A growing list of states, reacting to lobbying by hyper-conservative religious organizations, are passing laws that ban sex education in public schools, and require the teaching of abstinence till marriage. According to Human Rights Watch, most of these states are located in the South, where prevention is needed most, because infection rates are highest.
A Little Historical Background
While the American sex-education movement started way back in the early 1900s, on the heels of throwing off Victorian constraints, it didn't hit many states till after World War II. People kept on reacting to the war's explosive loosening of sexual constraints and the consequent explosion of sexually transmitted disease, especially syphilis (for which there had been little treatment till penicillin was discovered).
I vividly remember that day, in the early 1950s, when sex education came to the high-school classrooms in my Montana home town. There had been some fiery sermons against it throughout the dozen churches in town, but no organized resistance. The majority of townspeople appeared to recognize that sex ed was the common-sense thing to do, given the fact that students were apparently not getting adequate information at home. Hence the new textbooks with their prim little drawings (not photographs!) of sex organs, that made the girls blush and the boys titter.
Today that conviction of common sense is fast disappearing from American life, as state after state is now passing laws that put severe faith-based constraints on any discussion of sex and sexually transmitted disease in the classroom. That includes HIV and AIDS.
Surprisingly enough, the "abstinence till marriage" movement made its first appearance on the American scene before the AIDS epidemic did. According to research done by SIECUS, it got going in 1981, during the administration of Ronald Reagan, as a reaction to the intensely sexy Sixties and Seventies and a soaring rate of teen pregnancy. With the Democrats out of office for the first time in decades, Republicans obediently bent the knee to church influence for the first time, as they moved to convince state legislators and boards of education that young people should avoid having sex till they married.
After the Epidemic Started
Just a few years later, the abstinence movement got a huge boost from the revelation that a new viral disease called AIDS was out there and picking up speed.
Today, because of the gay and bi men who were first in the headlines for having developed AIDS, some states have used this as one of their excuses that any discussion of sexual orientation should be outlawed in their schools. Indeed, there is a widespread right-wing urban myth that only gays get AIDS - ignoring the fact that most of the world's people living with HIV/AIDS are heterosexuals. Thus, for example, Tennessee state Senator Stacy Campfield (R) astounded the media recently with his statement that it is "virtually impossible to spread HIV/AIDS through heterosexual sex."
Another area of puritan explosion is where established federal policy recommending condom use runs into a growing ultraconservative grassroots imperative that aims to outlaw access to contraceptives as much as possible. In such an atmosphere, it's impossible to teach students how to use condoms for HIV protection.
While the federal government doesn't require states to mandate sex education, it does require states to offer HIV education. However, the red states are finding ways of getting around that requirement. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 33 states do mandate HIV education, but - incredibly - only two states require that HIV education be medically accurate! This explains why some programs have no problem putting out appalling misinformation about HIV - that it can be transmitted by sweat and tears, for instance. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia allow parents to withdraw their children from HIV instruction at school.
On the side, the U.S. has ever been willing to push its culture into developing countries. Along with basketball and burgers, we've leveraged "abstinence till marriage" and anti-contraception ideology into foreign governments' programs across the globe. This was done during the Bush presidency, through the faith-based machinery within PEPFAR. Bush's administration had strict puritanical requirements, including a mandate that 33% of prevention funds be spent on abstinence-till-marriage programs.
After Barack Obama became President, a glimmer of waking up to reality hit government policymakers - at least for a little while. In 2009, Obama's administration axed more than $170 million in funding for abstinence-only programs that had been proven worthless. In their place was a new pregnancy-prevention and sex-education effort - one that would be based on scientific evidence.
While the new President was opting for science, however, his political opponents in the red states have been opting for repression on sex at the state level, both in and out of school. Virginia, always a bellwether, now considers sex between unwed individuals to be fornication and illegal - a Class 4 misdemeanor. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association is demanding the nationwide criminalization of both homosexuality and fornication. In Alaska, Governor Sean Parnell needed an appointee for a panel that appoints state judges - and he selected a man, Don Haase, who believes that extra-marital sex should be a crime - possibly even a felony, if voters support it.
Not to be outdone, the state of Tennessee is considering a bill that outlaws "gateway sexual behaviours" on school campuses - meaning possibly hugs and hand-holding. New Jersey has actually outlawed hugging at school.
The Bottom Line
So we have to ask the $64 question. Religion or no religion, does "abstinence till marriage" work?
Two years ago, the National Organization of Women commented on two studies showing that the policy affects different groups of students differently. NOW said:
"A 2003 evaluation by the Pennsylvania Department of Health... and a 2003 evaluation of Arizona's abstinence-only program found that abstinence-only education works on young people who have never had sex. Obviously, not all young people fit the same mold. We see that once adolescents become sexually active, abstinence-only education considerably diminishes in its ability to adequately address their health needs. Furthermore, withholding comprehensive sexual education puts sexually active youth, sexually abused youth, and LGBT youth at higher risk of unwanted pregnancies."
Sad to say, in spite of evidence that abstinence programs seldom work, President Obama's arm has apparently been twisted severely by the church lobby; he is supporting this dubious policy once again. In April the HHS Office of Adolescent Health added Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education to the list of 31 programs that are viewed as "evidence-based" and "effective" - even though reports on performance of the Heritage program show that it had little effect on students.
To sum up, after 30 years of "abstinence till marriage," the CDC finds that the United States still has the highest teen pregnancy rate among developed countries. A significant percentage of girls still get pregnant. Why? Because of simple, stark lack of education about how sex works.
Disastrous Effect on Infection Rates
As for HIV/AIDS, CDC's recent research shows that young people 13-29 were still accounting for 39 percent of all new U.S. infections, with a disproportionate number being gay and bi males as well as African Americans and other minority youth.
In addition, one out of every 4 U.S. teen girls has at least one STD, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. Indeed, the teen STD rates soared during the Bush years.
Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield (R), the man who sponsored Tennessee's "don't say gay" bill and once compared homosexuality to bestiality, now has a theory about the spread of HIV/AIDS. Campfield told the Huffington Post's Michelangelo Signorile that it's virtually impossible to spread HIV/AIDS through heterosexual sex and that AIDS came from the gay community:
According to the CDC's 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), "Many adolescents begin having sexual intercourse at early ages: 46.0% of high school students have had sexual intercourse, and 5.9% reported first sexual intercourse before the age of 13. Of the 34.2% of students reporting sexual intercourse during the 3 months before the survey, 38.9% did not use a condom. .... HIV education needs to take place before young people engage in sexual behaviors that put them at risk." Yet amazingly, in the same breath, the CDC also calls for programs that teach abstinence.
As the new puritanism continues to sweep the country ever harder, and the 2012 Republican campaign speeches focus more on Jesus than on jobs, I'm reminded of the 14th-century Europeans who kept on believing - till the bitter end - that more prayers and more sermons would deliver them from the Black Death.
This is an updated version of a commentary first published in the July issue of A & U Magazine.
Guttmacher Institute's state-by-state breakdown on abstinence policy
Good Siecus article on abstinence-only history in federal funding
(God vs Science graphic via Bigstock)