Sexuality Education Programs
In the United States, each state is responsible for developing its own sexuality educational programs. Therefore, the programs vary greatly. There are four main types of sexuality programs: comprehensive; abstinence-based HIV-prevention; abstinence – only; and abstinence-only-until-marriage. Comprehensive sexuality programs, which we’ve already been discussing, are those that begin in kindergarten and continue through 12 th grade—they include a wide variety of topics and help students to develop their own skills and learn factual information. There are also a variety of different abstinence-based programs. Abstinence-based HIV-prevention programs emphasize the importance of abstinence but also include information about sexual behavior, contraception, and disease prevention. Abstinence-only programs emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors and do not provide information about contraception or disease prevention. Finally, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are similar to abstinence-only programs but present marriage as the only morally acceptable context for all sexual activity.
Abstinence-only programs began in the early 1990s when there was a proliferation of sexuality education programs that used fear to discourage students from engaging in sexual behavior. These programs include mottos such as “Control your urgin’—be a virgin,” “Don’t be a louse—wait for your spouse,” “Do the right thing—wait for the ring,” or “Pet your dog—not your date.” Critical information about topics such as anatomy or STIs is omitted from these programs, and there is an overreliance on religion, the need to avoid sexual behavior, and the negative consequences of sexual behavior. These negative consequences are often exaggerated, and sexual behavior is portrayed as dangerous and harmful. It is estimated that fewer than half of all U. S. public schools offer information on contraception, and the majority of public schools today teach abstinence – only education (Starkman & Rajani, 2002).
Federal funding for abstinence-based sexuality education has grown significantly since 1996. Federal funds can only be used for sexuality education if they teach abstinence only until marriage, which often excludes information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. In fiscal year 2005, the federal government proposed spending approximately $170 million on abstinence-only sexuality education programs, which was more than twice the amount that was spent in fiscal year 2001 (Waxman, 2004a). Since 1996, the U. S. government has spent over 1 billion dollars on abstinence-only educational programs (Boonstra, 2004), but as of 2005 there was no federal funding for comprehensive sexuality education (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2005a). In 1996, the federal government also passed a law outlining the federal definition of abstinence education. These programs teach:
• abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
• that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
• that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
The majority of Americans believe that sexuality education should emphasize abstinence but also include contraception and STI information (Dailard, 2001b). Some of
the abstinence-only programs use scare tactics to encourage abstinence, such as Teen – Aid, which claims the consequences of premarital sexual behavior to be:
[L]oss of reputation; limitations in dating/marriage choices; negative effects on sexual adjustment; negative effects on happiness (premarital sex, especially with more than one person, has been linked to the development of emotional illness [and the] loss of self-esteem); family conflict and possible premature separation from the family; confusion regarding personal value (e. g., “Am I loved because I am me, because of my personality and looks, or because I am a sex object?”); and loss of goals. (Kantor, 1992, p. 4)
A happy and healthy future is also promoted as a reason for not engaging in sexual behavior. Facing Reality, a program for senior high school students, claims that there are rewards for those who avoid premarital sexual behavior. These include:
continuing education, being able to serve others, mastering emotions and impulses, sharing family values for a lifetime, making more friends, becoming a leader, concentrating on important tasks, remaining physically healthy, raising a healthy family, making a clearheaded marriage choice, pursuing spiritual goals, making permanent commitments, excelling in athletics, giving example to others, creating positive peer pressure, enjoying a beautiful time of life, taking on greater responsibilities, [and] having piece of mind. (Kantor, 1992, p. 4)
Do abstinence-only programs work? This is the important question, and the responses will differ depending on whom you ask. Supporters of abstinence-only programs often have very strong feelings about comprehensive sexuality education programs and claim that talking only about abstinence lets children and young adults know that this is the only choice. Those who believe in these programs would say that they are effective.
On the other hand, your author, along with many sexuality education experts, believes that strictly abstinence-only programs may do more harm than good. They often fail to provide necessary factual information, and they support many myths and stereotypes about various topics in human sexuality (such as sexual assault, gender differences, sexual orientation, pregnancy options, and STIs). Over 80% of abstinence-only educational programs contain “false, misleading, or distorted” information about reproductive health (including false information about contraceptive effectiveness, misrepresented abortion risks, and a high degree of scientific error; Waxman, 2004b). Overall, abstinence-only programs have not been found to significantly change adolescents’ values and attitudes about, or their intentions to engage in, premarital sexual activity (Sather, 2002; Starkman & Rajani, 2002). In fact, the research has also shown that when students who have had abstinence-based sexuality programs do become sexually active, they often fail to use condoms or any type of contraception (Bruckner & Bearman, 2005; Walters, 2005).
Before we move on to heterosexism in sexuality education, one more comment deserves your attention. Sexuality educators routinely discuss the importance of communication in their sexuality courses; however, isn’t it interesting that many educators are not permitted to discuss many aspects of human sexuality in high schools today (Fields, 2001b)? For example, in Utah (which has the strictest state policies on sexuality education), a teacher is not allowed to answer a student’s questions about contraception (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2001c). What message does this send about the importance of communication?