Editor's Note: Adrienne Kimmell is a Member of the Healthy Teens Campaign and Executive Director of the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.
This week, The Healthy Teens Campaign of Florida and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) released a report on the explosion of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs across the state of Florida with a particular emphasis on their presence in public schools. Titled, Sex Education in the Sunshine State: How Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Are Keeping Florida's Youth in the Dark, our research has exposed both the state's appalling indicators of poor outcomes for young people and the equally appalling nature of how abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have become pervasive throughout the state.
For starters, let's look at how Florida's youth are faring when it comes to some key indicators. The most recent data available shows Florida has the third highest rate in the nation of new AIDS diagnoses, the fifth highest rate of new HIV infections; teen pregnancy rates that are the sixth highest in the nation (and rose last year for the first time in 15 years); nearly two-thirds of all new sexually transmitted diseases in the state were among young people; and 15% of new HIV infections occurred among those under the age of 25. In sum, Florida has some of the worst health outcomes on these key indicators of reproductive and sexual health nationwide.
It is disheartening that Florida has no statewide standards for sex education. Any guidelines or laws that do exist are inadequate and put our youth at risk. What we do have in spades are failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Since 2002, nearly $64 million in federal tax payer money has been dumped into the state for junk abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The state then puts up matching funds of $1.8 million to secure part of these dollars. Between the years of 2003 and 2007, Florida went above and beyond that match, siphoning off a total of $17.5 million from other starved programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant.
In our classrooms, the impact is real. Our research, which included Public Records Requests sent to every school district in the state, found abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and materials run amuck with no discernable oversight or accountability.
For example, Sumter County Public Schools allow the extreme right wing organization, Christian Care Center, into its schools with a curriculum that does not believe in contraception and says that "no contraceptive device is guaranteed to prevent teen pregnancy. Besides, students who do not exercise self-control to remain abstinent are not likely to exercise self-control in the use of a contraceptive device."
Walton County Schools distribute a pamphlet titled "Sex and Singles: Reasons to Wait" produced by the extreme right wing organization Focus on the Family. Their students are told the price for engaging in premarital sex is "No ongoing relationships, no commitment, no security, no family and possibly no children, if they acquire a pelvic infection from a partner." Students also receive the pamphlet "The Silent Epidemic" where they are told that "Condoms fail so often in preventing pregnancy (10-36%) that doctors call them 'antiquated birth control.' Condoms fail even more often in trying to prevent STDs." The same pamphlet then compares the effectiveness of condoms in this way: "Would you buy a ticket to go bungee jumping from a company that admits their bungee cords will fail about 40% of the time?"
Miami-Dade County's 7th and 8th grade students are likely to learn from an approved instruction sheet that double standards exist between males and females when it comes to sex and love and more specifically, that males become "involved with girls for sexual pleasure primarily" while girls "become involved with boys for pursuit of love."
Not only were attention and funds were squandered on failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, efforts to provide relevant and current information on HIV/AIDS have fallen by the wayside. Leon County School District approves at least four videos for instruction that date to 1990 and earlier. Osceola County schools recommend videos of which the majority was produced between 1991 and 1996 with one of them sensationally and irresponsibly titled "Teen Sex--It Can Kill You." And while most of today's fifth graders were born around 1997, the last time the health education curriculum for fifth graders in Highlands County public schools was updated was in 1991.
In sum, we found much evidence that Florida's public schools need to move away from the decade-long expansion of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have squandered public funds and been proven not to work. Conversely, we need to move toward a comprehensive approach to educating our young people about sex and responsible decisions that works. Studies indicate that providing comprehensive information about abstinence, contraception, and condoms will not increase young people's sexual activity or lead them to engage in sex at an earlier age. Further, a more comprehensive approach to sex education has been proven to do a better job of helping young people be abstinent and delay sex than do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs while also increasing the likelihood that young people will use condoms or contraception when they become sexually active.
Based on the findings highlighted here, the report recommends the following policy actions for the state of Florida:
1. Enact the Healthy Teens Act, a bill requiring Florida public schools that already teach information about sexually transmitted infections, family planning, and pregnancy to provide medically accurate and comprehensive sex education--including facts about abstinence and methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and the spread of diseases.
2. Join the company of nearly half of the other states across the country that are no longer participating in the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program and reject these harmful monies. In this, Florida will save state resources and can re-direct efforts toward a more comprehensive approach to sex education.
3. Adopt comprehensive sex education curricula in local school districts and provide adequate training for instructors who are teaching these materials.