Should We Be Teaching Sex Education or
THE speaker at the microphone was outraged, and determined to speak his mind: Abstinence
until marriage was the only sexeducation that the Westbrook, Maine, school district needed to
teach. Tell students to wait until marriage, he said. Tell them that only abstinence is a guarantee
against unwanted pregnancies. Tell them that only abstinence can keep them safe from sexually
But don't tell students about contraceptives. Otherwise, he argued, "You are challenging our
children to give up on virginity."
That was hardly the message intended by the Westbrook school committee as it considered
revamping the eighth-grade health curriculum this spring. But critics of the
new sex education lessons believed they saw moral anarchy at work, and they voiced that
opinion stridently, so much so that officials had to turn off the microphone and escort one
protester from the building.
"It early on got a little bit crazy," recalls committee chairwoman Colleen Hilton. Several speakers
"got quite loud, quite difficult. We actually had to recess one meeting several times."
Sex education has always been fraught with controversy. But the discord in Westbrook is
noteworthy because of the vocal support for an abstinence-only curriculum approach
to sex education that's reshaped the national debate over the issue--and, to an extent often
overlooked, has influenced education policy at all levels of government.
Finding the Devil
On its face, abstinence education isn't controversial. Who is going to argue against telling kids to
hold off on sexual activity? Public opinion polls show Americans overwhelmingly in favor
of schools delivering that message. And lawmakers are listening. At least 27 states now have
policies stressing abstinence in sex education courses, and 14 more mandate that abstinence
But the devil is in the details, leading to an occasionally bruising policy debate over whether the
abstinence message should be accompanied by other information on human sexuality. A
powerful coalition of conservative politicians and their religious allies is lobbying for a very
basic sex ed program: promote chastity, and limit the discussion about contraceptives to talk of
their failure rates.
Advocates for this model are sharply critical of "comprehensive" sex education, arguing that
discussions about contraception, sexual orientation, or other controversial topics can encourage
sexual experimentation by sending students mixed signals about what's expected of them.
Matters might well have remained simmering at the local level--an occasional headache
for school boards unlucky enough to be dragged into a controversial community debate--but for a
little-publicized provision of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Slipped into the legislation by
conservative supporters, the provision created a $50-million-a-year grant program--with the
money available to schools that agreed to limit their sex education to a strict abstinence-untilmarriage message.
A movement--federally funded--was born. It received a tremendous boost by the election of
President George W. Bush, who vowed to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to
an urgent goal." By 2006, Bush had expanded the grant program's budget to $206 million
annually, and the total federal investment in abstinence-only education since 1998 had topped
There's an old political adage that money is policy. States and local school districts soon found a
way to put federal funds to work, and the abstinence-only movement began to gain momentum.
According to the Gutt-macher Institute, a nonprofit organization dealing with reproductive health
issues, 35% of school districts today with sex education policies limit instruction to an
abstinence-until-marriage message, with little or no discussion of contraception.
Such success--by an educational philosophy that has come under attack for being ideologically
driven, its effectiveness unsupported by research, and guilty of providing inaccurate public health
information to children--is both demoralizing and infuriating to many education and public health
organizations that stand in opposition. Nearly half of students engage in sexual activity before the
age of 19, they argue. How can schools be asked to leave students ill prepared to protect
themselves once they're sexually active?
"Abstinence-only programs keep teens in the dark and do nothing to help parents protect their
children's health," says Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "We must
support education programs … that include information about abstinence as well as
contraception, healthy communication, responsible decision making, and prevention of sexually
So why has the abstinence movement done so Well? Money is an attractive incentive. There also
is a sizable conservative and religious segment of the population with a voice in local
communities, state government, and Congress. Yet even those factors may not fully explain
Perhaps a piece of the puzzle rests with people like Joneen Krauth-Mackenzie and Kevin Riley.
Krauth-Mackenzie is executive director of the WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) Training Organization,
a Denver-based nonprofit organization that has expanded its abstinence-focused training and
curricula across the nation.
When she talks to people, they hear a thoughtful, professional argument about
why sex education policies need to take a more holistic view of what students are going through-their need to understand what a healthy relationship is like, how to deal with social pressures
that influence sexual behavior, the ways that alcohol and drugs can affect decision making, and
that there is nothing wrong with deciding they're just not ready for sex.
Krauth-Mackenzie questions why a strong message to abstain until marriage comes across as
parochial or old-fashioned. If you think about it, she says, most people would agree
that sex within marriage is the healthiest and most emotionally satisfying--and is society's ideal.
So why not make that the standard?
Any Delay is Good
"We might not get kids to marriage," she admits. But any delay in sexual activity could influence
"the number of partners they have, cause them to be more selective in their partners, cause them
to use contraceptives well, and they know, the risk they're putting themselves in."
