change – partly on the promise of comprehensive sex education
– are certainly not asking for a bailout. We just want the facts that
can save our lives.