The Osseo Public School District is in most ways a typical Minnesota suburban system: three high schools, scores of athletic teams, and a graduation rate of 94 percent. But for the past ten years, it has run a dual-track curriculum in sexuality education. Students can choose between an abstinence-only health class and a comprehensive sexuality education class—the result of a prolonged, and expensive, debate among community members of the district’s human sexuality curriculum advisory committee.
While ending in a “compromise” of maintaining two separate classes that cost over $100,000 for abstinence textbooks and curriculum planning, the debate resulted in a school board decision that defined sex as something that happens between a husband and wife.1 The split in Osseo is emblematic of the national stand-off on how the subject should be taught.
Sexuality education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield is public education. It is no coincidence that the struggle happens in schools. Public education has long been recognized as a major tool in imparting more or less universally accepted societal values such as hard work and civic engagement, but it also sparks debates over the value of competition, individualism, and unquestioned patriotism. Because schools define what knowledge is useful for the populace, the arena of schools is the locale for “ideological management,” according to educational philosopher Joel Spring.2
Struggles over what should be taught and who gets to learn it are as old as public schools. Teaching the German language was prohibited in schools during World War I. Conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler were famous for five decades beginning in the 1960s as their homegrown Education Research Analysts group deeply influenced the content of Texas textbooks. Controversy over the constitutionality of school prayer was heightened in the 1950s and early’60s as proponents sought to protect the country from godless communism. Recent debates over evolution, bilingual education, the celebration of multiculturalism, the teaching of Arabic, and LGBT rights all reflect controversies about appropriate topics, activities, and services in public schools.
With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, concerns about teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), health and family life education classes have been scrutinized by forces wanting to insert their perspectives into the curriculum. The battle over sexuality education has settled into two polarized camps, much like Osseo’s classes. Sexuality education is just one link in a long line of power struggles over who determines what is taught; the opposing frames in this case are public health and conservative values.
There is widespread agreement that teaching adolescents, especially younger teens, to postpone sexual intercourse is a good idea, but what that teaching entails is controversial. Abstinence-only education advises students to abstain from all pre- or extra-marital sex and deliberately omits factual information on such topics as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. A favorite theme is the unreliability, and resulting danger, of condoms. Comprehensive sexuality education, on the other hand, includes education on abstinence but emphasizes that if a person is sexually active, they need knowledge and skills about a wide range of topics, including contraception and abortion, to make informed decisions and stay healthy. Many abstinence-only education supporters occasionally call their approach “abstinence-until-marriage” education and brand comprehensive sexuality education as “condom-based” or “pro-sex.”
Although there is scant evidence showing the effectiveness of abstinence-only education over time, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on the strategy.3 This sum supports three annual multi-million-dollar federal grant programs, grantees, and a lobbying infrastructure that works hard on Capitol Hill. Although a majority of states refuse to accept what has come to be called “abstinence-only money” and have opted out of the state-based grant program, this development has apparently only served to stir the resolve of abstinence-only supporters and their backlash campaigns.4
Responding to the demands of abstinence-only lobbyists, the federal government enacted its own eight-point definition of abstinence education which mandates the design for all federally funded abstinence-only programs. One point defines abstinence as a program that “teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children.”5 Yet in an era when 95 percent of Americans engage in pre-marital sex,6 promoting abstinence as an educational goal seems unrealistic. Further, abstinence-only ideology ignores the reality of LGBT sexuality, including the estimated three-to-five percent of high schools students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.7 Materials advance gender stereotypes of men’s rampant, uncontrollable sex drive, which purportedly must be kept in check by women’s adherence to their natural chastity and purity.8 A disturbing amount of “blame the victim” mentality appears in abstinence-only curricula, which relieves men of the responsibility for acting upon their “natural urges,” even violently, and puts the onus on women and girls to “wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.”
Nevertheless, abstinence education supporters are on a mission to reduce sexual activity not only for school-aged students but for unmarried adults as well. In 2006, they successfully lobbied to extend the target age range of funded programs beyond adolescents to age 29. In hearing the news of the revised guidelines, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports comprehensive sexuality education, said,
They’ve stepped over the line of common sense….To be preaching abstinence when 90 percent of people are having sex is in essence to lose touch with reality. It’s an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with public health.9
Why Do They Think That Way?
The spokespeople for abstinence-only education represent a core constituency that sees sexuality through a very conservative religious lens. Reacting against what they see as the degradation of culture by modern values, conservative Protestant evangelicals seek the codification of strictly traditional values as they read them in scripture. To these fundamentalists, a literal reading of the Bible is sufficient to learn how to act responsibly in all areas of life.
