Prop 8 and the Future of Sex Ed


Originally published at Amplify.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released a funding announcement for states to apply for federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funds, HHS included some surprising new guidance:

“As States design their programs, ACF also encourages them to consider the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and how their programs will be inclusive of and non-stigmatizing toward such participants.”

Translation:

HHS kindly requests that you try to be as non-bigoted and un-hateful as possible when implementing programs that, by their very nature, discriminate against and demonize LGBT youth.

Is HHS kidding with this?!  We’re still talking about Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, aren’t we?  Because last time I checked, the “until marriage” standard wasn’t really one that could be applied to LGBT youth in an “inclusive” and “non-stigmatizing” way.

Slapping one touchy-feely recommendation  – one that carries no legal weight whatsoever -  on anti-LGBT “sex education” policies would be roughly equivalent to Judge Vaughn Walker issuing a decision to uphold Prop 8, but adding non-binding guidance that California’s marriage ban be carried out in a way that didn’t hurt anybody’s feelings while denying them fundamental rights.

In fact, the Society for Adolescent Medicine has stated that “current U.S. federal law and guidelines regarding abstinence-only funding are ethically flawed and interfere with fundamental human rights” (emphasis mine) – but that’s okay now because HHS asked people politely to cut back on stigmatizing queer youth.

Reality is going to be a little bit of a disappointment.  You can’t really subject students to an abstinence-only-until-marriage program without stigmatizing LGBT students.  The curricula themselves perpetuate misinformation and stigma, and the entire “until-marriage” framework cannot be proclaimed “inclusive” in a country where 45 states – and the federal government – do not recognize same-sex marriage.

You can’t just call a bad policy good and hope no one notices.  [But if you want to watch someone try, check out this super-awkward video of David Axlerod reminding people that President Obama opposes same-sex marriage but still "supports equality" for LGBT Americans.  It would seem they're not having the best week for LGBT messaging anywhere in the Obama administration.]

Still, let’s review, shall we? 

All Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that receive federal funding are required to follow the A-H definition of abstinence-only education:

THE FEDERAL DEFINITION OF ABSTINENCE-ONLY EDUCATION

An eligible abstinence education program is one that:

A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;

C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

E) teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;

G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances; and

H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

Source: U.S. Social Security Act, §510(b)(2).

Again, the above emphasis is mine.  And this isn’t to say that points A, C, F, G, and H aren’t harmful to LGBT students – or that all of these points aren’t also harmful to straight youth.  They are. 

However, even a cursory glance at the minimum requirements for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs shows the entire undertaking to be so thoroughly at odds with “LGBT inclusion” to be laughable.  Except it isn’t a laughing matter at all.  This is the health and lives of America’s LGBT youth we’re talking about.  Far too often, abstinence-only programs substitute as the only sex education that young people receive. 

For LGBT youth, these programs specifically exclude any information about relationships that might be relevant to them, any information about condoms, and any mention of same-sex peer pressure or partner communication. 

These programs teach that any sex outside of marriage is “likely to have harmful psychological and physiological effects.”  That includes ALL non-heterosexual sex acts. 

These programs teach that “monogamous relationships in the context of marriage” is the expected standard of “human sexual activity.”  What’s that?  Four states, the District of Columbia, and sort-of California recognize same-sex marriage?  Good for them!  But no matter what laws states may or may not pass, the federal government has made it excruciatingly clear that it does not recognize same-sex marriages, even in the states that do.  The Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books – and Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were definitely conceived for a DOMA-inclusive world. 

In December 2004, Rep. Henry Waxman commissioned an in-depth report on the content of these programs that found over 80% of abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula contained “false, misleading, or distorted” information about sexual health.  Not surprisingly, LGBT youth were often the target of the worst distortions:

  • One program taught students that 50% of gay male teens have HIV.
  • Another taught that HIV could be spread through sweat and tears.
  • Multiple programs exaggerated the failure rates of condoms, and subsequent studies have found that students are less likely to use condoms after receiving abstinence-only-until-marriage education. 

That’s on top of the fact that decades of research has shown that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have no impact at all.

Last week, Judge Walker’s ruling to overturn Prop 8 proved once again that MLK was right.  The arc of history does indeed bend towards justice.  But, if recent developments prove true, the road towards LGBT equality may not be quite as long as we once thought. 

Sadly, the Obama administration has put itself on the wrong side of history twice in the last 10 days.  The President was wrong to reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage.  History will judge him for his cowardice at the very moment when his leadership is most sorely needed.  And, though it may seem only a footnote in comparison, HHS cannot “fix” a deeply ideological and profoundly dangerous program with empty rhetoric.

I suppose I could just call this new HHS guidance for LGBT inclusion “a profound breakthrough in the fight for equality” – but even I can’t stomach that kind of empty spin.  After all, hypocrisy will be on the losing side of history too. 

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  • heather-corinna

    Yes, yes and world of big yes.  Everything you have said here is so spot-on, and so in need of calling out.

  • star2007

    Yes, thank you for your commentary! The other major problem I have with “abstinence only” programs is that they assume that people always have control of sexual interactions. What if I try to reject a sexual advance, but nevertheless I am assaulted, raped, or coerced? These programs completely ignore this reality and the sad fact is that many young people are survivors of sexual assault, family molestation etc.