What if Congress Says “Know” to Abstinence-Only?


After thirteen years and more than a billion dollars, the budget axe is raised over abstinence-until-marriage programs.  The President and the Speaker of the House have passed judgment. Appropriations Chair, David Obey (D-WI), may deliver the last reading of the final sentence. I won’t be among those asking him for a stay.

For thirty years I have worked with community advocates and health care professionals to insure that young people in the United States have access to accurate age-appropriate sex education and to reproductive health care – just like young people in most other developed countries. Not only have we failed in our efforts to provide knowledge-based comprehensive sex education, most of our schools regressed to “Just Say ‘No’” approaches based on denying full information about sexual risks, consequences, and primary reproductive health prevention. Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education not only succeeded in repressing good school-based reproductive health curricula at the local level, they managed to win federal funds that displaced many good programs with demonstrably ineffective programs and ideological propaganda.

This axe will certainly fall, but a new incarnation in the form of a redefined pitch for federal funding for “Abstinence-centered” programs is already in play.  In fact, repackaged “Abstinence-centered” programs are busily developing marketing approaches and preparing grant proposals for the President’s new teen pregnancy prevention initiative – the one that supposedly displaced Abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. On May 11th on Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin’s Abstinence Coalition executive director and member of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) board, Sally Ladky, expressed the national strategy to maintain their federal funding stream.

The strategy is to co-opt the language of comprehensive sex education and the reincarnation is already complete.  Here are the major marketing elements as Ms. Ladky expressed them:

1)    “We’re about risk-avoidance.”

2)    “We are evidence-based.”

3)    “We’ve never called ourselves ‘abstinence-only’. We’re abstinence-centered. . . We do talk about contraception.”

4)    “Comprehensive sex education just talks about the physical – we’re more holistic than that.”

A November 2008 NAEA letter to then President-elect Obama prophesies the transfiguration as evidence-based, risk avoidance, abstinence-centered, holistic sex education that includes contraception.  (That’s a pretty good description of programs that I’ve been supporting for thirty years.)

When the Department of Health and Human Services removes abstinence-only restrictions from federal funding and instead requires that these funds be used to support evidence-based medically accurate teen pregnancy prevention efforts, the agencies sending in the Requests for Proposals will include the same agencies which are now receiving abstinence-only-until-marriage funds:

•    The crisis pregnancy centers that refuse to give out information about emergency contraception;
•    The ‘virginity pledges;’
•    The ‘abstinence clown;’
•    The folks who carefully explain the failure rates of condoms and contraceptives without explaining the infection and pregnancy rates when they’re not used.

As frustrating and perplexing as the reincarnation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs will be, the principle of competition for grant funds is time-honored and broadly accepted. We would like to believe that the cards will be unmarked and the deck will not be stacked against comprehensive sex education. But if the NAEA has its way, there won’t be a fair deal.  In the May 11th WPR interview, Ms. Ladky says: “We’re looking for funding parity.  We think that each of us should have one-half of the funds.”

The advocates for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs argue that family planning funding, especially Title X, which provides medical services related to contraception, cancer prevention, and STD testing and treatment should be put into the pot with the sex education funds.  In other words, family planning funds should be added to the pot and the abstinence programs should be guaranteed half of the winnings before the cards are dealt.

Equating Title X family planning health care services with community and school-based sex education is problematic and unworkable.  Hundreds of thousands of women and men would potentially lose access to primary preventive reproductive health care. It is a cynical ploy to take funding away from Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs. The monumental irony in the “abstinence-centered” faithfuls’ request that half of the stakes be set aside for them before the game begins is that if abstinence-only-until-marriage and comprehensive sex education are both evidence-based and medically accurate – if both program models include risk reduction instruction such as contraceptive methods and condom use – on what distinction would the parity division of money be based?

It was simpler when comprehensive sex education advocates refused these funds and worked to eliminate them because they are sectarian and because they have been ineffectively used. After Congressman Obey carries out the Presidential budget sentence, advocates on both sides will compete for the redefined “common ground” teen pregnancy prevention funds — and it will require an act of faith to tell them apart.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • crowepps

    Ms. Ladky says: “We’re looking for funding parity. We think that each of us should have one-half of the funds.”

    Something like 85 to 90% of parents want their children to receive comprehensive sex education which includes abstinence, and only 10 to 15% want their children to receive abstinence only with scare tactics. Funding parity based on demand would be a split more along the lines of $9 to CSE and $1 to AO.

  • invalid-0

    On this website, it seems that every blogger holds the premise that abstinence is bad, and all consensual sex is good. I read in an other article that if you think that sex is “naughty”, “dirty”, and so forth, you use the language of “sexually unhealthy” individuals. The underlying assumption is that an acceptance of sex, for pleasure or whatever other reason, is key to a healthy individual.

    I want to question this. Why is accepting all consensual sex a part of what makes us human? Why are abstinence programs bad? Can consensual sex also be demeaning?

    If you have sex just for pleasure and don’t love your partner, it is not about an expression of love. The end is pleasure, and the partner is a means. Having sex for pleasure seems to me to turn people into tools. It does not matter if they are consensual or not; prostitutes are also sometimes consensually sell sex, it does not mean that prostitution does not reduce women to tools, at least in the eyes of the client. You cannot say that a client cares about a prostitute as a person; he (or she) wants pleasure. Loveless sex is the same way: you use people as a means to an end. That is why some people call it naughty or animalistic, and inhuman–while animals have no problem using each other as means to an end, there is something unethical when people do it.

    But people say that since sex feels good and all people have some sort of sexuality, it must be good. What about child molesters? Their sexuality is directed at children, for example; it feels good to them, they use people as a means to an end just like normal consensual adults who don’t love each other. You will say that that case is different because the child is non-consensual; but like I said before, if you use someone as a tool or an object, it does not matter if the person being objectified is consensual or not, because sometimes people willingly choose to be objectified. Such cases, like prostitution, are still morally questionable and demeaning to the woman who consensually agrees to have that done to her (note that I am not saying all prostitutes have a choice; but at least some do).

    You will call child molesters sick, but how are they different from normal people? Where does your morality stem from? What is healthy, what is unhealthy, and who makes this objective for all people? They do the same thing consensual adults often do–they are after pleasure, and they do not care about the person they are with. You will say that normal adults often form relationships; fine, but even if they care for each other outside of sex in the context of a relationship, they do not care for each other specifically in the act of having sex with them.

    If something is “unhealthy”, you need to defend that based on some sort of objective moral code, and it’s hard to do that as an atheist. After Foucault we know that even madness is just a minority of one; there is no “normal” human being to judge people by, and no sexual behaviour, even oppressive behaviour, is objectively deviant. Pederasty was institutionalized and normal in Greece, for example. And yet there seems to be something wrong with child molestation. Just as there seems to be something wrong with sex without love.

    Ok, and how does all this relate to abstinence? Well, many abstinence proponents simply mean to say that you should really love someone before you have sex with them, so that the sex is not demeaning or objectifying.

    So can somebody answer me why child molestation is wrong, but when adults deny their dignity in loveless sex, it’s ok?

    • crowepps
      On this website, it seems that every blogger holds the premise that abstinence is bad, and all consensual sex is good.
      I can’t remember reading anything here asserting that VOLUNTARY abstinence is ‘bad’.  My own view is that’s a valid individual choice.  Trying to ENFORCE abstinence on others who would prefer consensual sex is ‘bad’ as well as unlikely to change their behavior.

      I read in an other article that if you think that sex is "naughty", "dirty", and so forth, you use the language of "sexually unhealthy" individuals. The underlying assumption is that an acceptance of sex, for pleasure or whatever other reason, is key to a healthy individual.

      You yourself seem to set a certain number of standards which elevate sex from naughty, dirty, etc., to acceptable, sacred, okay with human dignity, etc.  These personal requirements for sex so that you feel its acceptable are certainly entirely your choice.  The idea that natural human desire and natural human pleasure has to be socially endorsed and ‘purified’ by religious ceremonies or else the person has been ‘contaminated’ frankly is pretty unhealthy, particularly when these beliefs lead to denigrating and discriminating against people who have different beliefs.

      Why is accepting all consensual sex a part of what makes us human?

      Because the basis of human rights is that each person gets to make his or her own choices so long as he/she harms no others.

      Why are abstinence programs bad?

