April 19, 2010

Pandering to the Sexless

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Anyone who’s been remotely awake over the past year of healthcare-hell can see that our political system is broken. The ideological divide in this country is so vast that even the most auspicious, transformative politicians of our time struggle to transcend the Republican-Democrat blockade on Capitol Hill, leading to frustration, cattiness and legislative stagnation. Any bill that does manage to squeeze by the filibuster crusade is so watered-down that we end up asking ourselves: After all that kicking and screaming, this is the best they could do? Yet instead of condemning our political leaders for their pigheadedness and utter incompetence, we praise them for their commitment to bipartisanship — the political buzzword that triggers the green light (or more often, yellow light) on the Senate floor. The problem with this scenario is that reaching across the aisle has become so unbelievably difficult that a compromise is no longer a compromise, but rather blatant pandering. The most unfortunate part about this selling-of-souls is that more often than not, such bipartisan compromises are reached at the expense of the voiceless. In allocating $250 million to fund abstinence-only education, the health care bill does just that — taking a stab right into the heart (or more accurately, the genitals) of American youth.

Upon coming into office, the Obama administration eliminated more than $170 million in annual federal funding for abstinence-only programs based on a series of reports which found that such programs were ineffective. Favoring science over the wishful ideological thinking associated with the Bush-era, the White House launched a $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative with the stipulation that it would only fund programs that have been shown scientifically to work. Yet this victory was short-lived, as the Senate healthcare bill has since restored funding for abstinence-only education. While there are numerous problems with this decision, not limited to the likely increase in teen pregnancy rates and spread of STDs, what bothers me most is that sex education has nothing to do with health insurance. Instead of debating actual healthcare issues and trying to find common ground there, Republicans tacked on abstinence-only education to the bill to pander to Evangelical tea-party groupies, and the Democrats said: Sure, why not? — so long as this bill passes. How many middle-schoolers are actually following the healthcare circus in Washington anyway?

Proponents of abstinence-only education point to a recent study published in February in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which found that sex education emphasizing abstinence can delay sexual activity amongst adolescents more than contraception-based education. Despite the hundreds of other studies which concluded just the opposite — abstinence-only programming is ineffective in stopping teens from having sex — advocates have jumped the gun, heralding this study as “game-changing.” Yet the problem with interpreting this one study as the ultimate deciding factor in the battle of abstinence versus contraception is that sex education is not a zero-sum game. There’s a big difference between giving kids a promise ring and telling them to stay pure till marriage and throwing condoms in the air with the hope that a 15-year-old boy with braces will remember to “wrap up” before he loses it in the back of his mom’s station wagon. This absurd dichotomy exists because we allow it to, but sex ed doesn’t have to be this way. The goal should be about information — accurate information — and ensuring that American teens know the facts — the good, the bad and the ugly (pictures). However, such fact-based education programs must be based on, well … facts.

In the spirit of facts, I took a closer look at this “landmark” abstinence-only study and found that the curriculum used differs significantly from the standard abstinence program. Principally, the pilot-curriculum stayed clear of the religious, moralistic tone associated with the once federally-funded Silver Ring Thing abstinence program. Furthermore, the program encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, but not necessarily until marriage, and did not denounce sex outside marriage or discredit condoms. The study measured outcomes through self-reporting — reason alone to question its validity — and was limited to a 24-month period. Therefore, it remains unclear how long the sixth-and seventh-graders in the program will delay sex and whether they will use protection when they eventually do become sexually active, a common critique of abstinence programs.

In light of this analysis, I am skeptical about how this study could facilitate funding for abstinence-only education. While the study may meet the scientific-evidence requirement stipulated by the Obama administration, the study’s results cannot be extended to traditional abstinence-only programs. To receive federal funding for abstinence programming under Title V of the Social Security Act, the program must teach that a “mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.” The pilot-program, though it encouraged abstinence, was not strictly abstinence-only and does not meet the federal regulations. Twisting the study to make it appear as scientific evidence to back truly abstinence-only programs is unethical and a threat to teenage health.

To me, the real issue comes down to the divisive paradigm in which we attempt (barely) to talk about sex and sex education. Despite our Puritanical ethics, Americans have sex just like everybody else in the world. And whether we want to believe it or not, American teenagers have sex too — 46 percent of them. So if everybody does it, why is this thing called sex so hush-hush that no one can talk about it? This three-letter word is so taboo that the healthcare bill refers to funding for non-abstinence-only sex education as “personal responsibility education” — as if the word sex alone will cause hormonal teenagers to strip down in the classroom. Can you imagine such a sugar-coated program title in Europe?

Ultimately, safe sex is about communication. It’s a lack of communication more than a lack of morals that contributes to the US having the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. And in my view, it’s also why one in two sexually active youth will contract an STD before 25. These statistics are real and scary and must be talked about. Facts must transcend the religious and moral divides and repair our broken political system. Teenagers — however annoying, hormonal and irresponsible they can be — are not voiceless political pawns. The youth is the future and they deserve to know the facts.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte