As the author of this week’s feature story (brilliantly) lays out, there is a tremendous need for a high standard of comprehensive sex education in Louisville, Kentucky and America. Unfortunately, there are too few states that require any sex education (22), and even among those, the standards and substance are embarrassingly low and varied. The worst part is that some states still allow for abstinence-only programs, which have proven to not only be ineffective, but are, in fact, detrimental to students’ health and decision-making abilities, lead to riskier sexual behavior and demonstrate a significantly lower understanding of basic anatomy, sex and safe sex practices.
Kentucky is a state that permits abstinence-only programming. It needs to be changed immediately to require abstinence be only a part of a comprehensive sex-education requirement.
Back in April, while it should come as no surprise for this Congress, the House of Representatives increased funding for abstinence-only programs by about 50 percent (from about $50 to $75 million). And while the overall number of $75 million is not a lot in relation to the $3.7 trillion the federal government will spend this year, it is a huge amount of money when spent on programs that will be harmful, if not deadly, to Americans, and will end up costing more once society has to pay for the health and social support that result from those programs.
In 2013, teen pregnancies cost Kentucky taxpayers over $150 million in childbearing services. The total cost for all unintended pregnancies was over $370 million.
News comedian John Oliver, who hosts a weekly show on HBO, “Last Week with John Oliver,” did a feature piece on sex education in America (Aug. 9) in which he highlighted this exact issue. One of the abstinence-only programs called “No Screwing Around” is headed by a woman named Pam Stenzel. The programming, which is quite clearly advertised on her website (pamstenzel.com), has an overtly religious foundation and is notably nothing more than speaking seminars and videos — there are no identifiable teaching strategies or methods being implemented.
In one clip, Stenzel is seen yelling onstage during one of her presentations (presumably to an auditorium of teenage students). John Oliver points out comically and accurately, “Why are you trying to yell the horniness out of teenagers?” Think Progress published an article in April 2014 — “5 Offensive Analogies Abstinence-Only Lessons Use To Tell Teens Sex Makes Them Dirty” — which states, “Abstinence-only programs have received over $1.75 billion in federal funding since the creation of the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program, which was first attached to a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill.” It goes on to point out, “After funding ballooned under George W. Bush’s administration, President Barack Obama eliminated Title V when he first took office. But during the political fight over the health reform law, Republicans forced through an amendment to Obamacare that restored funding for abstinence programs.” These are the aforementioned programs.
While the grants are supposed to be directed toward programs that are “medically accurate,” it is not difficult to prove the medical benefits of abstinence, which is why teaching the benefits of abstinence should be part of a comprehensive curriculum. The problem is in the withholding of other information that would be invaluable should the abstinence-only concept fail, for which it has overwhelmingly demonstrated a propensity to do. This is due in part, as Think Progress points out, because “some of these courses also rely on harmful shame-based attitudes about human sexuality to impart negative messages to the 95 percent of Americans who have sex before marriage.”
One of the more heinous, offensive examples of an exercise in an abstinence-only program currently being implemented in Eastern Kentucky is the cup of spit. In this disgusting exercise, students pass around a cup in which each one will spit. After all the kids have spit in the cup, the teacher (or course director) will ask the class if anyone would choose to drink from that cup. This insane example is supposed to depict what happens to a woman if she has multiple sexual partners: how disgusting and unclean she is and how nobody wants her.
Think Progress explains, “One variation involves pouring the cups of spit into an empty glass pitcher placed next to a pitcher of clean water. Students are then asked which pitcher they would like their ‘future husband’ or ‘future wife’ to come from.”
Shame-based lessons are not effective or fact based, and they are not rooted in any commonly-accepted pedagogy. Real educators understand what resonates with children; true understanding cannot come from a stranger scaring teenagers away from wanting to have sex; meaningful learning experiences, particularly when addressing health, wellness and decision-making, must come from a comfortable, trusted source, whether that be a teacher, parent, friend, physician or any other ally.