      If you’re talking about abstinence programs as taught in schools, it’s because they teach students that sex is inherently ‘bad’, that they are ‘bad’ for feeling desire, that sex is ‘dirty’ and will make them sick or drive them crazy, when none of things is biologically true but instead tied to religious tenets about ‘purity’ and culturally determined sex roles.

      Can consensual sex also be demeaning?

      It’s hard to conceive of truly consensual sex being ‘demeaning’ in the sense of one partner ‘debasing’ the other – ‘humbling’ them, making them ‘impure’ or ‘lesser’.  I’d add that neither ‘marriage’ nor ‘love’ protects against a partner who needs the other is be ‘humbled’.

      If you have sex just for pleasure and don’t love your partner, it is not about an expression of love. The end is pleasure, and the partner is a means. Having sex for pleasure seems to me to turn people into tools.

      When two people mutally agree to have sex for pleasure they are BOTH turning themselves into tools.

      It does not matter if they are consensual or not; prostitutes are also sometimes consensually sell sex, it does not mean that prostitution does not reduce women to tools, at least in the eyes of the client. You cannot say that a client cares about a prostitute as a person; he (or she) wants pleasure.

      While the prostitute sees the John as interchangeable with every other John, a tool to make money – sounds like they’re both ‘tools’. 

      Loveless sex is the same way: you use people as a means to an end. That is why some people call it naughty or animalistic, and inhuman–while animals have no problem using each other as means to an end, there is something unethical when people do it.

      Why is it unethical to use each other as the means to an end?  Have you ever had someone put sunscreen on your back if you will put sunscreen on theirs?  Why is a fair exchange ‘unethical’?

      But people say that since sex feels good and all people have some sort of sexuality, it must be good.

      That certainly makes more sense than assuming that sex and pleasure are bad unless sanctified by an external benefit to faceless others, such as ‘society needs children’.

      What about child molesters? Their sexuality is directed at children, for example; it feels good to them, they use people as a means to an end just like normal consensual adults who don’t love each other. You will say that that case is different because the child is non-consensual; but like I said before, if you use someone as a tool or an object, it does not matter if the person being objectified is consensual or not, because sometimes people willingly choose to be objectified.

      The difference with child molesters is the relationship is about power and control, the pleasure is all felt by the adult, the child has no ability to consent and no ability to resist.  It actually matters a great deal whether or not the person is capable of consenting.   As a matter of fact, CONSENT is the MOST IMPORTANT thing involved in all sex.

      Such cases, like prostitution, are still morally questionable and demeaning to the woman who consensually agrees to have that done to her (note that I am not saying all prostitutes have a choice; but at least some do).

      Why do you believe prostitution is demeaning only to the woman?  Men who pay to get sex from strangers seem pretty demeaned to me. 

      You will call child molesters sick, but how are they different from normal people?

      Child molesters are different because they cannot be satisfied relating to an equal, but instead must have someone subsurvient to them who does not threaten them, someone who is pre-sexual and will not make them face their pathetic inadequacy.

      Where does your morality stem from?

      Morality stems from many different ethical systems. In the USA, we have religious freedom and freedom of conscience, which means other people don’t get to impose their personal moral system.

      What is healthy, what is unhealthy, and who makes this objective for all people?

      My personal opinion is that ‘healthy’ is pleasant for all those involved and ‘unhealthy’ is unpleasant for at least one.  Again, in the USA, NOBODY gets to ‘make this objective for all people’ because this is a country where people are free to make their own choices so long as the others involved chose to be involved.

      They do the same thing consensual adults often do–they are after pleasure, and they do not care about the person they are with. You will say that normal adults often form relationships; fine, but even if they care for each other outside of sex in the context of a relationship, they do not care for each other specifically in the act of having sex with them.

      I think this may be where you’ve gotten off track.  Your assumption here is that a mutual exchange of pleasure means people "don’t care for each other specifically".  I find it hard to believe that people who dislike each other would be having consensual sex at all.

      If something is "unhealthy", you need to defend that based on some sort of objective moral code, and it’s hard to do that as an atheist.

