We Don’t Need to Win the War on Science to Win the War for Comprehensive Sex Education


“Facts are meaningless,” Homer Simpson says. “You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.”

A recent article in the New York Times, “Survey Shows Gap Between Science and the Public,” seems to indicate that the American populace shares Homer’s position. The disconnect between scientists and the public is enormous, according to the research conducted by the Pew Research Center discussed in the article. For example, one third of Americans surveyed believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A mere two percent of scientists hold this belief. I use this example not to start a debate between creationism and evolution, but to point out what I think is a glaring fact: a large percentage of the public simply does not believe in science or trust scientists. This, however, is not necessarily their fault.

The Right Wing in this country has done an excellent job undermining science and scientists, be it the science-based warnings about global warming, the science of evolution, or the research around sex education. And, they do it the same way regardless of the topic.

Here is the step by step guide for you future conservative media strategists:

1) Find someone with passable scientific credentials who will support your position on a given issue.

2) Fund that individual to conduct “research” that will favor your argument.

3) Roll out the findings of this “research” as proof that there is genuine debate about the issue.

4) Gain publicity for your argument by parading your expert in front of Congress or Fox News (preferably Fox News).

5) Claim that your opponents don’t agree with your expert because they have a harmful, political agenda.

6) Use the fact that the public is now confused about whom to trust to advance your own harmful, political agenda.

7) Rinse and repeat as necessary.

My colleagues and I here at SIECUS combat this strategy every day, as we are forced to deal with research that isn’t really research, polls that aren’t really polls, and opposition groups who are trying to couch their moral objections to comprehensive sex education in pseudo-science. Time and time again, I am forced to explain to reporters that Dr. Stan Weed’s and Dr. Doug Kirby’s opinions should not be considered equally just because they both have “Dr.” before their names. And, time and time again, I feel as if we are fighting a losing battle in terms of educating the public. Not only does the public not necessarily care about the nuances of condom failure-rate statistics, but they are hearing one number from us and another number from our opponents, and tend to just throw up their arms and come to the conclusion that neither side is particularly trustworthy.

Besides, it is just so much easier for our opponents to confuse the issues than it is for us to clarify them.

What is the answer then? How do we promote our message that comprehensive sexuality education is important without relying on facts and figures that people won’t trust anyway? The truth is actually very liberating; instead of getting mired down in the data and journal articles that seem to take up so much of our time, we can simply think about what caused us to want to be advocates in the first place. I guarantee you that it wasn’t a study showing a slight decrease in contraceptive use among rural teens. No, it is our fundamental beliefs that are our most convincing arguments.

I work in this field because I believe in education. I believe that I want to be on the side that promotes more knowledge, instead of less. I believe that everybody loves and should have the right to love whomever they wish. I believe in common sense. I believe that people need to know how to protect their health. I believe that everyone should have control over their own body. I believe that families come in all shapes. I believe that I have the best interests of young people in mind.

If we can distill our messages to our core principles, regardless of our specific fields, we can bypass the resistance that the public has developed to science- and statistics-based arguments, and find which values and principles we share with them.

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for statistical arguments and we should never put down our journal articles or stop conducting our double-blind studies, especially when we are dealing with educators, policy makers, medical professionals, and others who have the time and inclination to develop a true understanding of the issues. What we must realize, however, is that the modern public takes a different kind convincing, based on a different kind of logic: the logic of belief, sincerity, and common sense.

It will not be an easy transition to make but, again to quote Homer Simpson, the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity: “Crisitunity.”

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To schedule an interview with Patrick Malone please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    I love any writer who quotes Homer Simpson and the Pew Research Center in the same paragraph. Well done!

  • invalid-0

    Great post! You make excellent points. Looking forward to your next post.

  • invalid-0

    Very well said! Especially love the way you got their (right wingers’) number! I am active in a chat group and constantly run across this very same strategy in action…it can be depressing to see how many ppl do not possess the ability to reason and/or have no background in this issue and/or are so very willing to take an anonymous stranger’s (with an agenda) word for the stuff they promulgate.
    Again, well done. Look forward to seeing your contribution to this site again.

