Let's Talk About Sex

As one of dozens of programs receiving federal funds to educate Ohio teens about sex, a group called Operation Keepsake maintained an online question-and-answer board, where it answered questions like, "How far can my boyfriend and I go and still be safe?" with the warning that "anything past kissing can be dangerous emotionally and physically. When you go to French kissing, you are thinking more with your body than with your brain."

But two weeks ago, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland released his 2008 budget, which will effectively cut off funding for Operation Keepsake -- along with every other abstinence-only education program in the state. "This is an unwise use of tax dollars because there is no conclusive evidence that suggests the program works," a spokesman for Strickland told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Since 1996, the federal government has been actively promoting programs like Operation Keepsake by offering grants to cash-strapped state governments that can only be used to fund abstinence-only curricula in public schools. (Any program funded with the grants can't even mention contraception, except, of course, to note failure rates.) Abstinence-only funding has surged during the Bush years -- the president's latest budget calls for $204 million, up from $80 million in 2001. But national support for abstinence-only education has failed to increase along with it. State governments are starting to rebel -- either by tightening regulation of abstinence-only programs or rejecting Bush's money entirely.

With Strickland's budget announcement, Ohio became the sixth state -- joining California, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- to reject federal abstinence-only grants for the coming fiscal year. In several of these states, the news has sparked debate over how -- and how much -- to teach kids about sex. Ohio columnists pondered how sex ed classes should address gay teens, while in Wisconsin, the discussion centers on whether a recent drop in the teen birth rate can be attributed to abstinence education or other factors.

Understandably, many state legislatures are reluctant to say no to federal money altogether, especially since the grants often constitute the only funds available for sex-ed programs. As an alternative, states leery of misleading or religious messages in abstinence-only classes are choosing to regulate the programs more closely. The curricula are usually designed by right-wing groups (often with a religious affiliation), but a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found that fewer than half of the states receiving abstinence-only grants assessed the programs for scientific accuracy. States are now stepping up. Washington recently passed a bill requiring that all sex-education programs taught in schools be medically accurate. Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii, and Arizona are considering similar measures. In theory, this could force school districts to reject abstinence-only grant programs altogether if they are found to be in violation of the accuracy requirements.

Congress, meanwhile, is trying to help out. Last week, pro-choice Democrats introduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide $208 million annually to fund school programs that provide medically accurate and comprehensive sex ed without a religious bent. That would make it easier for schools to reject abstinence money, since they would now have an alternative source of funds.

Those in favor of comprehensive sex-ed have been gaining traction by focusing on inaccuracies in the current grant-recipient programs. In 2004, Congressman Henry Waxman's office released a scathing report documenting the false information and gender stereotypes in federally-funded abstinence curricula. Programs overstated condom failure rates, declined to mention that STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are curable, and said AIDS could be spread through sweat and tears.

Progressives have also long criticized abstinence-only groups for trying to push religious themes and gender stereotypes in the programs. One curriculum criticized by Waxman taught that women need "financial support," while men need "admiration." And the ACLU brought a lawsuit against a publicly-funded Louisiana abstinence group whose website claimed "abstaining from sex until entering a loving marriage will & [make you] really, truly, 'cool' in God's eyes."

Progressives' focus on scientific legitimacy in their critiques has put abstinence-only advocates, who have long enjoyed their favored status within the Bush administration, on the defensive. They've resorted to citing non-peer-reviewed studies by outfits like the Heritage Foundation to back up the claim that their science is sound and accusing peer-reviewed journals of conspiring to silence them. "What they are saying is that, in order to be medically and scientifically accurate, you must be verified and supported in your research by peer review," Focus on the Family's Linda Klepacki told the Christian Examiner. "Abstinence education cannot get into peer-review journals because the journals are controlled by far-left liberal organizations that do not allow us to publish. That automatically eliminates abstinence-only education, from their standpoint."

Right-wing groups benefit from the fact that the federal government doesn't even bother assessing the results of abstinence-only education. Grant programs are classified as "effective" by the Department of Health and Human Services so long as they deliver all the information they're supposed to deliver -- for instance, about condom failure rates -- regardless of the effects such an education has on the students. In fact, the few analyses that have been done show that limiting sex ed to discussions of abstinence neither ensures that kids delay sex until marriage nor lowers rates of pregnancy and STDs. One report by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials found that most state-level abstinence programs have little to no measurable effect on teen behavior.

Change doesn't seem hard to envision. Comprehensive sex ed enjoys great popular support; a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that more than 93 percent of parents of junior-high and high-school students believe contraception is an appropriate topic for school sex-ed programs. When it comes to teaching abstinence, the public strongly backs comprehensive programs, sometimes called "abstinence-plus," that describe abstinence as the best and only guaranteed way to prevent pregnancy and STDs, but still discuss contraception as well. The curricula are supported by groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association.

For the most part, conservatives have yet to mount a serious effort to oppose the REAL Act, which would make such programs more common in public schools. One hard-line Christian group, No Room For Contraception, has recently launched a website and a campaign to discredit the term "comprehensive" sex ed. The campaign claims that programs under the REAL Act are not truly comprehensive because they lack information about condom failure rates (which is false) and fail to mention non-peer-reviewed studies showing that teen sex is linked to teen suicide. In other words, they are not comprehensive because they don't contain junk science.

While the funding for abstinence-only programs is unlikely to dry up any time soon, the momentum is starting to shift. The REAL Act, combined with state-level reforms, could drastically change the way teenagers receive information about sex in the coming years. Abstinence groups may soon have to find another way to warn students about the dangers of French kissing.

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