Realism in Sex Ed

Debra Haffner
March 1, 1998

As a sexuality educator, I am fond of asking adult audiences, “Would you relive your teen years?” Few individuals raise their hands. I then ask those adults who wish to repeat adolescence if they would want to do so in 1998. Even their hands go down.

Unfortunately, at a time when teens are arguably facing more difficult sexual issues than ever before, too many lack access to solid, realistic programs in their schools, churches and youth groups. And powerful adults are working hard to ensure they remain ignorant about sexual practices and protection.

Last year, these political forces created a new federal program as part of welfare reform that will deny young people information about sexuality and, in some states, lie to them about sexual issues.

The Abstinence Education Program is currently spending $88 million a year on programs that must teach young people that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” Given that nearly 90 percent of Americans first have intercourse outside of marriage, one has to wonder whose standard this is.

The program is also required to tell young people that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” There is no sound public health data to support this statement.

Perhaps most disturbing, because the new federal program, administered by the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health within HHS, is focused solely on promoting abstinence-until-marriage, educational efforts implemented with its funding cannot provide any information about contraception or prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Every state is implementing this program. It’s bad education and bad policy.
Research shows that the programs most effective in helping young people make responsible sexual decisions provide information about abstinence, while also teaching them how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease. Abstinence-only programs, by contrast, have yet to be shown to have an impact on a teenager’s initiation of intercourse.

Just last year, a $5 million evaluation of data from nearly 10,000 participants in California’s abstinence-only program, ENABL, found that it did not increase the number of young people abstaining and, in one school, more students who participated in the program subsequently began having intercourse than did young people who had not had this education.

Fear-based programs, whether for smoking, drug use or sexual activity, don’t work. The Sexuality and Information Council of the United States has identified more than a dozen abstinence-only programs as fear-based education.

For example, the Safe Sex slide show, part of the widely used Choosing the Best abstinence-only curriculum, shows students pictures of advanced sexually transmitted diseases without giving them any information about healthy bodies or STD prevention.
And Sex Respect, another abstinence-only program, teaches students slogans like “Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date” and “Do the Right Thing, Wait for the Ring” instead of helping them develop communications and negotiation skills that might truly enable them to handle sexual situations.

There is good evidence, however, that comprehensive approaches to sexuality education can help young people postpone intercourse. According to a recent review, No Easy Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, published last year by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, sexuality education programs that discuss both abstinence and contraception can significantly delay sexual activity or increase contraceptive use.

Unfortunately, a newly formed coalition of about 45 far right anti-sexuality education organizations, called the National Coalition for Abstinence Education, is issuing “report cards,” failing states for trying to avoid the most egregious aspects of the new federal abstinence-only program.

There’s no question that America’s young people need help abstaining from premature sexual relationships. But instead of telling them to “just say no,” we need to ensure that they have access to programs that teach them about dating, intimacy, sexual-limit setting, the benefits of abstinence and what it means to be involved in a healthy sexual relationship.

We owe our nation’s young people nothing less.

Debra Haffner is president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in New York City.

Haffner, Debra. "Realism in Sex Ed." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 63.

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