They are joined by conservative Roman Catholics in the belief that sexual behavior is defined as fidelity in heterosexual marriage, and any veering from that path is considered sinful. Such sin results in the ultimate punishment, separating the believer from God, or damnation. So for fundamentalist Protestants, it is not only necessary to avoid such a fate oneself; preventing others, especially children, from committing sexual sins is an act of compassion and responsibility that will save them, too, from eternal hell. This is for them the essence of evangelizing the Good News. Hence the belief that it is not only acceptable, but necessary, to set standards in public education that conform to these beliefs. Add to this the idea that parents have a special obligation to protect their own children from eternal harm, and you have a style that is recognizable in its stridency and self-righteousness.
These fundamentalists and others who are mobilized to political action, the Christian Right, are about 15 percent of voting public. This group of Christians wields greater power than its size might suggest. It can make or break elections in certain key districts by getting out the vote. But in the case of abstinence-only education, strategists have made certain key choices that have extended the appeal of their message far beyond their core.
Abstinence-only framers talk in coded language that appeals to their conservative base plus resonates with a wider swath of evangelical Christians. When churches sponsor an alternative to the school prom called the “Purity Ball,” they can trigger a reaction to how American culture has sexualized the rituals of adolescence. Social conservatives who are uncomfortable with the fast pace of modern life can be attracted to the concept. A spokesperson recommending True Love Waits, the Southern Baptist Convention’s abstinence education program, reminds parents, “The world is coming after our middle schoolers like never before. As parents we must equip them to become lights in a dark world.”10 A real coup is getting the President to use coded words like “culture of life” and references to abstinence in the same sentence, as Bush did in 2007, speaking before the Southern Baptist Convention:
This approach to sexuality education can have appeal among an even larger group of people, those who may base their political opinions on nonreligious principles. They might harbor a mild distrust of how the government spends their money. After all, public education is the largest program financed mainly by local taxation. They may be disappointed with reports about the state of public schools and the lackluster results of the latest federal push for educational reform, the No Child Left Behind Act. And they would be persuaded by secular arguments based on reason and scientific evidence of the need to intervene in a public health crisis such as high rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-only education advocates have deployed this scientific sounding approach for over twenty years.
Borrowing a Public Health Frame
Despite the fact that abstinence-only education is rooted in conservative religious principles, many of the arguments abstinence-only educators use with the general public are secular ones that appear to use logic and scientific principles. Mary Beth Bonacci, chastity educator and founder of an abstinence promotion website Real Love Incorporated, refers to a flawed study by Dr. Susan Weller rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1993 when she states,
The AMA Journal did a study using condoms—30 percent failure rate in preventing AIDS transmission. You’d say, “70 percent were safe, that’s not bad.” But is it safe when death is the option? Would you fly an airline that had only a 30 percent failure rate?12
Choosing the Best is a set of abstinence education curricula for grades seven through twelve that meets federal guidelines for abstinence-only funding. Choosing the Best PATH, for grade seven, also focuses on alleged condom unreliability:
Couples who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate of about 15 percent in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms used as birth control.13
Of course the “failure” rate is due to inconsistent condom use, a common result of inadequate training, rather than to the average two percent condom breakage rate. In addition, the statement calculates probability incorrectly, resulting in a highly misleading—but scientific sounding— message.
Some programs use fear to motivate students to promote abstinence. A middle school student handbook from the FACTS program reads:
Comprehensive sexuality education has successfully used the public health approach, which defines a health problem, identifies risk, and designs interventions based on the science of epidemiology. Since abstinence-only education often attempts to hide its ideological perspective, abstinence-only spokespeople will co-opt public health vocabulary in their rebuttals in order to sound “scientific.” In answering the question, “Is Choosing the Best medically accurate?” its promotional materials state,
The Medical Institute for Sexual Health tries to legitimize the abstinence-only message in a medical framework. This organization was founded in 1992 by Joe McIlhaney, a gynecologist and social conservative who jumped on the early (and since disproven16) test results that condoms do not protect against HPV, human papillomavirus. A section of its website on HPV includes minimally accurate medical information but adds an abstinence message:
Am I safe if I always use a condom?
If you always use condoms for vaginal sex, you can cut your chance of getting HPV by about half. [Actually, it’s about a 70 percent reduction in risk compared to non-condom users. (author)] To date, there is no evidence that condoms reduce your chance of getting HPV during oral or anal sex.
What can I do to avoid getting infected?
