What is Abstinence-only Education?

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Looking into his eyes, I could tell his answer to my question would be painful to tell. It was a Saturday afternoon in April and I decided to ask my roommate Cam about his experiences with sexual education in Utah. “I heard so many of my peers throw around the word fag while also hearing about how many girls I knew getting pregnant”. Cam did not come out until college but, I could not imagine the pain and frustration he felt due to the homophobic comments that his peers made around him. Alarming as well, was how many of his female classmates he could name that got pregnant. Unfortunately, Cam’s experience in high school is one that happens very often in America, especially in states that practice abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only education is an outdated, ineffective, and harmful type of way to teach sexual education to the youth of America. The culture of abstinence-only education creates is one filled with homophobia along with misinformed advice surrounding sex. As one learns about the harmful effects of abstinence-only education, thoughts of why this type of sexual education still exists comes into play. How can something that is proven to be harmful to our youth in multiple facets of sexuality be continually funded with massive amounts of money? The answer to this question lies in specific religious beliefs and political ideologies, which ensures that abstinence-only education is continuously funded by our government, regardless of the proven detrimental effects this type of sexual education.

The 1980’s marked the start of abstinence-only sexual education programs (MacFarlane, 2007). Under president Ronald Reagan’s administration abstinence-only education was formed with the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA). AFLA was put in place to promote the ideologies of self-discipline and chastity in regards to pre-marital sex (MacFarlane, 2007). This included “virginity pledges” as well. During the 1980’s the AIDS epidemic reached a new height in America and it is widely believed that AFLA was partially in response to this crisis. President Bill Clinton, in 1996 approved the “welfare reform act” which allocated 50 million dollars to schools which taught abstinence-only education (MacFarlane, 2007). Funding for these programs increased under George W. Bush’s presidency, between 1996-2010 over 1.5 billion dollars were donated to abstinence-only education programs from tax payers dollars (MacFarlane, 2007. These programs still exist today through various forms of government acts, programs, and even health organizations such as the CDC. The Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administration pushed for funding into these programs, disregarding the blatant harmful effects that our youth would endure. The media’s influence of shaping political ideology can be seen as the root of why these programs were so heavily funded.

In 2015, Douglas Hindman and Changmin Yan conducted a study analyzing the knowledge gap hypothesis and belief gap hypothesis surrounding abstinence-only education in the United States (Hindman & Yan, 2015). The knowledge gap hypothesis views knowledge as both growing and stagnet. Knowledge consists of awareness of belief, or a belief in, truth claims supported by scientific consensus (Hindman et al., 2015). The belief gap hypothesis builds off of the knowledge gap hypothesis. The belief gap hypothesis claims that in a “politically polarizing environment, with a scientific consensus at odds, leads to groups being challenged” (Hindman et al., 2015). The belief gap hypothesis views sex education in regards to a larger social context while also holding values of individuals and some aspects of political contexts. Using specific media outlets, Hindman and Yan hoped to prove a correlation between political ideology and the belief gap hypothesis which could help influence an individual’s belief in regards to their stance on abstinence-only education. Hindman and Yan found a strong correlation between these two variables as respondents who viewed Fox News were more likely to favor abstinence-only education (Hindman et al., 2015).

Respondents who actively viewed CNN and MSNBC had an non-significant belief association surrounding their stance on abstinence-only education (Hindman et al., 2015). Hindman and Yan also found that self-identified political conservatives, were more likely than non-conservatives to hold beliefs about abstinence-only education that were at odds with both scientific consensus and public opinion (Hindman et al., 2016). This directly translates to the belief gap hypothesis surrounding abstinence-only education, which states that in politically polarizing environment (such as abstinence-only education) scientific knowledge will be challenged. The media plays an integral role in persuading Americans to one side of a politically polarizing issue. In cases like abstinence-only education, conservatives strong willed belief about this issue meddles with the scientific facts about how harmful abstinence-only education is, creating a division between both sides of the political spectrum about the truth. This study by Hindman and Yan can help explain why abstinence-only education has been heavily supported and funded by political leaders and administrations.

Religious beliefs and ideologies were thought to be connected to the Reagan’s administrations initial movement toward nation wide abstinence-only education. French author and researcher Claire Greslé-Favier claims that conservative beliefs surrounding abstinence-only education are fueled by the right wing’s support of Christian values (Greslé-Favier, 2013). Waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse, the stigmatization of being a homosexual, and the shame of having sex outside of marriage are all important values that many older, 20th century American Christians had. The use of contraceptives such as birth control and abortion were heavily condoned by major religious figures in America and by mainstream society, which was white and Christian. As you learn more and more about the Christian beliefs during this time, it becomes more and more likely that this played an important role in the ineffective abstinence-only education laws that started in the 80’s under Reagan. HIV/AIDS were thought to be caused by homosexual intercourse and this paranoia swept the nation. Since homosexuality goes against traditional Christian beliefs, within abstinence-only education teaching it is forbidden to discuss homosexuality.

