Having a cake and not eating
Abstinence programs and sexual education?
May 23, 2005
A study conducted for college about the effectiveness
of the abstinence-only education programs that President Bush has
been pushing since he got into office.
Conservative Christian beliefs have become a stark presence in
government policy since the rise of the Bush administration in
2000. 'Faith-based initiatives,' which comprise the
base of Christian influence in politics, have become the hallmark
of Republican policy in the social sphere, with increased federal
grants and funding making the social and educational programs run
by these organizations economically attractive options in communities
Although there have been many different social
and educational arenas affected by faith-based initiatives, adolescent
sexual education is a field that has undergone drastic change,
wrought in the form of abstinence-only education. The funding
for these programs has jumped considerably; President Bush has
a 270 million dollar budget for abstinence-only (AO) programs
for the 2005 fiscal year. This is the largest amount ever to be
for AO education and if granted would make these programs a real
alternative to contraceptive sexual education in America for
In response to this development, a rising tide of criticisms
and concerns have come to surround what many perceive AO programs
to be: an ideological agenda thinly veiled by scientific jargon.
There are two main concerns with abstinence education: the first
is whether religious dogma has come to replace scientific findings
and information, resulting in dire health consequences. This entails
research into the curricula itself as well as its effect on the
sexual behavior of students. The second concern arises from the
argument that AO programs, both from the educational and philosophical
perspective, leave no space for discussing how to have a healthy,
sexually active lifestyle that a great percentage of teens wish
In order to adequately address these issues, it is necessary
to take a look at the history and ideological background of abstinence-only
initiatives themselves, their educational merit in terms of social
learning theory, and their relative effectiveness at STD and pregnancy
prevention; an analysis of the ideological slant in these programs,
as well as the pros and cons of the sexually abstinent lifestyle
itself in its various
practical and theoretical contexts, is also critical to determining
the viability of this model for sexual educational.
To date, the Bush era has been the biggest boon for abstinence-only
programs. In 2002, a White House summary of George Bush's
sexual education policy said of the significant monetary boost
for AO programs: "the funding increase will ensure that more
communities across the country are able to deliver the message
that abstinence is the surest way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy
and STDs. This funding will also finance comprehensive evaluations
of abstinence education
Over the past three decades,
three separate bills have passed creating three separate initiatives,
most notably the bill for "Special Programs of Regional and
National Significance Community-Based Abstinence Education," or
SPRANS, which has been the main beneficiary of the Bush administration's
sexual education initiative. The general consensus among
advocates of premarital abstinence mirrors the vision of the
Bush administration; they "assert that premarital abstinence
and postmarital sex are necessary and sufficient for avoiding negative
consequences of sexual activity, such as STDs" (Bearman and
However, despite the good intentions, AO programs have been assailed
by critics as ineffective, plagued by misrepresentation of information
and numerous factual inconsistencies, possessed of an alarmingly
myopic vision of what constitutes "correct" sexual behavior,
and substandard according to the standards of modern educational
Although these issues cover a wide range of topics, it
is perhaps most useful to begin an investigation of these criticisms
by analyzing the merits of abstinence education in terms of social
learning theory (SLT). This theory's basic premise is based
in the belief that human behavior is affected by a set of factors:
cognitive, environmental, and behavioral (ReCAPP). In other words,
the decisions we make about how we act and what we do are based
on our preexisting notions, knowledge, expectations, behavioral
what we take in and are able to seek out in our environment.
This includes imitating or striving to emulate positive behaviors
that are exemplified in role models or examples of constructive
comportment. In terms of health education,
"SLT is a valuable and effective tool for health educators
who want to assist
their students in gaining new health supporting skills... In
the arena of
sexuality and prevention alone, only a handful of programs have
been shown to
significantly and positively change sexual risk taking behavior.
of those programs (six out of eight) are based totally or in
part on SLT." (ReCAPP)
Taking into account cognitive factors such as personal knowledge
and opinions about sexuality as well as sexual expectations can
prove difficult for AO educators. Abstinence Clearinghouse, a leading
AO education lobby in Washington, says "about 20 percent of
teens will be sexually active regardless
of what kind of information they have" (abstinence.net);
thus, these sexually active students do not stand to benefit from
the curricula which does not discuss safe sexual practices.
of social learning theory encourages openly discussing all options
for the premarital lifestyle when
applied to sexual education programs, as long as positive and
safe behaviors are practiced. Unfortunately, abstinence-only
education runs the risk of alienating those who wish to live a
lifestyle and want to be educated on how to maintain good emotional
and physical health in doing so, because discussion of contraception
is exclusively restricted to cases resulting in
failure and failure rates (Waxman). It follows that the environmental
factor, which includes illustrating positive examples for adolescents
to emulate, is limited to the sexually abstinent teen.
factor is defined by the actualization of the social learner's
own behavior, and in this case, the frequent references equating
abstinence with "purity" (abstinence.net) implicitly
pass moral judgment upon those who exhibit sexually active behaviors.
