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 across America.
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 proposed a 270 million dollar budget for abstinence-only (AO) programs for the 2005 fiscal year. This is the largest amount ever to be earmarked for AO education and if granted would make these programs a real alternative to contraceptive sexual education in America for future generations.
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 to enjoy.
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 programs”. (whitehouse.gov)
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 Brückner).
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 theory.
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 patterns, and
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. The majority 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.
Application 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 sexually active 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.
The behavioral 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.
Furthermore, 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 Health (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).
Besides mentioning 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 person” 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 enough.”
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 increased 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 a 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 in terms 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 decision.
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).
Again, excluding 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 at a significant disadvantage (ReCAPP). This presents a particular problem for those adolescents who are sexually active and try to practice 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 sexual activity.
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.