BY MARY Q. BURTON
The old saying goes that all politics are local. These days, one might also note that all politics are sexual (see sidebar, page 10). From small-town school boards to Washington, D.C., sex is
one prominent area where partisan
lines are drawn.
That impact is certainly felt in states such as Kentucky, which seems hell-bent on painting an incomplete picture.
Teri Lloyd was surprised when the sex education books her children brought home from school seemed woefully incomplete. The books omitted certain parts of the female anatomy — specifically, the clitoris.
“That’s got to be a shame, fear-based thing,” says Lloyd, 49, whose daughter, now 23, attended school at Myers Middle. “We just failed to educate them about their own bodies. What we leave out can be shaming, too. I wondered why that part wasn’t mentioned. I’m not opposed to teaching abstinence; what I’m opposed to is pairing it with shame or with lack of information about birth control and the human body.”
Things have only heated up in the ensuing decade. Currently, $50 million in Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage education funding for fiscal 2008 is held up in Congress, after the U.S. Senate decided to delay voting on it until Sept. 30. Meanwhile, in an appropriations bill, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives recently allotted a separate $27.8 million increase for abstinence-only programs.
Meanwhile, advocates and opponents alike continue debating the veracity and effectiveness of the curricula in comparison to comprehensive sexual education.
In fiscal 2006, Kentucky received $817,297 in Title V funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. That funding mechanism came by way of the 1996 Personal Responsibilities and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, which requires states to match $3 for every $4 allocated by the federal government. Local organizations that choose to teach the curriculum can provide the state matched funds or the equivalent in services.
Critics of abstinence-only education say it presents a one-sided view of life, and they note that abstinence-only curricula construe sex as unacceptable before marriage and address the failure rates of condoms while excluding discussion of all other forms of birth control. Such curricula discuss pregnancy options, but not abortion, and exclude all non-heterosexual orientations.
“The problem with a curriculum like that is they predict only one outcome and they command that it will be the outcome,” said Jean Koehler, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville medical school. Koehler is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sex therapist and educator, and also former president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators.
“What we do in comprehensive sexuality education,” she added, “is we say there can be a wide variety of outcomes.”
A recent Zogby poll of 1,002 parents with children ages 10-16 concluded that 85 percent of parents prefer that their children wait until marriage to become sexually active. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, cites that statistic as supporting her position on abstinence-only education.
“We’re not talking about just avoiding pregnancy or just avoiding teen birth,” she told the Associated Press. “We’re talking about healthy relationship building. We’re talking about skills in healthy decision-making, goal setting and providing information on , their cause and how to prevent them.”
Prevention through abstinence is one thing, but empowerment is entirely another.
DeAngelo Crane, 24, was a peer educator for comprehensive sex education at Planned Parenthood of Louisville from 1998-2002. He was 15 when he started and currently serves on the PPL board. The program, which ended in 2005 for lack of funding, used the THINK curriculum (Teaching Health Issues Now In Kentucky) to educate teenagers on all aspects of sex, including abstinence, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and how to have a healthy relationship.
“I will always be a fan of protecting yourself before you decide to have sex, and yes, you can wait until you get married,” Crane said. “But I’m also a fan of the fact that this is the real world. As much as our parents say, ‘Don’t have sex,’ that’s not what is happening.”
Crane said the teens he talked to were grateful for what they learned in the program, because most of them were not comfortable asking their parents questions about sex and birth control.
“There’s something to be said about peer-on-peer communication, and peer-on-peer education,” he said. “When it’s someone your own age giving you wisdom and knowledge, you’re more open to what they have to say. Afterward, it’s amazing how people come up to you and thank you for talking to them about it. More so than anything the great thing about the program is that it builds self-esteem. It’s about empowering our youth to be equipped with the knowledge to make better and healthier decisions.”
Sixteen Kentucky health departments receive the majority of Title V funding, with the remaining funds going to seven sub-grantees, including the Pregnancy Resource Center of Jefferson County (Pregnancy Helpline, Inc.) which uses the “Why kNOw” abstinence-only curriculum. The center is a private entity that receives funding through individual and private organizations. It was also one of the seven sub-grantees that received a portion of $182,619 in Title V funding last year.
Pregnancy Helpline, Inc. describes the curriculum as “a return to the ‘traditional’ values of this city, of this state, of this country,” according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States 2007 state profile. Pregnancy Helpline, Inc. is also a member of the Abstinence Clearinghouse and encourages virginity pledges, which have shown to delay sexual intercourse an average of 18 months, married or not.
Virginity pledges have been found to be ineffective when taken in large groups, and pledge participants are less likely to use condoms when they do choose to have sex and to be tested for STDs, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health, the official journal of the Society for Adolescent Medicine.
Koehler said virginity pledges are no guarantee of chaste behavior.
“What do is they modify the way they act sexually to fit perfectly the law that was laid down to them,” she said.
That’s a euphemism: Teens find a way to rationalize sexual behavior as not really sex, things like oral and anal intercourse. Technically, a young woman’s virginity may remain intact, but if she is engaged in those behaviors, her health and safety are not a given.
Because such topics are typically off-limits in abstinence-only education, Koehler said, teenagers never hear about the positive or negative effects of these behaviors.
Lloyd, a Louisville resident and mother of two, did not advocate her children having sex before marriage. She did think, though, that it was important for them to learn about their bodies and their sexuality so they would be prepared to handle any circumstances that arose.
“As a parent I have told my children who they are, what they are, what’s right, what’s wrong,” she said. “So what I want to be very careful of is not to short circuit their own thinking processes. I want them to be able to determine a course of action that is the most respectful of themselves and the people they care about.”
The Sexuality Information and Education Council’s 2007 state profile found that the Why kNOw curriculum contains some of these problematic traits, calling it “outdated, inaccurate and misleading,” and noting it completely excludes topics of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In addition, Why kNOw relies on negative messages, distorts information, and presents biased views of gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation and pregnancy options,” the report says.
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has spoken out against Title V, saying in an Associated Press story that “abstinence-only education seems to be a colossal failure.”
The statistics seem to back him up. According to SIECUS, in 2005, 45 percent of female and 48 percent of male Kentucky high school students said they have had sexual intercourse. That nearly matches national statistics from the same year, when 46 and 48 percent of high school students, respectively, admitted to having intercourse.
“No matter which education curriculum you have, there will always be kids that do well with the abstinence-only and kids that do poorly on the comprehensive,” said Koehler, of U of L. “That’s because there are many other factors. I think abstinence-only sex education will probably work better in a family that’s very supportive and has a very good father-daughter relationship. You don’t always have that.”
President Bush has proposed increasing abstinence-only funding to $204 million in fiscal 2008, up from $176 million the previous year. For the first five years Title V funding was available, every state but California chose to participate in the program. In the early ’90s, California had already conducted a study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only education using the Postponing Sexual Involvement curriculum — with no contraceptive component — and found it ineffective at decreasing teen pregnancy and STD rates, according to a study of evaluation results conducted by Advocates for Youth, a group that pushes broader sex education.
Today, several states are following suit and declining Title V funds, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, with many citing the eight-point educational requirements to be too restrictive. No one seems to expect Kentucky to follow suit anytime soon.
Contact the writer at