  • invalid-0

    “I believe that I want to be on the side that promotes more knowledge, instead of less.”…….

    DR. EDWARD GREEN OF HARVARD HAS SHOWN THAT CONDOM PROMOTION PROGRAMS DO NOT DECREASE THE INCIDENCE OF AIDS IN AFRICA.
    ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT KNOWLEDGE?……

    “I believe that everybody loves and should have the right to love whomever they wish.”…..

    YES, OF COURSE. BUT IN YOUR MIND DOES LOVE = SEX?…..

    “I believe in common sense.”…..

    …SUCH AS IT TAKES A MAN AND A WOMAN TO GET MARRIED………

    “I believe that people need to know how to protect their health.”………

    THEN I HOPE YOU WOULD NOT LEAD THEM TO BELIEVE THAT A CONDOM IS GOING TO PROTECT SOMEONE WHO ENGAGES IN HIGH RISK, MULTIPLE PARTNER SEX. ………….

    “I believe that everyone should have control over their own body.”………..

    …BUT NOT THE BODY OF AN UNBORN BABY. ………..

    “I believe that families come in all shapes.”………

    ROUND, SQUARE, TRIANGULAR…

    “I believe that I have the best interests of young people in mind.”…………

    SO YOU BELIEVE.

  • http://davesbernina.com/bernina-reviews/bernina-830e/ invalid-0

    I enjoyed your article. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, and ask you how you would respond to the allegations from the comments in “not so fast”. Certainly, he or she was putting some words in your mouth, most of which you probably had no intention of saying. But these are concerns that people have. How do you respond to them?

  • crowepps

    Dr. Green’s work is actually pretty interesting, because he shows that although condoms work well in other populations where HIV is spread mostly through commercial sex, Africa has a different problem:

    However, it’s those ongoing relationships that drive Africa’s worst epidemics. In these, most HIV infections are found in general populations, not in high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men or persons who inject drugs. And in significant proportions of African populations, people have two or more regular sex partners who overlap in time. In Botswana, which has one of the world’s highest HIV rates, 43 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had two or more regular sex partners in the previous year.

    These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/AIDS spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.

    He does add however:

    Don’t misunderstand me; I am not anti-condom. All people should have full access to condoms, and condoms should always be a backup strategy for those who will not or cannot remain in a mutually faithful relationship.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032702825.html

  • invalid-0

    Sexuality is not just about condoms, sexual orientation, and abortion. Also all caps are annoying.

  • invalid-0

    “Sexuality is not just about condoms, sexual orientation, and abortion. Also all caps are annoying.”
    I agree on all counts. Regarding the last, entry box would not accept carriage returns so I capped my responses to set them apart.

  • http://verytogether.com/love/sex/birth-control-facts-you-need-to-know.html invalid-0

    The surprising fact is that it is not jsut kids who need sex education: Recent surveys show that 20 somethings are woefully misinformed as well.

  • jodi-jacobson

    As an FYI….his work is widely discredited by many, and not least because sexual networks are one thing, protected sex in any given act of intercourse is another. He confuses the two and has through that reasoning perpetuated ineffective policies that have in fact left many Africans at risk of HIV. Policies and programs funded by the Bush Administration, of which Green was a huge proponent, have now been found–as many of us have contended for years–to have failed to stem the spread of HIV in Africa.

    These issues are complex and of course have to do with sexual networks, but also with who has protected sex with whom (some have protected sex with some partners, but not, say with their wives), whether violence and sexual coercion plays a role in sexual relationships (it does), knowledge, awareness, and stigma, lack of ability to negotiate safe sex with a partner, patterns of migration and so on.  Complicated.

    Has nothing whatsoever with condoms not working in Africa because in fact when Uganda did promote condom use as part of a comprehensive strategy–including reductions in numbers of partners, public efforts to destigmatize sex, HIV, condom use, delays in sexual intitation and so on– rates of HIV transmission fell precipitously.  Then they started getting tons of money from the BushAdministration to be the poster child for the far right’s ab-only strategies, condoms disappeared and guess what?  HIV went back up.

    Do say "condoms don’t work in Africa" is tantamount to saying "African’s can’t tell time so won’t take AIDS drugs on time…." (a famous quote of the first of Bush’s USAID Administrators, Andrew Natsios.)

    Any single person having sex with one or more partners needs to have protected sex.  Green and others have confused the "number" of condoms delivered by donors to specific countries (on paper) with the consistent access to condoms (not there) and consistent and effective use of condoms (for which most people are not trained and which no one talks about) and destigmatizaion of safer sex (hard to do when the right and others like Green assert there really is no such thing as safer sex).  Moreover, we have largely failed to provide anywhere near the numbrer either of male or female condoms needed.  Estimates indicate there are roughly 4 condoms aviailable in much of sub-Saharan Africa per year per sexually active male….

    In short, I think these assumptions are erroneous and fail to take into account the reality of what most African governments themselves now acknowledge—comprehensive efforts and strategies, including comprehensive approaches to sex and reproduction are the only real means of addressing HIV in a sustainable way.  We just lost 8 years and untold lives during the Bush Administration’s foray into ideology-land….

     

    Best wishes, Jodi

  • crowepps

    Thanks for the further information.  I would add that Dr. Green’s work does not support the statement:

     DR. EDWARD GREEN OF HARVARD HAS SHOWN THAT CONDOM PROMOTION PROGRAMS DO NOT DECREASE THE INCIDENCE OF AIDS IN AFRICA.

    Instead what Dr. Green’s work proved was the common sense conclusion that condom promotion programs ALL BY THEMSELVES aren’t as affective as programs that included the theme of ‘only one relationship at a time’ — a theme that was certainly more realistic than the Catholic insistence on ‘don’t have sex’.

     

    The world’s response to this new sexually transmitted disease has been as hysterical and counterproductive as its historic response to most other diseases, complete with a modern resurgence of the ever-popular ‘God is punishing the evil sinners’ even when it’s obvious that a lot of the deaths involved are those of infants, the same ones so many are protesting are ‘innocent’ in other contexts.

     

    One of my interests is the history of epidemics, and I haven’t seen any popular or government or religious response in this particular epidemic that suggests we’ve made any ethical advance whatsoever over that of the ‘historically average’ barbarian horde.

     

  • invalid-0

    I agree completely with your article. I was born and raised in a highly Christian household, and abstinence was the only answer to sex. However, this constant “Sex is bad, you will go to hell” attitude creates children that adventure into sexuality completely blind. Where are these religions teaching about contraceptives, the potential of becoming a teen parent, and the importance of open communication?

    I feel as though we live in a society that is so afraid of facing the facts and we would much rather rely on mythical beliefs because they are simply easier to comprehend, and we don’t need to make any changes.

    Comprehensive sex education that is medically accurate is a necessity in todays society. We are so lucky to have a president that finally understands the separation between church and state. President Obama has alleviated all abstinence only sex education starting in 2010. This abstinence only approach has been more of a way for religious groups to gain followers and has held little regard for the fact that teen pregnancy and stds has been rising and not declining because of this approach.

  • invalid-0

    I forgot a word… President Obama has alleviated all FUNDING for abstinence only education.
    Sorry.

  • invalid-0

    My claim is very simple:

    1) Agreed, a condom reduces the risk of catching a disease in a single incidence of sex. The actual effectiveness of condoms is about 88or 89%.

    2) But, the risk reduction afforded by condom use more than off set by having multiple partners. Condom or no condom, a person’s number of sex partners is the primary factor that determines their risk of getting AIDS.

    To summarize, let me ask a simple question: If you knew that someone had AIDS, would you have sex with them provided a condom was used?

  • invalid-0

    Dr. Edward Green claims that, in response to the perceived risk reduction achieved by condoms, people tend to increase their incidence of risky sexual behaviour out of proportion to the protection afforded by the device. On a societal level, *risk compensation* outdoes the benefits of condom use, thereby causing increases in AIDS in places where condoms are widely distributed.

    What research can you point to that has refuted his claim?

  • crowepps

    If you knew that someone had AIDS, would you have sex with them provided a condom was used?

    Having sex with someone, with or without a condom, when you DON’T know whether or not they have AIDS, is equally dumb, don’t you think?  And yet obviously that’s happening all the time or there wouldn’t be all these unwanted pregnancies and STDs including HIV/AIDS wouldn’t continue to spread.

     

    The point isn’t whether or not people act stupidly when it comes to sex, that’s a given — the point is that knowing people DO act stupidly and can’t be convinced to be more sensible, is there any way to cut down their risks even a little?

     

    Having sex isn’t a crime worthy of the death penalty.

    • invalid-0

      Yes, having sex with someone whose of unknown AIDS infection status is also dumb, therefore abstinence must be the main peg of any AIDS prevention effort. Likewise, one can be more sure of his or her partner’s infection status when the two are monogamous, trust each other and are faithful to each other. The second peg is therefore faithfulness. ___________________________________________________________________Condoms do reduce the risk of disease transmission in any single act – but, on a societal level, the benefit gained tends to be offset by risk compensation. Widespread acceptance of condoms as a solution to AIDS gives people a sense of ease about their multi-partner, high risk sexual behaviour, thereby engendering infection rates that offset whatever reductions are gained by condoms. ___________________________________________________________________

      To defeat risk compensation, “Abstinence” and “Be faithful” must be emphasized far and above the “if not, use a Condom” option. The culture and education must support and indeed prefer abstinence and fidelity. The Ugandan ABC program, having the proper emphasis on Abstinence and Be faithful, actually was very successful.
      ___________________________________________________________
      But instead of ABC, mostly what we get now is “CCCCCCCCCCCC, and oh, by the way… the religiously oppressed and other backwards people prefer abstinence and fidelity as a possible lifestyle choice and that is also available to you… but we aren’t suggesting to you that abstinence is in some way better than promiscuity – that would be judgmental on our part and besides, we value our own promiscuity and think you should take the same license that we do to sleep with anyone at any time.… ”

  • invalid-0

    RHRC does not convert carriage return characters into paragraph breaks.

    • To format into paragraphs, surround each paragraph with “<p>” and “</p>” tags.
    • To insert blank lines between paragraphs, add “<p>&nbsp;</p>”

     

    For more information, use “view page source” in your browser, then review comments that are formatted the way you desire.

  • invalid-0

    the religiously oppressed and other backwards people prefer abstinence and fidelity as a possible lifestyle choice and that is also available to you

    There is no evidence that this is true and a great deal of evidence to the contrary Indeed religious conservatives have been having a hell of a time finding representation in Congress where men are capable of even remaining faithful to their marriage vows much less embracing abstinence. The divorce rate amongst conservative Christians is just as high as it is amongst the general population.
    Y’all need to stop pretending that you know the answers when every week’s news stories reveal your collective failures.

  • crowepps

     

    To defeat risk compensation, "Abstinence" and "Be faithful" must be emphasized far and above the "if not, use a Condom" option. The culture and education must support and indeed prefer abstinence and fidelity. The Ugandan ABC program, having the proper emphasis on Abstinence and Be faithful, actually was very successful.

    You miss the whole point of why ABC was successful in Uganda (and failed other places), which was the emphasis of the early program on all THREE messages, including condom use, and the simultaneous efforts by government to empower women and end their subordination:

     President Museveni ensured that affirmative action policies that enabled women to participate in local and national politics were written into Uganda’s national constitution. Museveni also created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, charged with vigorous enforcement of laws against sex with minors. Both public and private school systems designed and implemented sexuality education, which included gender equity messages. The Museveni government developed both macro- and micro-credit schemes for women and fostered government and nongovernmental programs that promoted gender equity among women, men, and youth.

