Apr 142005
Authors: Meg Burd

As examined last week, scientists, Congress members, human rights activists and others are deeply concerned that the recent push for "abstinence-only" programs are the only "sexual health" (I use that term loosely) programs currently being funded both in the United States and around the world.

These programs, in recent studies by Human Rights Watch, Rep. Henry Waxman of California and a variety of other organizations, have been found to not only present faulty information, but also fail in their efforts to prevent teen pregnancies or halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Particularly in places such as Texas, researchers are finding more and more that these programs are troubling for both their information and the ideas that they spread.

Texts used in many of the so-called "sex-ed" classrooms around the country today utilize what Bill Smith, vice president of the public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, refers to in a Washington Post article as "shame-based, fear-based, medically inaccurate messages."

"Abstinence-only" programs in places such as Texas only refer to protection and contraceptives such as condoms in reference to their failure rates.

"We don't discuss condom use, except to say that condoms don't work," said Dr. Kay Coburn, curriculum director for a Texas school district, in a recent Human Rights Watch report. Before "abstinence-only" programs, said one teacher in the report, "I could say 'If you're not having sex, that's great. If you are, you need to be careful and use condoms.'" Texas students interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported that they were not getting any information beyond the credo "don't have sex until marriage" in regards to preventing disease or unwanted pregnancy.

Besides ignoring condoms or other potentially useful information on diseases and protection, the curriculum used by 69 organizations in 25 states was found in an investigation by Rep. Waxman to contain not only glaring factual and misleading scientific errors, but it also presented gender stereotypes as scientific fact.

For instance, Waxman's investigators found that some of the texts cited "sweat and tears" as ways to transmit HIV/AIDS, something scientists say is false and could promote even more discrimination toward HIV patients. Similarly, one curriculum taught that women who have abortions "are more prone to suicide," and that 10 percent of them become sterile. This contradicts information in standard obstetrics textbooks, said Ceci Connolly in a Washington Post article.

As disturbing as these glaring errors are, texts such as "Choosing Best," popular course material, presented stereotypes that are sexist and troubling. The Waxman report found that many of the texts presented women as "weak" and in need of protection, and men as in need of "reassurance" and control. One text called "Choosing the Best" tells the story of a knight who attempts to slay a dragon, receiving advice from the princess on the best way to kill the dragon. This advice frustrates the knight and leaves him "ashamed" when her information solves the problem. He instead marries a village maiden, after finding she knows nothing of slaying dragons. The text concludes: "Moral of the story: Occasional suggestions and assistance are all right, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess."

These texts, and the "virginity pledges" now utilized by many schools (in which students are often asked to pledge, at an assembly, "to God" that they will remain chaste until marriage, Planned Parenthood reports) serve to not only limit information on potentially life-saving health matters, but also attempt to push the idea of marriage (and specifically a heterosexual union) as the only "correct" path.

Indeed, sexual activity outside of marriage is even referred to in draft U.S.-funded secondary school curriculum in Uganda as "a form of deviance." This becomes more problematic in that some of the curriculum implies that homosexuality is wrong and suggests parents of gay or lesbian children seek a therapist.

These flawed materials do not even seem useful at affecting teen sexual activity. "Unfortunately, despite spending more than $10 million on abstinence-only programs in Texas alone, this strategy has not been shown to be effective at curbing teen pregnancies or halting the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases," said the Union of Concerned Scientists in a recent report. Similarly, the "virginity pledges" were not effective, with 88 percent of those who take the pledge eventually having premarital sex, Columbia University researchers reported.

"Abstinence-only" programs are troubling for a number of reasons, as can be seen. Furthermore, as these young adults grow up, decisions about sexuality, marriage and sexual activity should be individual choices, and information will help with decisions about safety and sexual activity.

"This is high school health class – for many of these kids it's the last opportunity to get this kind of life-saving information," said Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network in the Christian Science Monitor. They need the information before it is too late.

Meg Burd is a graduate anthropology student. Her column runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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