It's an articulate, well-argued message, and it plays well in the heartland of America.. It certainly
won over Kevin Riley, superintendent of the Nebraska's Gretna Public Schools, who was
uncomfortable with the comprehensive approach to sexeducation. As he puts it, teaching
students about "their plumbing" wasn't making a dent in the community's rate of teen pregnancies
or instances of sexually transmitted diseases.
Listening to WAIT representatives, he says, school officials and community members were
swayed by arguments that teaching students about contraceptives sent out mixed signals. "We
would never do that with alcohol and drugs," Riley says. "We wouldn't say, 'We know you drink,
so use a designated driver. We know you use drugs, so be careful.' In regards to sexuality, we
have said, 'Use the condom.' That's the basis of sexuality education in our society."
Stories like this explain why the Sexuality Information and Education Council of
the United States (SIECUS), in its last annual report, said that the year "has been an uphill
battle" in the fight against abstinence-only curricula. But public policy in America is a lot like a
pendulum, and eventually, a pendulum swings back toward the center.
Sometimes forgotten in the policy debate is that evidence suggests most Americans want a
balanced sex educationcurriculum. An abstinence message? Yes. But, according to the
Guttmacher Institute, 94% of parents also say that "sexeducation should cover contraception."
Much the same message ultimately swayed the Westbrook school committee when it voted on
the new middle schoolcurriculum. While abstinence-only advocates won headlines, and the town
was flooded with leaflets and fliers with misleading allegations about the curriculum's message,
the majority of townspeople--at public meetings, by e-mail, in personal conversations--told
committee members that they "were heading in the right direction," Hilton says. The revamped
curriculum will emphasize abstinence but will provide age-appropriate information about
contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
To maintain its momentum, the abstinence-only movement needs to convince more Americans
that abstinence-focused curricula will help delay teen sexual activity and limit unwanted
pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. But there may be a problem: There's a paucity of
research showing that the abstinence-only message works.
Abstinence supporters will strenuously argue otherwise, producing a stack of reports, documents,
and monographs six feet tall attesting to the effectiveness of their approach. And that material
has muddied the waters considerably for policymakers seeking good data to guide them.
One respected researcher in the field, Douglas Kirby at ETR Associates, a California-based
nonprofit research group, has looked at all the reports. In reality, he says, there is very little
research that looks specifically at abstinence-only programs and uses appropriate methodology,
such as control groups, to ensure reliable conclusions about their effectiveness.
Of these, the findings are mixed. One strong study of an abstinence-only program revealed that it
did delay the initiation of sex among preteens, but that program did not meet the federal
guidelines for abstinence only programs; it simply did not talk about condoms. Three other good
studies of other abstinence-only programs did not demonstrate a delay in sex. Thus, it cannot be
said definitively that an abstinence-only approach works.
Where the research does give clear direction, however, is on the effectiveness of an abstinence
message coupled with age-appropriate, good information about contraception and other public
health issues related to sexuality, he says. These programs typically reduce sexual activity and/or
increase condom or other contraceptive use. "It's absolutely clear that talking about abstinence
but also encouraging contraception use is not inconsistent. It's not a message that confuses
For now, the Bush Administration is willing to hold its policy course--and wait. Wade Horn,
assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS), says more research is needed before drawing conclusions--and all will become
clear in time. "More work needs to be done."
But is time on the side of the abstinence movement? The results of this year's congressional
races could shake things up, particularly as there are signs within Congress of percolating
discontent with the policies of the administration.
In 2004, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a report that blasted some of the nation's
most successful abstinence curricula for containing medical inaccuracies about Contraceptives
and the risks of sexual activity, perpetuating old-fashioned stereotypes about gender roles, and
blurring the lines between religious and scientific concepts.
Shaken, Not Stirred
Several years ago, lawmakers attempted to shake up federal policy with an unsuccessful bid to
set aside $100 million to support schools that took the best of abstinence and
comprehensive sex ed programs. And this summer, the House and Senate appropriations
committees rejected a White House plan to increase abstinence-only funds by another $22 million
for fiscal 2007, although opponents of the program suggest that budget constraints rather than
policy concerns played a role.
Some opposition to the federal policy has been seen at the state level. Maine and California
rejected federal abstinence funds targeted to school-based programs because restrictions on the
use of grant money would have led schools to violate state mandates for
comprehensive sex education.
A few years ago, Pennsylvania also walked away from grant money after state officials could find
no evidence that local abstinence programs were working. In New Mexico, state officials this year
have been locked in a dispute with HHS, which has objected to state plans to accept abstinence
funds for middle school use but rely on comprehensive sex ed programs at the high schools.