     

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1564179

    Education, financial independence and equality allowed women to demand what they had wanted all along - monogomy – and where they couldn’t get an agreement to monogomy, they were able to protect their own lives by insisting on the use of condoms.

    During the time condoms were being promoted as the third leg, promiscuity actually dropped, partly because of thorough sexuality education and party because women had other options available with which to support themselves.  If you will go to the link and carefully read the report the obvious conclusion is that in this society, the epidemic is driven almost entirely by MALE behavior and the use of condoms protects WOMEN.

  • crowepps

    the religiously oppressed and other backwards people

    I’m not even sure what you’re trying to say here.  What this this issue have to do with religious oppression, or ‘backwardness’ for that matter?

     

    Both phrases seem inherenly judgmental and patronizing, but I won’t comment further than that until you clarify what you meant.

  • invalid-0

    “Conservative Christians”, “Liberal Christians”, “Peace and Justice Christains” and all other Christians are sinners.

    But the faith is marked by the devout. Those who have made mistakes have done so despite their faith.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t think we are real far off on this one. The thesis that empowering women helps the AIDS epidemic sounds plausible enough and does not contradict what I have said about the primacy of abstinence and fidelity.

  • invalid-0

    My apologies if I gave offense… my intent was to be facetious—————————————————————————————————————

    I was expressing the common notion that religion, specifically Christianity, is backwards and ignorant when it comes to matters sexual. The modern view is that traditional sexual morality causes more problems than it solves, and that nobody should really feel compelled to try to conform themselves to something that contradicts their sexual impulses.

    —————————————————————————————As you probably guessed, I believe that the way out of the AIDS crisis is by a return to traditional morality.

  • invalid-0

    As you probably guessed, I believe that the way out of the AIDS crisis is by a return to traditional morality.

    How far back does one have to go for what you call morality to be considered “traditional”? To the time when ‘adultery’ was a property crime and men broke in their sons on his 16th birthday with the gift of a prostitute?

  • crowepps

    I really don’t mean to be critical of religion, but you have to wonder what the value is of a ‘faith’ that doesn’t seem capable of inspiring the people who purport to believe in it to act much differently from the people who don’t believe.

     

    The biggest problem with the ‘religion is necessary because atheists have no moral center’ argument is that the atheists by and large act publicly and privately pretty much like the faithful.  There isn’t much utility in pointing to any holy book as a ‘moral center’ if it doesn’t change the behavior of the faithful.

  • crowepps

    I’m not aware that ‘traditional sexual morality’ causes any problems for those who believe in it and practice it, or for societies which promote it by persuasion.

     

    Historically, however, ‘tradition’ was enforced by Draconian punishments which ignored the role of the men who actually had the power under patriarchy and instead fell heavily on women and children.  The inequality of that punishment caused huge problems, both practical and moral.

  • crowepps

    If you’ll focus your efforts to promote abstinence on the young males who believe being sexually active proves they’re ‘real men’ and your efforts to promote fidelity on the married men who cheat, you might get somewhere.  It’s a waste of time to focus on girls and married women as enforcers of these themes, because they do NOT have the power.

  • invalid-0

    The lack of good moral behavior on the part of self identified Christians IS a huge scandal and it speaks poor of Christianity in general. The only thing I can suggest on this point is 1) there are many devoted Christians out there who don’t get noticed by the media and 2) that you look at the saints for examples of what authentic Christian living is. ————————————————————————————————-
    Regarding atheists, yes we all can think of atheists who are good, moral people. But these are individuals living in the context of a society formed on the basis of religious indemonstrables. It is easy to take for granted that one’s sense the good and moral is a bequethal of the religion that informs the culture. In a word, atheists ultimately borrow their morality from religion—————————————————————————————
    When atheism becomes the religion of the State, look out. The most murderous, brutal regimes ever have been programmatically atheistic. In the last century, we had Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot… the dead under these regimes is most easily counted in tens of millions.——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
    On the basis of reasoning alone, there is simply no way to arrive at the proposition that a person has intrinsic dignity and is worthy of rights, and therefore utilitarianism of the powerful becomes the moral code. To repeat an oft quoted bit from Dostoyevsky “without God, anything is permissible.”

