Bush's Sex Scandal: The Futility of "Abstinence Only" Sex Education

Bush's Sex Scandal



New York Times


Published: February 16, 2005



I'm sorry to report a sex scandal in the heart of the Bush

administration. Worse, it doesn't involve private behavior, but public conduct.


You see, for all the carnage in President Bush's budget, one program is

being showered with additional cash - almost three times as much as it

got in 2001. It's "abstinence only" sex education, and the best

research suggests that it will cost far more lives than the Clinton

administration's much more notorious sex scandal.




Mr. Bush means well. But "abstinence only" is a misnomer that in

practice is an assault on sex education itself. There's a good deal of

evidence that the result will not be more young rosy-cheeked virgins - it

will be more pregnancies, abortions, gonorrhea and deaths from AIDS.


Look, I'm all for abstinence education. I support the booming

abstinence industry as it peddles panties and boxers decorated with stop signs



and "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date" T-shirts.


Abstinence education is great because it helps counteract the peer

pressure that often leaves teenagers with broken hearts - and broken



For that reason, almost all sex-ed classes in America already encourage

abstinence. But abstinence-only education isn't primarily about

promoting abstinence - it's about blindly refusing to teach contraception.


To get federal funds, for example, abstinence-only programs are

typically barred by law from discussing condoms or other forms of

contraception - except to describe how they can fail. So kids in these programs go

all through high school without learning anything but abstinence, even

though more than 60 percent of American teenagers have sex before age



In the old days, social conservatives simply fought any mention of sex.

In 1906, The Ladies' Home Journal published articles about venereal

disease - and 75,000 readers canceled their subscriptions. Congress banned

the mailing of family planning information, and Margaret Sanger was

jailed in 1916 for selling a birth control pamphlet to an undercover



But silence about sex only nurtured venereal diseases (one New York

doctor, probably exaggerating, claimed in 1904 that 60 percent of American

men had syphilis or gonorrhea), so sex education gradually gained

ground. Then social conservatives had a brilliant idea: instead of fighting

sex ed directly, they campaigned for abstinence-only programs that

eviscerated any discussion of contraception.


That shrewd approach succeeded. In 1988, a survey by the Alan

Guttmacher Institute found that only 2 percent of sex-ed teachers used an

abstinence-only approach. Now, the institute says, a quarter of them do.


Other developed countries focus much more on contraception. The upshot

is that while teenagers in the U.S. have about as much sexual activity

as teenagers in Canada or Europe, Americans girls are four times as

likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as

French girls to have a baby, and more than seven times as likely as

Dutch girls to have an abortion. Young Americans are five times as likely

to have H.I.V. as young Germans, and teenagers' gonorrhea rate is 70

times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands or France.


Some studies have claimed that abstinence-only programs work, but

researchers criticize the studies for being riddled with flaws. A National

Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy task force examined the issue and

concluded: "There do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with

strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy."


Worse, there's some evidence that abstinence-only programs lead to

increases in unprotected sex.


Perhaps the most careful study of the issue involved 12,000 young

people. It found that those taking virginity pledges had sex 18 months

later, on average, than those who had not taken the pledge. But even 88

percent of the pledgers had sex before marriage.


More troubling, the pledgers were much less likely to use contraception

when they did have sex - only 40 percent of the males used condoms,

compared with 59 percent of those who did not take the pledge.


In contrast, there's plenty of evidence that abstinence-plus programs -

which encourage abstinence but also teach contraception - delay sex and

increase the use of contraception. So, at a time when we're cutting

school and health programs, why should we pour additional tax money into

abstinence-only initiatives, which are likely to lead to more

pregnancies, more abortions and more kids with AIDS? Now, that's a scandal.




E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com



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