That's not to say that the abstinence-only movement has reached its nadir. No crystal ball sees
that clearly. Indeed, recent months have seen both Kentucky and Wisconsin approve new rules
encouraging abstinence education. Of course, both left open plenty of wiggle room
for schools wishing to pursue a more comprehensive approach, It's likely that the policy debate
over sex ed will rage for decades to come.
That debate would lose some of its political edge if former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher
has anything to say about it. Two years ago, he launched an effort to bring together more than
two dozen major organizations involved in the debate--from Planned Parenthood to the National
Abstinence Clearinghouse, and from SIECUS to the Traditional Values Coalition--to seek out
common ground on the issues of sexual health and public policy, including sex education.
Yet Satcher admits the effort has been challenging. Although the group released an interim report
in May, nearly two years have gone by without resolution on such seemingly simple tasks as
defining the terms "sexual abstinence" or "responsible sexual behavior." Along the way, seven
organizations dropped out for a variety of reasons, including frustration with the group's lack of
But Satcher intends to keep fighting. It's telling, he says, that people can't even agree on how to
define the words used in this policy debate and little wonder that organizations and policymakers
are talking past one another. That alone makes continued dialogue worth the time and trouble.
"I'm a firm believer when people sit in a room together and listen to one another, you get some
understanding," Satcher says. "You can reach some areas of agreement."
What's interesting to Kristin Luke, author of When Sex Comes to School, is the debate itself. In
her book, she notes that teenage sexual behavior is influenced by so many forces outside
the schools, yet parents and policymakers store so much faith in the effectiveness of "a
classroom period to a semester's worth of classes."
Perhaps, Luke suggests, one of the more important lessons that sex ed could offer students is an
understanding of "just how deeply conflicted Americans are about sex and gender roles,
marriage, and other factors, and [how] the fight about sexeducation is both a moral and political
one, and .this kind of conservative-liberal debate is driving political elections, not just the debate
over sex education."
As with any controversial issue, the secret to dealing with any debate over sex education--and
the pros and cons of an abstinence-based program--is good communications with parents and
Know What They Want
Make sure that information about existing policies and proposals for change are readily available,
say veterans of past sex ed battles. Then take the pulse of your community. Make sure you
understand where public sentiment lies.
That might take some work. When the Westbrook, Maine, school board prepared to revise its
eighth-grade health curriculum, a group of local citizens--bolstered by protesters from across the
state--dominated public meetings on the issue and handed out leaflets throughout town,
says school committee chairwoman Colleen Hilton. But a closer look at public opinion indicated
very strong support for a balanced curriculum.
Letting people voice their opinions also is essential. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a curriculum
committee recommended new materials for the middle-school curriculum that raised parental
concerns, says school board member Darin Daby. Two committees, consisting of school and
community members, took a second look, and a few revisions eliminated most of-the concerns.
"I was impressed with the process," Daby says. "We had two opposing camps who were being
quite vocal from both ends of the spectrum. In talking to people, I found a vast majority were right
in the middle." These debates, he added, "can end up being about semantics."
"It's no different than any controversial issue," says Jim Bogden of the National Association of
State Boards of Education. "I think the way out of the conundrum is greater parental
involvement. Schools would benefit if they administered surveys to parents," and it's never a
mistake to involve parents--as well as community public health officials--in any review of sex ed
That doesn't mean consensus and harmony are guaranteed. And when opinion is
divided, school officials would do well to pull together the evidence to make their case. That may
include research drawn from public health organizations and governmental sources.
More telling may be the needs of local students, says Brenda Z. Greene, NSBA's director
of school health programs. A student survey and calls to local public health agencies can provide
valuable information about teen attitudes about sexual behavior and the rates of pregnancy and
sexually transmitted diseases among community teens.
That's information that can change the tone of any debate, she says. "Some people think
of sex education and think about whether to teach about the plumbing. How to do it. But
communities also can look at the flip side: How do we help young people develop and know how
to have healthy relationships? How do we help them lower the pregnancy rate? How do we
protect them from sexual abuse? Turning the debate into one about helping students with existing
problems could be another way of approaching the issue."
If the issue becomes too contentious for the community, then a school board simply needs to
make the best decision it can, Greene says. But, she notes, nothing says that a school board
can't table an issue for further review or approve the less-objectionable parts of a sex ed
curriculum while working on greater consensus down the line.
"Some board members take the heat and say, 'Vote me out of office, but this is for the kids,'" she
says. "Others will say, 'We have bigger battles to fight. We need the support of all our community
to raise the tax revenues that pay our way.' It's not as if what a school board votes today must be
the last word. You can always revisit the issue."
By Del Stover, From American School Board Journal
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