      Well, no, objective moral codes don’t have anything to do with it.  The designation ‘unhealthy’ tends to mean ‘functional’.  On this issue, that the ‘unhealthy’ person has real conflicts and problems caused by their beliefs – that they are, for instance, unable to function in society because they are obsessed with and distressed by the fact that other people make different choices.  For instance, many people might be puzzled by someone choosing to live celibately, but I don’t know of any who are trying to pass laws to prevent abstinence, marching to protest it, or harassing its practitioners. 

      After Foucault we know that even madness is just a minority of one; there is no "normal" human being to judge people by, and no sexual behaviour, even oppressive behaviour, is objectively deviant. Pederasty was institutionalized and normal in Greece, for example. And yet there seems to be something wrong with child molestation.

      Regardless of the cultural acceptance of any particular sexual behavior it would be my opinion that any sexual behavior that is ‘oppressive’, which makes one of the participants in it unhappy, is wrong.

      Just as there seems to be something wrong with sex without love.

      Certainly sex WITH love can also be wrong, as when one of the partners happens to be married to someone else to whom he/she is lying.  It’s not the ‘love’ part that makes things right or wrong, but the amount of pain inflicted on selves or bystanders.

      Ok, and how does all this relate to abstinence? Well, many abstinence proponents simply mean to say that you should really love someone before you have sex with them, so that the sex is not demeaning or objectifying.

      It’s your opinion that ‘really loving someone’ means the partners are not demeaning or objectifying each other, something which I have not seen to be true.  Stalkers, batterers, rapists, even those child molesters who seem to be so focused on, talk about how they ‘really love’ the person they hurt.  It also is the wrong message to get teenagers to delay sex.

      So can somebody answer me why child molestation is wrong, but when adults deny their dignity in loveless sex, it’s ok?

      Your assumption that ‘loveless sex’ denies the dignity of people is based on the assumption ‘really loving somebody’ puts some sort of special gloss on sex that elevates it from biological pleasure to instead sex with a ‘product’.  You don’t specify what, but I’ll speculate perhaps ‘bonding’ or ‘sharing’ or ‘holy union’?  Maybe children?  If that’s what it takes for you to feel okay about having sex, that’s your opinion.

       

      Considering how uncomfortable your beliefs seem to make you, however, I certainly can’t see why society would choose to teach similar ‘purity’ obsessions to their children.

    • emma

      On this website, it seems that every blogger holds the premise that abstinence is bad, and all consensual sex is good.

      I’ve yet to see a blogger here make such a claim.

      Why are abstinence programs bad?

      Abstinence programs – particularly those that teach abstinence only until marriage – are problematic because they fail to take into consideration the fact that the vast majority of people have sex before marriage, and that some teenagers will choose to have consensual sex. Abstinence education does nothing to teach students how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs if and when they do choose to become sexually active; nor does it teach them how to negotiate sex between partners. The former is important for obvious reasons, but the latter is also important, as it help teenagers make healthy and informed decisions regarding such things as whether/when they feel ready to have sex, and how to recognise unhealthy power dynamics and abuse.

      Can consensual sex also be demeaning? If you have sex just for pleasure and don’t love your partner, it is not about an expression of love. The end is pleasure, and the partner is a means.

      Why is having sex solely or mainly for physical pleasure bad? My best friend and I get (non-sexual) pleasure from going out for coffee together. We get mutual enjoyment from each other’s company. Does this make us tools? We’re still ‘using’ each other for our own enjoyment. Why is sex different?

      It does not matter if they are consensual or not; prostitutes are also sometimes consensually sell sex, it does not mean that prostitution does not reduce women to tools, at least in the eyes of the client.

      Having consensual sex with a partner is the same as a prostitute having paid sex with a client? Aside from being a fabulous example of a strawperson, a prostitute having sex because s/he needs the money is not really comparable to two equal (in terms of power dynamics) people having sex for mutual pleasure.

      What about child molesters? Their sexuality is directed at children, for example; it feels good to them, they use people as a means to an end just like normal consensual adults who don’t love each other. You will say that that case is different because the child is non-consensual; but like I said before, if you use someone as a tool or an object, it does not matter if the person being objectified is consensual or not, because sometimes people willingly choose to be objectified.

      The paedophilia comparison is an even bigger strawperson. Obviously, the difference is children cannot consent to sex. Adults can. When adults rape/molest children, there is a power differential inherent in the relationship (the adult is always going to be the one holding the power). When adults choose to have sex with each other, both are able to consent, and there isn’t that kind of power differential.

       

      Aside from anything else, I’m not sure why you think comprehensive sex education involves teaching students that they should go out and have casual sex? When one has sex within a relationship, one still needs to be aware of STI and pregnancy prevention, and so on and so forth. Or are you arguing that loving sex can only occur within marriage? If so, what about couples who’ve been together for many years, but choose not to get married (one couple I know have been together for 25 years, but consider the institution of marriage to be irrelevant and have this chosen not to marry)? And what about gay couples who are prohibited from marrying?

       

      I’m sorry you view sex as an inherently objectifying and demeaning transaction, though. My view is that it’s about giving and receiving pleasure, and I’m glad for that.

  • jodi-jacobson

    thank you for writing.
    I am sure there are others here who will address your points, but I will offer the following, even though I suspect that we may in the end not agree on much of this.

    Abstinence education is part of all comprehensive sexual health education programming. This has been repeated here many times and is a fact. It is a core aspect of all programming for adolescents, and a major aim is to ensure that adolescents delay sexual activity for as long as possible, and also that they have the tools and skills to say no, to negotiate healthy relationships, to recognize healthy ones, and to have the knowledge, tools, and ability to use safer sex practices including but not limited to contraceptive use to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections from the time they do begin sexual activitiy–whether that is at 18 years of age or 28 years of age–through the end of their lives.  These are lifelong skills.

    Abstinence education is a core part of this.

    It is a different question than what individuals and couples actually do.  All people should have the information and skills to freely make choices, and act with both respect for themselves and others as well as to be responsibie, while simultaneously exercising their rights.  

    The vast majority of people in this country and in virtually every other country in the world have their first sexual experience before marriage.  The goal is to ensure that all sexual encounters are consensual in the truest sense of the term, safe, and healthy.

    Sex is in fact a natural part of being human.  When, with whom, and how often to have sex is a personal decision.  We will have to disagree that there should be a value judgment on sex for pleasure.  I personally see nothing wrong with two adult and responsible individuals engaging in sex for pleasure.  It is not for me–or you– to decide what they do, nor that they need to be in a lifelong relationship to enjoy sex. 

    My sense from reading your post is that you are using the issue of child molestation as a provocative example to underscore your feeling that if consenting adults may engage in responsible sex without a lifelong bond, then "anything goes."  I simply have to reject this argument on its face as being just that, a provocative but irrelevant example.  There are different kinds of sexual relationships just as there are different kinds of dating relationships and friendships.  I realize that sex is laden with value judgments, shame, and all sorts of other pressures.  We just have to agree to disagree that knowledgable mature individuals can engage in sexual relationships with both self and mutual respect even when these are not lifelong bonds.  

    Again, this comes down to understanding that what we think and believe about sex often is rooted in fear, misunderstanding and shame that is so pervasive and yet is full of so many mixed messages in our culture, that detangling these issues is perhaps among the most difficult processes in which we can engage.

     

    Thanks for writing, Jodi

  • invalid-0

    Thank you Jodi. It aggravates me whenever I hear the type of things D says, because I know firsthand that comprehensive sex ed includes abstinence, as well as emphasizing not letting yourself be pressured into sex–IOW, wait until you’re ready. There was a HUGE emphasis on not allowing yourself to be pushed into actions that you feel are wrong, as well as the nature of sexual harassment. It was honestly a very empowering experience for me.

    It’s important to realize that this education isn’t just for them as teens–it will also serve them for the rest of their lives. The things I learned over a decade ago are relevant to me now as a married woman, in different ways than they were as a single teen. This may be the only chance teens get at this information, so we shouldn’t shortchange them because we’re worried about behaviours we can’t control anyways.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Are you trying to suggest that if you don’t hold human beings to an unrealistic expectation of abstinence, they’ll all engage in prostitution?  That strikes me as a strawman of epic proportions.

     

    Abstinence is fine….if that’s what really, truly makes you happy.  What anti-choicers neglect to understand is that will not make most people really, truly happy.  Few of us are asexual, and we have a right to be who we are.

     

    But of course, asexuals and people who just don’t want to have sex for whatever reason should have every right.  And people who want to have sex have a right.  That’s why we use the word "choice".