Virulent virqinity: "abstinence-only" sex ed programs are putting youth at risk.
The question is not that unusual in my job directing a peer education program for high school students. Yet I was taken aback because the young person who asked is sexually active. This young woman of color is just one of the millions of students misled by the sex education she has received in school.
The onslaught of federal funding for abstinence-only sex education is perpetuating a troubling trend: the rise of a virginity-based model wherein many teens are having sexual contact but not using protection. They don't think it is sex because, like former President Clinton, they believe sex is only vaginal intercourse.
Funding a Puritanical Silence
Exclusive federal funding for abstinence-only sex education began in 1996 as part of welfare reform legislation. In 2001, the Bush Administration created even more restrictive funding totaling $115 million in the past three years. Bush has requested an additional $186 million for fiscal year 2005. Approximately $100 million is now spent annually by state and federal governments on these programs, which, for lack of other federal funds, end up being the only sex education that students receive in school. States apply for the federal money, agreeing to conform to abstinence-only guidelines. Only three states, California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania chose to not take federal funds for abstinence-only programs.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a program is eligible when it teaches that "abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems." The program must also instruct students that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity" and that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
When these programs talk about condoms, they focus on failure rates. They ignore the existence of queer teens and never discuss what abstinence really means. Instead, the programs rely on arcane notions of "virginity," perpetuating double standards and promoting a puritanical code of silence regarding strategies for protection and prevention.
Congress has identified "Silver Ring Thing" (www.silverringthing.com) as a model prevention program in the five-year global fight against HIV/AIDS. This self-described "faith-based abstinence message" alone received $700,000 in federal money last year to use comedy and music videos to convince middle and high school students to pledge virginity until marriage and don silver rings on their fingers as proof. Students follow up with an abstinence Bible-study. Conveniently, a "second virginity" is offered to those who have been sexually active in the past. The Silver Ring Thing website lists the names of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy rates for girls eight times on their statistics page; they mention boys once. There is no mention of condoms.
While called "abstinence-only," the programs are in essence virginity-based and they pride themselves on not addressing the "graphic terms better left to parents to discuss." In doing so the programs leave the door open for teens to make unsafe sexual choices while operating under the belief that they are still virgins. The ranks of those "saving themselves" by being blowjob queens are increasing as oral sex is on the rise. While oral sex is most prevalent among white teens, it is young black men between 15 and 17 who report the greatest increase in one longitudinal study, jumping from 25 percent in 1988 to 57 percent in 1995, the last year rates were reported in the National Survey of Adolescent Males.
Many teens say that oral sex does not count as sex. Of those who describe themselves as "not sexually active," 13 percent report having oral sex, according to the National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults. And almost 30 percent of Latino teens consider oral sex to be "safer sex," according to the survey. Nearly half of those who are sexually active consider oral sex the "safer sex." Teens believe oral sex is "not as big a deal" as sexual intercourse. More disturbingly, sexually active girls are twice as likely as sexually active boys to report having had oral sex to avoid intercourse.
Virginity vs. Disease
Sexually transmitted infection rates continue to rise among adolescents, disproportionately affecting teens in communities of color. In 2001, the chlamydia rate for 15 to 19-year-olds was 12 times higher among black men than among white men; the rate among black women of the same age was nearly seven times higher than among white women. According to Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, the gonorrhea rate in 2002 for black men, ages 15 to 19, was 45 times higher than that of white men; black women of the same age had a rate 17 times that of white women. Native Americans had nearly 4 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites and Latinos had over twice the rate. Rather than address these numbers, public policy pundits have applauded the 35 percent decrease in the teen birth rate among 15- to 17-year-olds, principally celebrating the 46 percent drop among black teens.
The cult of virginity that is created and perpetuated by abstinence-only education actually increases unsafe sex. A five year study of 12,000 adolescents aged 12 to 18 found that sex without protection is a third more likely among young people who signed virginity-until-marriage pledges. Peter Bearman, a sociology professor at Columbia University and co-author of the study, told the Associated Press, "It's difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you're not going to have sex."
According to Bearman, 88 percent of those pledging virginity reported having sex before marriage. They delayed activity only 18 months more than those not pledging. Rates of sexually transmitted infections were similar between the groups because those making virginity pledges are much less likely to use condoms. Nearly half of black 15- to 17-year-olds report having used the withdrawal method as birth control or protection.
In addition to the "virginal" teens having oral sex, 30 percent of those who self-identified as "not sexually active" report having been "intimate" in some way. The prohibition on information perpetuated by virginity-based programs leaves sexually active teens unprotected and wondering what penetration means.
Research on young adults suggests that such substitute activities rarely include protection. While 84 percent of U.S. adults, ages 18 to 35, say they take "necessary" steps to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases, 82 percent of participants said they don't use protection during oral sex. Despite the increased risk of infection, 64 percent do not use protection during anal sex.
Poverty, incarceration rates and a lack of access to health care are all obstacles to treatment and all disproportionately affect communities of color. Adolescents need to know what services are available and where they can access them. They need to know what rights they have. Parents recognize this: 93 percent of adults support sexuality education in high school. Bush's own surgeon general has stated that sex education needs to include condoms and other types of birth control.
Despite the fact that adolescents experience nearly 4 million cases of sexually transmitted infections annually in the United States--nearly two-thirds of all cases--the Bush administration continues to promote and exclusively fund dangerous virginity-based models.
Lee Che P. Leong directs the Teen health Initiative at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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