Avoid sexual activity if you are single. Be faithful to one uninfected partner for the rest of your life. Already had sex? See a doctor and get checked out.17
As with other Christian Right campaigns, abstinence-only educators repeat unsubstantiated or misleading claims until they not only become a substitute for reality for the speakers but are accepted as facts by their audience. For instance, the condom industry and the government use scientific testing such as inflating and stretching condoms until they break. Those who oppose condom use on the grounds it would encourage sexual activity and act as a contraceptive argue that condoms are not reliable, using these tests or altered statistics as evidence. For over twenty years, abstinence-only educators have repeated the misleading claims that condoms are undependable, refining the basic message to respond to counter arguments from scientists and proponents of condom use. If sex can’t be “safe,” it must be dangerous, goes the argument.
The Measure of Success
Proponents of abstinence-only education would like to tout their success using the same methods that other public health prevention programs do, and they have tried their best to do so by promoting their own studies. But public health researchers have disputed the claims made in support of abstinence-only programs. Those claims of success have been generated mostly by a single evaluation company, The Institute for Research and Evaluation, run by Stan Weed, a Mormon researcher, out of his home. Weed has over 20 years experience working with faith-based interventions and abstinence education and has evaluated over 100 abstinence-only programs in thirty states. He is the major scholarly defender of abstinence-only education, so it is important to note that critics such as William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have already debunked his studies:
Stan Weed… interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100 abstinence-only programs. Okay, it sounds impressive… until you learn that Weed has just one peer reviewed and published study in a refereed journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have a modest impact among seventh graders in delaying sex.18
Contradicting Weed’s findings, a federally sponsored multiyear evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research demonstrated that abstinence-only programs did not have an effect on sexual abstinence of youth.19 Comprehensive sexuality education advocates see this report, released in April 2007, as a vindication of their efforts.
The scientific studies have not stopped the wave. Abstinence education is a tool of ideological management that is now well established in American culture and social policy. We can identify those elements that have helped to institutionalize the campaign. What began as isolated projects by individuals in the 1980s has grown into an elaborate network of people, places, and paraphernalia. Over 900 federally funded programs now exist,20 generating new and revised curricula, videos, and training materials, as well as supporting instructors, administrators and the organizations to house them.
The federally funded infrastructure includes parachurch ministries like Focus on the Family, crisis pregnancy centers, advocacy organizations like the Abstinence Clearinghouse, technical assistance centers for dealing with federal grants, and even a trade organization with a lobbying presence in Washington, the National Abstinence Education Association. While the level of federal funding for abstinence education has not reached that of another school-based prevention program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education or DARE, which hit the $1 billion per year mark in 2001,21 it has come a long way toward being institutionalized.
Federal funding for abstinence programs began with the passage of the American Family Life Act (AFLA) in 1981 granting a modest $4 million for “chastity” programs for teens, a response to family planning efforts to prevent teen pregnancies. With annual increases since 1997 and the establishment of two other grants programs, including sizable sums for community-based programs ($113 million in 2007), federal funding has totaled over $1.5 billion, financing a well-heeled abstinence education industry.22 Without this support, abstinence-only programs would not be as commonly used as they are today (in about 25 percent of schools, according to their supporters).
A Small Circle of Friends
The use of abstinence education has indeed increased over the past 25 years, not only as a direct consequence of federal funding but due also to friends in high places. When George W. Bush was running for President in 1999, he stated, “My administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal.”23 He and others in Congress and in federal government positions have made good on that promise.
In 2007, The Nation ran an exposé of a small circle of friends and their sizable harvest of federal dollars through the abstinence-only funding streams at the federal level.24 In it, author Michael Reynolds chronicles how a single abstinence advocate, Raymond Ruddy, has spent millions of dollars supporting his favorite abstinence-only programs, crisis pregnancy centers, and other parachurch ministries, while simultaneously lobbying Washington to increase its flow of federal dollars to these same groups. His colleagues include Wade Horn, the influential marriage promotion advocate with the National Fatherhood Initiative and the Department of Health and Human Services. Their appointments in both the federal government and organizations close to Ruddy help keep what Reynolds calls the “faith-based feeding trough.”
A recipient of AFLA funds has been the Best Friends Foundation, a character and abstinence education program founded in 1987 by Elayne Bennett, wife of William Bennett, who was Secretary of Education at the time. Ms. Bennett’s success in fundraising in both the private and public domains is evidenced by Best Friends’ ability to continue to raise over $1 million a year in government grants and private help from individuals and the conservative Richard DeVos, William Simon, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations.25 The founder of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, Joe McIlhaney, Jr., an evangelical gynecologist and board member of Best Friends, was appointed to key posts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as advisor to the Director and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. The Institute received $250,000 as a special federal earmark grant in 2004 for its abstinence education research.
Abstinence-only education will remain force, no matter what level of funding its programs receive because there are enough anxious parents, monied investors, and conservative evangelicals to continue to make grassroots demands on the schools. But support for abstinence-only programs will continue to be a viable political campaign only if its followers continue to be mobilized, and there are plenty of reasons why conservative strategists might want to do so.
Supporters tend to be more than single-issue voters, and clusters of followers are also anti-abortion, pro-marriage, or anti-gay, making them potentially responsive to one or more of these culture war issues. Socially conservative organizing is alive and well around these issues, with groups like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and other energetic faith-based organizations maintaining their influence and energizing their base.
In a recent move, The National Abstinence Education Association launched a new “parents” initiative, Parents For Truth, with a $1 million campaign in June 2008. It is the trade association’s public service announcement and signature-gathering campaign to discredit comprehensive sexuality education. Misusing information from an HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum about the relative risk of various behaviors for HIV transmission, designed for African American males aged 12-16, the group’s first video depicts a suburban mother of what looks to be a ten-year-old girl horrified at the content of her daughter’s health class.26
Finally, the policymaking infrastructure is in place. Members of the Pro-Life Caucus in Congress remain powerful enough to influence their Democratic colleagues on key legislative votes, even to influence liberals to support programs they disagree with. Abstinence-only’s infrastructure was further strengthened when curriculum designer and executive director of the Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Scott Phelps, founded a D.C. lobbying group and trade association, the National Abstinence Education Association in 2006 with Valerie Huber as its Executive Director. This group has become the centralized voice of abstinence-only education: state-level coalitions of community-based groups, most of which are crisis pregnancy centers with abstinence-only programs, feed into the national organization and depend upon it for marketing the message of abstinence.
On the other side, groups like the 140- member National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education and its leadership at SIECUS have worked hard for years to counter the misleading claims of abstinence-only spokespeople, and their levelheaded influence must be acknowledged.
And in opposition to pro-abstinence education lobbyists, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have sponsored the Responsible Education About Life Act (REAL), which is intended to counter the Bush administration’s success in establishing abstinence-only education as the only federally sanctioned sexuality education. This would reflect the results of a 2004 poll that showed parents supporting comprehensive sexuality education, including 94 percent supporting teaching about contraception and pregnancy prevention.27 Hopes for passage of this bill remain high, although the current legislation has gone nowhere since March of 2007.
Other members of Congress, like the California Democrat Henry Waxman, have been leaders in criticizing federal support for abstinence-only education,28 and the first Congressional hearing on federal funding for such programs took place in April 2008. Abstinence advocate Stan Weed was the only witness identified by the Republican minority to defend the science of abstinence-only education. His testimony focused not on the success of abstinence-only programs but on the methodological limitations of evaluations of comprehensive sexuality education curricula. When he was accompanied by a lobbyist, Valerie Huber from the National Abstinence Education Association, rather than another researcher, he looked especially vulnerable.29
Along with a counteroffensive from a Democratic Congress, the campaign faces a loss of its federal leaders. Wade Horn, former assistant secretary at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, best known as the Bush administration’s architect of marriage promotion as a solution to poverty, was the administration’s chief supporter of abstinence-only education. He now works in the private sector for Deloitte.
In 2005, Karl Rove brought to HHS a fierce welfare reformer and anti-abortion and pro-abstinence official, Claude Allen, who targeted comprehensive sexuality education groups and arranged for Advocates for Youth, a premier progressive sexuality education organization, to be audited multiple times.30 Allen lasted just over a year, before being arrested for theft related to a petty fake refund scam of retailers.31
Leslee Unruh, head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, was a teen mother herself and the founder of Alpha crisis pregnancy center in South Dakota. She spearheaded the 2006 campaign to ban all abortions in that state. However, according to William Smith, her shrill TV presence may have made her a liability for the abstinence-only cause.32
Despite these promising changes at the national level, abstinence-only education continues to be powered through strong support at the state level from state and local politicians, and abstinence-only coalitions marketing their perspective to parents and school personnel. Liberal strategies promoting state versions of the REAL Act, supporting well-informed, responsible teens through comprehensive sexuality education, are thus as vital as vigilance in the nation’s Capitol.
Keeping a conservative campaign on the defensive is not the same as a decisive victory over it. Every tactic used to support comprehensive sexuality education has so far been met with corresponding counter-tactics. Winning a battle in the culture wars takes more energy and resources than merely being in the right.