Within the guidelines of what is to be taught in abstinence-only curriculum, there is constant misinformation and falsehoods that are given to students about how effective condoms and other forms of birth control are (Greslé-Favier, 2013). This again follow suit to Christian values that do not approve of the use of contraceptives and other forms of birth control. Lastly, waiting until marriage to have sex and the notion that having sex out of wedlock are two Christian values that are taught in abstinence-only education curriculum. The correlation between Christian values surrounding sex and sexuality seem to go hand in hand with what is being taught in abstinence-only education. It is also important to note that the majority of conservatives identified as religiously Christian during the 20th century when abstinence-only education programs were put into place. Even today, Christianity and conservatism go hand in hand as 85% of conservatives identify as Christians (Pew, 2011). This can help explain why abstinence-only education programs are still being funded even though it has been proven to be harmful to our youth.

Just how harmful is abstinence-only education on the youth of America? The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and STI’s compared to other developed nations (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011). Abstinence-only sexual education is thought to be at the root of these problems. In almost every single scenario you can imagine this type of sexual education does more harm than good in regards to STI rates and information, pregnancy rates and the psychological effects of being taught this type of curriculum. Abstinence-only education programs have been known to increase the likelihood that young teenage girls will become pregnant, increase the risk of adolescents developing STI’s, and students will have a serious lack of knowledge surrounding STI’s compared to their peers who engage in comprehensive sexual education (Starkman & Rajani, 2002). The lack of knowledge surrounding contraceptives and the pressure to not have sex until marriage have simply backfired, and in turn have become extremely detrimental to our youth. Students who received abstinence-only sexual education were less likely to use contraceptives when they did engage in sexual activity and are more likely to develop STI’s compared to their peers who took comprehensive sexual education. Not using a method of contraceptive during sex can lead to unplanned and unexpected pregnancies along with the risk of spreading STI’s. A positive correlation is shown to be true between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancies in the United States (Stanger-Hall et al., 2011).

In a study done in 2003, 11 out of 13 states which taught abstinence-only education curriculum taught outright falsehoods about sexuality and reproductive health (Waxman, 2004). Incorrect information about the effectiveness of condoms are taught, science and religion are blurred together, and other horribly false information such as “sweat and tears are a risk factor for HIV” (Waxman, 2004). Homosexuality is not allowed to be taught in abstinence-only sexual education which instills homophobia that resonates with students. This homophobic mentality is engrained students which can help create a culture of false judgments and stigmatization against members of the homosexual community. My roommate Cam experienced this firsthand in high school growing up in Utah. This type of mis-information and falsehoods about how sex is taught in the US to our children forces us to look at this from a view of child abuse. Greslé-Favier claims that abstinence-only programs provide an example of discrimination against children at the highest level of the political sphere in the United States (Greslé-Favier, 2013).

Children are viewed as property of their parents and the state; thus, they can be taught anything that is approved by both parties. “Childism” can be defined as “a prejudice against children on the ground belief that they are property and (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs”. Abstinence-only education and the falsehoods about sex is an example of how adults are controlling children and acting upon prejudice in doing so (Greslé-Favier, 2013). Young students do not have the mental capabilities to question what they are being taught about sexuality. The lies and misconceptions that are being taught to them is in direct violation of their rights and should not be allowed.

There are a minority of studies which show that there is not a large difference in sexual outcomes in regards to students taking comprehensive vs abstinence-only sexual education. However, one of these studies acknowledges that while sexual outcomes may not have been significant, students who took comprehensive sexual education had significantly more knowledge about STI’s and HIV (Walcott, Chenneville, & Tarquini, 2011). Comprehensive sexual education is the significantly better choice when teaching students about sex (Starkman et al., 2002). Teenagers in today’s day and age will start having sex at early ages, outside of wedlock, and most of the time against their parents’ wishes (Starkman et al., 2002). It is important that our youth understand how different types of birth control works in order to ensure they will have safe sex. The ideology that by preaching abstinence students will wait to engage in sex is false, this has no positive effect on a student’s choice to engage in sexual activities. If anything, telling a teenager you can’t do this will make them even more inclined to do it, speaking from personal experience. By talking about homosexuality, it creates a culture of inclusivity and teaches students to be accepting of everyone’s sexuality and the choices they choose to make. Listing out the truthful, potential pro’s and cons of sex will allow students to make informed choices of when and how they choose to engage in sexual activity. If students understood the potential risks of pregnancy, how easy it is spread STI’s and the true consequences of unprotected sex our youth would be better prepared to engage in sexual activity. Nationwide comprehensive sexual education could potentially reduce the extremely high rates of teen pregnancies and STI’s that the United States has compared to other developed nations.

When I walked out Cam’s room it really hit home what he had gone through in high school, in part to abstinence-only sexual education that was taught to himself and classmates. I could not imagine being gay and an educator refusing to talk about what it means to be a homosexual while also preaching acceptance towards this lifestyle. Through certain political ideologies and specific religious beliefs abstinence-only education funding has been approved by three presidential administrations, regardless of the detrimental impact this has on students. The blatant disregard of how ineffective these programs are on students can be considered a form of child abuse in some eyes. For our children and student’s sake, it is imperative that our government and educators realize how detrimental abstinence-only sexual education is and only teach comprehensive sexual education.

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What is Abstinence-only Education?. (2019, Mar 19). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/what-is-abstinence-only-education/

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