  • invalid-0

    Get the men on board………..agreed.

  • invalid-0

    How far back do we go into tradition? I’d say about to AD 33 or so. The Church has always and constantly taught that prostitution is an abomination. Any barbarian “tradition” that might have used prostitution as a rite of passage was gravely mistaken.

  • invalid-0

    Early Christianity was considered to be a woman’s religion. Why? Because women were attracted to Christianity for the autonomous existence it offered them. In the Roman empire, women could by law be compelled to marry – not so for Christian society. More than in any society before, primordial Christian culture saw that a woman had dignity apart from a man. The model of the virgin ascetic came within reach in Christian society and informed the dignity of the single woman. This is an incredible power that women must never be denied: to say NO.

  • invalid-0

    I’d say about to AD 33 or so.

    Then how unfortunate for you that we learned to read and are no longer chattel.

    As for prostitution, I wasn’t speaking of what the Church says (although, once again, men who used prostitutes weren’t stoned to death or, for that matter, imprisoned and used as slaves in Magdelene laundries) I was speaking of what men do and have always done.

  • invalid-0

    Regarding atheists, yes we all can think of atheists who are good, moral people. But these are individuals living in the context of a society formed on the basis of religious indemonstrables. It is easy to take for granted that one’s sense the good and moral is a bequethal of the religion that informs the culture. In a word, atheists ultimately borrow their morality from

    Yes, atheists are only good because of theists—because it’s inconceivable that without a God, they would want to live in a society where people don’t indiscriminately kill or hurt each other, and would thus follow the Golden Rule of their own accord. Without religion, they would have no concept of trust, or love, or common good to draw upon, and would live like bloodthirsty savages.

    When atheism becomes the religion of the State, look out. The most murderous, brutal regimes ever have been programmatically atheistic. In the last century, we had Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot… the dead under these regimes is most easily counted in tens of millions.

    So it’s better if an authoritarian dictator is Catholic, then. Like, say, Francisco Franco.

  • invalid-0

    The lack of good moral behavior on the part of self identified Christians IS a huge scandal and it speaks poor of Christianity in general.

    Indeed although I personally find the conservative Christian characteristic tolerance and encouragement of dishonesty and greed to be far more socially destructive than your collective inability to live what you preach. Well than and your collective tendencies to choose the most horrible men and women possible as standard bearers. I’ve no time for those who confine their ‘moral’ concerns to their imaginings about other people’s sex lives. I mean why should those employed by the insurance industry be encouraged to exercise their ‘consciences’? Why limit expressions of ‘conscience’ to refusing to fill legal prescriptions for effective contraceptives?

    It is easy to take for granted that one’s sense the good and moral is a bequethal of the religion that informs the culture. In a word, atheists ultimately borrow their morality from religion

    You’re welcome to believe that if you like but that’s certainly not a belief I share. I’m not an atheist or a Christian but believe me, I don’t borrow my moral sense from people who think that Antonin Scalia or Newt Gingrich are ‘godly men’.

  • crowepps

    Actually, the Romans and some other cultures also had the concept of ‘sacred virginity’, also enforced with Draconian punishments like being buried alive.

     

    The idea that the woman had "dignity apart from a man" and that this "dignity" depended on her remaining a virgin is just a repackaging of "sex contaminates".

     

    That said, I’m not aware of any current efforts to require all women to have sex, although certainly the anti-birth control activists want to require them all to have children.

  • crowepps

     In a word, atheists ultimately borrow their morality from religion

    From which ‘religion’ do the animals borrow their morality?

     

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227071.400-review-iwild-justicei-by-marc-bekoff-and-jessica-pierce.html

  • http://www.majon.com invalid-0

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