Read the sidebar, “Christian Right Pushes Abstinence-Only Education Internationally.”
- Sharon Lerner, “The Sex Ed Divide,” American Prospect, September 23, 2001.
- Joel Spring, The American School: 1642-2004 (6th ed.) (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).
- “Abstinence Education: Efforts to Assess the Accuracy and Effectiveness of Federally Funded Programs,” Report to Congressional Requesters (Washington, D.C.: Government Accountability Office) October 2006; Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Ken Forston, Lisa Quay, Justin Wheeler, and Melissa Clark, Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs (Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research) April 2007; see National Abstinence Education Association at www.abstineneceassociation.org.
- Kevin Freking, “States Turn Down U.S. Abstinence Education Grants,” Boston Globe, June 24, 2008.
- Social Security Act §510 (b)(2) (codified at 42 U.S.C. §710 (b)(2).
- Lawrence B. Finer, “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” Public Health Reports, 55 (January-February 2007), 73-78.
- Most states do not keep records on adolescent sexual identity, but the CDC’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is a reliable source of information. The pre-published results for the 2007 Massachusetts YRBS provides us with this estimate.
- Julie Kay, with Ashley Jackson, Sex, Lies &Stereotypes: How Abstinence-Only Programs Harm Women and Girls (New York: Legal Momentum), January 2008
- Sharon Jayson, “Abstinence Message Goes Beyond Teens,” USA Today, October 31, 2006, at http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-10-30-abstinence-message_x….
- Rachel Lovingood,“Something to Talk About,” True Love Waits, Southern Baptist Convention, www.lifeway.com/tlw/parents/lwt.asp
- Tim Ellsworth, “Bush Thanks Southern Baptists,” Baptist Press, June 13, 2007.
- Mary Beth Bonacci, “Excerpts from Vital Sign Ministries Chastity Events”. The CDC has stated, “Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.”
- Choosing the Best PATH Leader Guide, p. 18, as quoted in “Abstinence-Only_until_Marriage Programs in Alabama,” (SIECUS: New York, 2008) 10.
- Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS), Middle School Handbook (Portland, OR: Northwest Family Services, 2000) 50.
- “Setting the Record Straight: About Abstinence Education and Choosing the Best.”
- King K. Holmes, et al. “Effectiveness of Condoms in Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, (82) 6, June 2004.
- “Fact Sheets for Teens: Human Papilloma Virus,” Medical Institute for Sexual Health.
- William Smith, “Hearing Highlights Ab-Only Industry in Peril,” RH Reality Check Blog [Internet], April 30, 2008.
- Christopher Trenholm et al, “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs,” Mathematica Policy Research, April 2007, http://www.mathematica-mpr.com / publications/PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf.
- This is a claim on an abstinence-only website for Project Reality: http://wwwprojectreality.org/news/index.php?newsid=53.
- Edward M. Shepard III, “The Economic Costs of D.A.R.E.,” Institute of Industrial Relations, Research paper #22, at http://www.reconsider.org/issues/ education/economic_costs_of_d.htm.
- Marcela Howell and Marilyn Keefe, “The History of Abstinence-Only Funding,” (Washington, D.C.: Advocates for Youth, 2007).
- George W. Bush. The True Goal of Education. [Speech at Gorham, NH, Tuesday, November 2, 1999].
- Michael Reynolds, “The Abstinence Gluttons,” The Nation, June 18, 2007.
- Best Friends Foundation 990 form, 2006; Media Transparency, “William E. Simon Foundation,” http://www.mediatransparency.org/recipientsoffunder.php?funderID=30; Jeff Sklansky, “D.C. Students Learn To Say ‘No’ to Sex; 75 Girls Graduate From Pilot Program,” Washington Post, June 4,1988, G3.
- www.parentsfortruth.org/video/index.php? code=OHENL
- Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, and Harvard University. Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey. Menlo Park, CA: The Foundation, 2004.
- “The Content of Federally-Funded Abstinence-Only Educational Programs,” report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman and the United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, December 2004.
- William Smith, “Hearing Highlights Ab-Only Industry in Peril,” RH Reality Check, April 30, 2008.
- Doug Ireland, “The Bush Theocracy,” LA Weekly, January 13, 2005, http://www.laweekly.com/news/news/ the-bush-theocracy/1059/.
- Ernesto Londofio and Michael A. Fletcher, “Former Top Bush Aide Accused of Md. Thefts,” Washington Post, March 11, 2006.
- Telephone conversation with the author, May 22, 2008.