Imposition of a biblical worldview towards sexuality
carries its own consequences. Religious ethicist Dr. Michael Hartwig
argues that "when institutions impose long-term... sexual
abstinence on individuals the assumption should be that this will
deprive them of the usual context and resources with
which they will grow to love with greater authenticity and depth" and
negate what for many adolescents is a natural need.
not teaching safe sexual practices does not change the fact that
the vast majority of people have sex before they are married. Hartwig,
published in 2000, echoes the statistical evidence presented by
the most recent reports when he states that "abstinence-only
education programs do not decrease the incidence of teenage sexuality
and, without information about safe and/or safer sex practices,
the abstinence-only strategy increases risks to teenagers".
Both the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent
(Bearman and Brückner) and the Committee on Government Reform
Report (Waxman) reinforce this statement. Specifically, the report
found that the only significant statistical difference in the frequency
of sexual activity between virginity pledgers and non-pledgers
was the age at which sexual activity commenced. Virginity pledgers
begin sexual activity at a later time in life,
yet this seems a pyrrhic victory for AO education in light of
the fact that pledgers still contract STDs at the same rate as
sexually active teens (Bearman and Brückner). It also seems
discouraging that 88% of abstinence-pledging teens end up engaging
in premarital sex regardless (Waxman 4).
Another serious criticism of abstinence-only programs targets
the presence of religious doctrine and morality throughout the
curriculum. In the Committee on Government Reform investigation, "The
Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs",
it is stated that "By their nature,
abstinence-only curricula teach moral judgments alongside scientific
facts" and that "In some of the curricula, the moral
judgments are explicitly religious" (Waxman 15).
the religious framework of AO education, there are myriad examples
of Christian doctrine throughout the curricula, from the time a
new human life begins to whether or not a fetus is a "thinking
and when it becomes one. In the same vein, the biggest
proponents of AO education make no secret of their conservative
Christian views in their approach to sexual health. One source
states that in order to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission, a "biblical
worldview [is] needed" (abstinence.net). The same site
goes on to cite the presence of disease in Africa as "proof
that the principles of Jesus Christ have not penetrated Africa
At this point, some would be inclined to ask why the presence
of Christian values and doctrine is a cause for concern. The fact
is that institutionalized sexual education has the potential to
carry with it subjective notions about gender, morality, religion,
and the dissemination of scientific knowledge;
education sponsored and influenced by one religion certainly
will include such notions.
These messages, imbued with religious
dogma and Christian morality, have become a prime example of
how power has the ability to transform knowledge and affect practices
by imposing the dominant social group's beliefs upon an established
institution through a committed government body (Brody 18). In
this case, the transformation is being accomplished through the
substantially increased funding of AO programs and thus their
presence in public schools.
Both the Bush administration and abstinence ed lobbyists argue
that a faith-based approach to sexuality (specifically that of
the Christian faith) is the safest, most moral lifestyle and policy
decision. However, Howard Brody argues that "any effort to
state what would be in [someone's] best interests is really
a disguised way to promote some specific adult agenda, which entails
variety of value judgments about how 'good' people
ought to lead their lives" (Brody 17). This quote seems to
illustrate the key reason behind the push for AO education despite
the most recent research findings and why abstinence-only education
still exists right now in the arena of public health education.
There is an unspoken message conveyed in a health education
program that will only discuss contraception and sexual activity
of failure rates and risks, respectively; the possibility of sexual
intimacy before marriage is excluded from educational discourses
as if it was simply not a viable option, an unwise and immoral
This message reflects the "Biblical worldview" (abstinence.net) of the same people who write the curriculum
for the programs, promoting agendas based first and foremost on
their ideological perspective while the risk-reducing effects of
the curriculum for teens remain in question. What can be argued
plainly is that our youth are being subjected to religious dogma
that will ideologically socialize them as much as it 'educates'
them; there is, however, another dimension to this issue that
warrants a different debate.
Besides the shaky educational quality of and bias inherent in
AO programs, a matter of even greater concern that deals directly
with the safety of adolescents who have to sit through abstinence-only
classes; in addition to having been accused of religious and ideological
prejudice, AO programs have been found to contain factual
errors in over 80 percent of their most widely used curricula (Waxman
I). These errors often cite
data that do not correlate to claims made in the curricula, such
as condoms failing "to prevent HIV approximately 31% of the
time" in heterosexual sex, incidences of mental retardation
increasing in infants after abortions, and that "touching
another person's genitals 'can result in pregnancy'".
There is abundant evidence to suggest that AO education actually
increases risks to teens; virginity pledgers have been found to
participate in high-risk sexual behaviors such as oral and anal
sex in greater numbers than teens who don't go through abstinence
education (Bearman and Brückner). This data is significant
in what it logically implies: teens will engage in sexual activities
one way or another.
