As Governor of Texas, a born-again George W. Bush was unequivocal in his support for abstinence-only sex education. And when he became President he put the full weight of the federal government behind it, spending $1.5 billion trying to convince hormone-addled adolescents that self-denial was their only suitable standard of sexual behavior prior to marriage. The abstinence-only approach also encouraged, some say, “pressured,” teens to sign a pledge that they would remains virgins until marriage.
In order for schools to qualify for federal funding all other types of sexual and reproductive education, particularly those dealing with birth control and safe sex, had to be excluded from the curriculum. The use of contraceptives could be mentioned only to emphasize their failure rates — which often were grossly exaggerated.
An overwhelming majority of experts opposed the President’s program. In fact, abstinence-only education was officially criticized as unscientific and ineffective by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American College Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association.
The general public also was opposed to the abstinence-only approach. Even at the height of Bush's popularity, a solid majority of the public did not support it. In fact, fully 82 percent wanted other methods of preventing pregnancy taught, and a surprising 70 percent supported teaching kids how to use condoms properly.
If the experts were so opposed, who supported it? Many social conservatives did. But the Christian right, particularly televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, John Hagee and Pat Robertson, were its most passionate champions. They used their nationally televised pulpits to recklessly, and often falsely, attack existing sex education programming and promote the total abstinence approach.
Pat Robertson’s fulminations were typical. In one broadcast, for instance, he said, "Sexuality is a sacred thing. It is the creation of human life, made in the image of God. …. It isn't just something where you hook up with this one and then you hook up with that one. But, that's the message. It is on college campuses. It is in these schools, and the educators are buying into it. If you want to fix some of this you'll stop the teachers from pushing that thing that was going on -- I think it was a program called SIECUS by Mary Calderone and it must have been 30 or more years ago that was free sex and the whole thing. That's Planned Parenthood's plan -- to have kids have as many babies as they can, then we can start sterilizing them."
Where did such reckless charges originate? They were "borrowed" from an earlier, and very successful, religious right campaign against sex education that began in the 1960’s. Reverend Robertson was just inaccurately repeating an old discredited con.
OK, so both experts and the public weren't behind abstinence-only — the Christian right was. But experts, even an overwhelming majority of experts can be wrong. So can the general public. Maybe the program actually worked.
No, it was a bust. Research clearly demonstrates that abstinence-only had no enduring effect on teen’s sexual behavior. As a matter of fact, teens who took the much
publicized virginity pledge not only had sex just as often as those who didn’t; they also engaged in more far-more-dangerous substitutes and protected themselves less often from disease and unwanted pregnancy.
The facts are that almost 75 percent of U.S. teenagers have had sexual intercourse before they reach age twenty. American teens under fifteen also are more likely to have sex, and with more than one partner in a year, than teenagers in Sweden, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom. And the U.S. has the highest level of teen pregnancy of any developed nation—eight times higher than Holland and Japan, for example.
Disregarding these realities, Republican Party leaders adopted abstinence-only sex education as a component of their 2008 party platform. They also chose Sarah Palin, a particularly vigorous abstinence-only proponent, as their candidate for vice president. (Incongruously, Palin’s unmarried daughter was pregnant at the time.)
During the campaign the Republicans did their best to tap into America’s once-vast reservoir of sexual anxiety. A McCain TV ad claimed, for example, that Obama's “one accomplishment” as a congressman was a bill to teach sex education to kindergartners. But unlike previous eras in American history, this sexually sensational charge had little impact on voters. The Republicans lost in a landslide, and abstinence-only sex education went down with them.
The Obama administration’s first budget abolished almost all spending for abstinence-only, transferring the money to teen-pregnancy prevention instead. The director of the team that organizes White House domestic policy commented dryly that the sex education budget Obama sent to Congress, “reflects the research.”
Has ideologically inspired opposition to research-based sex education finally run its course? Is access to full and complete information about sexuality now broadly accepted as necessary for the nation’s youth? So it seems for the moment. But the US has a long history of sexual anxiety and repression, so only time will tell.
To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com