Bush's Sex Scandal
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
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.