Pledgers that promise to maintain their virginity
(i.e./ not be vaginally penetrated) will simply have another
form of sex. The 'just say no' philosophy doesn't seem
to apply to sexual activity any more that it applied to drugs.
However, despite these findings and that of all major studies
on AO education and its shortcomings in terms of modern educational
theory, President Bush has proposed increased funding for SPRANS
and similar programs.
Most people, Christian and otherwise, can understand why abstinence
is the safest route for teenagers to take until they reach emotional
(as well as sexual) maturity. However, this does not mean that
a sexually inactive premarital lifestyle should be institutionalized.
Abstinence until marriage may work for many people, but certainly
not for everyone, including many Christians. For many people there
are as many good reasons to have sex within the context of their
own lives as there are not to do so, and it is interesting to note
that today the traditional Christian conceptualization of sexuality
solely as the means of procreation has been called into question.
Dr. Michael J. Hartwig,
disagreeing with the established moral line within the Judeo-Christian
tradition, argues that Christian morality is ultimately intended
to further human well-being, and when "moral norms deprive
us of resources vital to our flourishing and well-being, they need
to be examined". Here he specifically
refers to sexuality and the institutionalization of sexual abstinence
among unmarried people, and how this moral standard has stood and
continues to stand in stark contrast to actual practices, thus
projecting a negative light on the sexual activities that are inevitable
among a huge number of unmarried people.
This simple insight, unacknowledged
by AO education advocates, can be
corroborated to statistical evidence, both in recent studies
as well as the one the author cites: "abstinence-only education
programs do not decrease the incidence of teenage sexuality and,
without information about safe and/or safer sex practices, the
abstinence-only strategy increases risks to teenagers" (Hartwig
2). It would seem that the solution of pushing abstinence and abstinence
alone is not a solution at all.
Furthermore, Hartwig asserts that sexually intimate relationships
make possible deeper kinds of intimacy and increase ones capacity
to understand the meaning of love, especially in committed relationships.
This is not to say that abstinence is bad and premarital sex is
good; it merely shows that even within the Christian establishment,
there are differing views on the role of sexuality
before marriage. It is asked in the Columbia study, "is
it really wise to ban discussion of contraception and STD protection
from sex education?" (Bearman and Brückner).
discussion of the positive aspects of sexuality as well as safe
sex from the arena of sexual health education, among other things,
ignores and leaves to their own devices a large demographic which
will end up having sex either way. Yet being without a viable
model for positive sexual behavior places sexually active teens
significant disadvantage (ReCAPP). This presents a particular
problem for those adolescents who are sexually active and try to
Christian morality in their own lives.
Unable to live up to the "moral
ideal of abstinence outside marriage" (Hartwig 4), these teens
may feel ashamed and inadequate with respect to fulfilling the
requirements of their
faith, despite the fact that today there is no indisputable attitude
toward premarital sexuality, even within the Christian faith. I
point this out to highlight the rather unaccommodating ideological
context from which the current abstinence-only programs operate,
as well as real problems with effectively achieving the kind of
results that the programs expect to see with adolescents.
Abstinence-only education presents numerous problems on almost
every level it can be analyzed. I argue that these problems are
not just of the statistical variety, which include the factual
errors, disheartening prevention results, and higher instances
of high-risk sexual behavior. There is also a strong ideological
current underlying the nature of these programs that push the view
of a politically significant minority and marginalize a great
majority of teens and young adults that do not and will not respond
well to a dialogue that excludes the possibility of premarital
In order to be effective, sexual education programs
need to encourage and present positive
behavioral options in regards to sexuality, not just the "moral" path
of abstinence. In light of the most recent findings on the effectiveness
of abstinence education, perhaps it is these very programs that
need to be pushed out of the mainstream.
Maziar Shirazi is a junior at Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
New Jersey. Features
Biblical Worldview Needed for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS." Abstinence
Clearinghouse Official Homepage. 2005. Resource Library: Faith-Based
Articles. 10 April 2005.
Brody, Howard. "The Social Power of Expert Healers" 107-125.
Rpt in Science, Medicine and Society. Ed. Mehta and Thompson. New
Brunswick: Pequod Printing, 2005. 15-24.
Brückner, Hannah and Bearman, Peter. "After
the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges" Journal
of Adolescent Health. 36.4 (2005): 271-78. 15 March 2005.
Abstinence and Prevent Teen Pregnancy Overview" White
House Official Home Page. 2002. News and Policies. 31 March 2005.
Hartwig, Michael J. The Poetics of Intimacy & the Problem
of Sexual Abstinence. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 2000.
Center for Adolescent Pregnancy prevention.
Ed. ETR associates. 2004. ETR. 1 April 2005.
"The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education
Programs". Ed. For Waxman,
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