Abstinence-only sex education doesn't work — and its misleading curriculum might be illegal
In 2010, the Office of Adolescent Health established the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. Created under President Obama, the TPPP provides funding to evidence-based programs — including youth development and comprehensive sexual education — that help young people prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Eight years later, the TPPP still has wide public support. According to a 2017 poll, 85% of U.S. adults approve of its approach, largely because of how effectively it reached its goal of teaching teens how to make healthier decisions.
So then why does the Trump administration want to end funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program in favor of an abstinence-only approach that has been proven ineffective time and time again?
Despite the fact that the majority of adults believe teens should receive more information about comprehensive sexual education that includes birth control, STI information, and the benefits of delaying sex, the president continues to push forward a program that simply doesn’t work. In July 2017, his administration notified 81 institutions who were receiving funding from the TPPP that their five-year grants would end a full two years sooner than planned. In April 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services announced plans for a new teen pregnancy prevention program that focuses on “sexual risk avoidance” — a rebranding of “abstinence-only” education.
The lessons that students are taught in abstinence-only classes are harmful — not only because of their inaccuracies, but because of their shaming ideology. On June 9th, HuffPost published a report detailing faith-based anti-abortion groups that teach abstinence-only sex ed in public schools. Part of their curriculum includes comparing the body of someone who has had premarital sex to “chewed gum.” Elizabeth Smart, the anti-abstinence education advocate who survived kidnapping and rape as a teen, heard this same language in sex ed classes before her abduction. Smart has discussed how this exact ideology convinced her that, as a rape survivor, she was worthless. And she is not the only survivor who has been made to feel that way because of abstinence-only education.
Although there is overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence that abstinence-only programs do not work, the Trump White House is moving forward with its plan to emphasize teen pregnancy programs that encourage adolescents to wait until marriage for sex. Not only is this move ineffective, but according to researchers published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, it could also be unethical.
Let’s start with the basics: according to study after study, researcher after researcher, abstinence-only education fails to prevent teens from having sex.
Abstaining from sexual activity is, obviously, the most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and avoid STIs, but the truth is that most young people won’t abstain. In fact, the average age when a young person in the United States has sex for the first time is 17, while the average age for marriage is between approximately 27 to 30.
Numerous studies, surveys, and evaluations over the last several decades have proven that abstinence-only education does not actually result in abstinence among teens. What’s more, programs that promote sex avoidance until marriage don’t actually result in sex avoidance, nor does it help reduce rates of teen pregnancy or STIs among young people.
And while in recent years, the U.S. adolescent pregnancy rate has dropped significantly, it remains one of the highest in developed countries. Education plays a huge role in the decrease that has occurred — we can’t afford to take that education away.
According to the CDC, approximately 22 of every 1,000 American women between 15-19 years become pregnant and give birth. That means a little over 2% of American girls become teen mothers, a significantly higher rate than other Western industrialized nations, and the only Western teen pregnancy rate that includes significant racial and geographic disparities. In 2015, the birthrate of Hispanic teens was over twice as high as the rate for non-Hispanic white teens, while the birth rate for non-Hispanic Black teens was nearly twice the rate of non-Hispanic white teens.
Beyond unwanted pregnancies, teen boys and girls continue to be at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Every year, half of the 20 million new STIs reported occur in young people 15 to 24 years old. In 2016, approximately 21% of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. occurred in patients 13 and 14 years old.
If we want to reduce sexual risk behaviors in American teens, we need to provide them with the proper information. That means making sure they understand how STIs are transmitted, how to prevent them, and how to test for them. It also means ensuring that, should teens choose to engage in sexual activity, they understand the possible negative health outcomes and how to avoid them. Despite its deceptive name, “sexual risk avoidance education” fails to provide any of this information in its curriculum.
Beyond nonexistent lessons on STDs, STIs, sex, and contraception, sexual risk avoidance education — or abstinence-only education — leaves out crucial information about abuse, assault, and more.
That not only makes these programs ineffective, but unethical — and possibly illegal.
Federally funded abstinence-only education follows strict guidelines, the most important of which is having a program with the “exclusive purpose of teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.” These lessons on the supposed harmful psychological effects of fornication emphasize the importance of marriage and push a conservative values-based agenda. Research, medicine, and evidence-based science are removed from the curriculum. In fact, it purposely withholds important and medically-sound information about STIs, birth control, and pregnancy from a population of uninformed young people who need it most. Some investigations have even shown abstinence-only programs to contain “false, misleading or distorted information,” including incorrect, sexist, and even homophobic “facts” about HIV and abortion. Back in 2015, Judge Donald Black of the Fresno Superior Court ruled that “access to medically and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right” and abstinence-only education is in “violation of California law.”
The Trump administration may be committed to pushing their ineffective agenda, but there are plenty of people trying to stop them, including judges in Spokane and Washington, D.C.
In April, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of D.C. ruled that the recent cuts to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program were unlawful, and ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to continue to accept and process grant applications. A week later, Judge Thomas Rice of Spokane issued a permanent injunction preventing the administration from cutting grants to Planned Parenthood (who provide support to the TPPP in some Western states).
For now, at least, it seems like the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs are safe, but that doesn’t mean Trump’s fight for abstinence-only education is over. As the aforementioned HuffPost report shows, abstinence-only education is still making its way into public schools.
The facts are clear: everyone from parents and students to health professionals and educators support comprehensive sexual education, but let’s say it one more time for the folks in the back of the Oval Office:
Abstinence-only programs don’t work.
It’s time we told our representatives to stop wasting money on values-based programs that have no measurable effect, and start giving young people the information they need to stay safe and healthy.