I didn't have much sex ed when I went to school in Indiana. We got a film strip, circa 1948, in 5th grade about puberty. And then I remember a gym teacher in 9th grade had the boys write a list, together, of what we wanted in a wife. I was nominated to write our list on the board (of course), and when they wanted me to write "thin," I refused and sat down.
That was it.
What I learned about safe-sex I learned through other gay men or online. And I learned two basic rules:
- Use a condom
- Get tested regularly
It's not hard to see why this is the foundation for our communities' safer sex education - they're both things that people don't want to do, or might not know to do, but, if performed by everyone, can significantly reduce the incidence of STD's.
But in reading the Wiley and Wilson study I've been blogging about this week, it's frightening that most of these programs not only omit information about all contraceptive and STD-fighting methods (which is to be expected since they're abstinence-only), but also malign condoms and discourage safer sex practices. In the end, the message isn't "Wait until marriage," it's "Just say no to condoms." (The handout to the right is one example of a skit used in some Texas classrooms to explain why people should use condoms.)
It's frightening because almost half of US high school students have already had sex and 35% consider themselves "sexually active." (The numbers in Texas, where this study was performed because only 4% of Texas school districts teach anything beyond abstinence, are higher.) Obviously, abstinence has a really high failure rate, and maligning condoms will only give people who don't want to use them (and that's a lot of people) an excuse not to, which is basically government-advocated barebacking.
Condoms are the most effective means of fighting STD's that we have now. Condoms break less than 2% of the time, and most often that's caused by the user (who uses an oil-based lubricant, opens the package too roughly, uses an old condom or one left in the sun).
Their failure rate, estimated at around 15%, is calculated by asking couples what their main method of contraception is and then taking the group that said condoms and seeing how many get pregnant. In other words, the vast majority of that "failure rate" is people just not using condoms all the time or not using them correctly.
The solution, in a sane world, is to educate people about how to use them correctly and encourage them to use them every time. But abstinence-only world isn't a sane world, so instead they misuse and distort these numbers to discourage condom usage. One program's materials say:
Condoms offer virtually no protection against the most common STI's.
One video used in several districts says:
Students, condoms aren't safe. Never have been, never will be.
One school district's sex ed guidelines say:
Teachers shall only present use of contraceptives as risky behavior for teens.
Many programs tell the students that condoms have a failure rate of 15% without explaining what "failure rate" means when it comes to condoms. Many exaggerate the failure rate, and, statewide, it ranged from 10% to 50%, depending on the teaching materials.
Other programs promote the myth that there are tiny holes in condoms:
The Why kNOw? curriculum (used in 21 Texas districts) repeats this myth with a misleading classroom activity. The teacher constructs an eighteen-foot long "Speedy the Sperm©," which is designed to be exactly 450 times the size of a penny. After informing students that "the HIV virus is 450 times smaller than a human sperm," the teacher is instructed to hold up the penny and say:
If the condom has a failure rate of 14% in preventing Speedy© from getting through to create a new life, what happens if this guy (the penny) gets through? You have a death: your own.
Another program uses balloons:
Baird ISD takes students through an exercise entitled "Leaky Balloon" intended to "illustrate the risks of condom failure." At the end of the exercise, one unlucky boy is left holding a deflated balloon with a pin-hole. The curriculum directs the teacher to:
Explain that at least one of every fifty condoms does not meet leakage standards. Tell him that today he was just a little embarrassed because he got the leaky balloon, but had he been depending on the balloon not leaking to save his life, he would have been more than embarrassed. (i.e. If he had been the one to get a leaky condom, it could have meant he was at high risk or even death.)
Some programs talk about HIV/AIDS and condoms:
Although lab studies have demonstrated that latex condoms block the entry of the AIDS virus, there is no scientific evidence that they do so during intercourse. Furthermore,
researchers note condoms have a 10% failure rate in preventing pregnancy and the protection they provide against AIDS could be considerably lower, since the virus is many times smaller than the human sperm.
And another talks about HPV and condoms (condoms are less effective for HPV than HIV/AIDS or other STD's, but still provide significant protection):
WAIT Training dictates that students "should be told that condoms do not appear to provide any protection from HPV, (which causes 99% of all cervical cancer)."
Yup. The message is clear to the over half of Texas high school students who are already having sex: don't use condoms since they're not even worth your time.
And in a time when the number of people infected with HIV is increasing because people don't want to use condoms, don't know how to use condoms, or are simply in the dark on the topic, this is the wrong message to be sending. I know that before I read this report that I simply became jaded to the fact that these programs existed, but it's stunning the level of ignorance and hatred of condoms these people have.
I remember a few years back I sent away for a little kit from Pat Robertson on how to talk to your teen about sex, just to see what it said. The number two talking point on why teens should avoid condoms was that they don't feel good and they prevent intimacy. I was stunned that their apparent goal wasn't abstinence, but barebacking.
And that's what these folks are encouraging whether they think they are or not. We shouldn't accept it, and we shouldn't be funding it.
Fortunately, abstinence-only programs don't malign getting tested, only ignore it:
In the course of discussions about sexually transmitted diseases, these materials neglect the opportunity to stress the value of getting tested for STDs. Given the very real (and serious) health consequences of untreated STDs such as HIV, HPV and chlamydia, the greatest "error" involving STDs in Texas sexuality education may well be the missed opportunity to educate students about early diagnosis and treatment.
Yup. Getting tested is scary and lots of people don't like to do it. But it should be a normal practice for sexually active folks, which is a good deal of the state of Texas.
Read more on real abstinence-only programs: