With the Lights Out By Evan Johnson

Class: Argument                                                                Major: Journalism ’13

DEARBORN, MI—Sources are confirming that at 8:45 p.m. this evening, Thomas E. Dewey High School junior Jessica Milly officially put out. Though many had predicted she would finally give it up to her boyfriend Josh Gibson this Friday, those close to the 17-year-old said Milly “just wanted to get it over with already” and went all the way with Gibson at his house approximately 15 minutes after his parents left to watch his little sister Emma’s dance recital. At press time, text messages to Milly asking, “How was it?” “How many times?” and “Condom?” have not been answered.1

    During high school, I had an admittedly vague idea of sex. I won’t go far into my own personal history, but throughout my four years at Brattleboro Union High School, my perception of sex was the result of several memorable factors. The first were the details of conquests constantly being elaborated upon at soccer practice by my teammates. The second was my health teacher, a recovering alcoholic of fifteen years with an unnatural affection for his female students. He expounded on the horrific effects of gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia and some mysterious three-letter acronym called HIV. This was before holding up what to me looked like a glorified water balloon (I was never told how to use a condom or even where one could be obtained). However, what had the biggest influence on me in terms of my sexual education was something I saw every day when I got off the bus at 7:15 in the morning. At the back of the school, near the bus stop roundabout, was a daycare center for the children of students. It was managed and funded by the school district and was included in the yearly budget. Every day, teen mothers (I never saw the fathers) would drop off sometimes as many as three kids before going to class. They picked their children up again when classes ended at 2:20.

In hindsight, my three earliest exposures to human sexuality at a pubescent age illuminated several issues regarding sex. Some seemed appealing (a girlfriend seemed like a nice idea), others terrifying (Lice? WHERE?), and the rest were downright mysterious (anything and everything regarding female anatomy). This dilemma demanded that I either disregard them all or try and teach myself. I treated my questions much like any other jittery and awkward high school virgin: with a whole lot of casual speculation among trusted friends, and a serious pornography habit. Years later, I had never had any idea that human sexuality could be something so divisive and so difficult to discuss in a classroom.

An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor said that “One of the best signals for what is worst in American society is its child births – by children,” and, fortunately, teen pregnancy rates in the United States are slightly on the decline. And just as with any positive development in the public sphere, politicians and policy makers are jumping over each other to take credit. Fewer unintended pregnancies are better for everyone, but teens are still having sex, and that can come with many unintended consequences – pregnancy being just one of them. The United States continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rate of all industrialized nations and the prevalence of condom use among sexually active teens has reached a plateau. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who used alcohol or drugs before last sexual intercourse has increased.2 This problem of unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections/diseases, including HIV and AIDS, can be addressed in multiple ways, the best of which is to confront the issue via the people most affected: the teens and young people having sex for the first time. Educators are right to do this, but this is where a serious problem takes root.

Every year, thousands of American pre-teens and teens receive a regrettably brief and insufficient education in human sexual behavior in health classes, life skills classes, and other classes in which they are told not to binge drink or smoke marijuana. As part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, states can receive up to four dollars of federal funds for every three dollars in state funds they spend on programs that stress “abstinence until marriage.” Current federal law dictates that states wishing to obtain such funds must adhere to a list of eight standards for curriculum to follow. Abstinence-only-education (AOE) has the exclusive purpose of teaching that refraining from sexual activity until marriage is an expected social norm; bearing children out of wedlock will likely have negative impacts on the child, the parents and society; and abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems.

Clearly, abstinence in the broadest terms is presented because it is the form of contraception with the lowest rate of failure. It’s easiest to tell students to “just say no,” but that is harder than it sounds when the federal abstinence-only mandate fails to define “abstinence” as well as what being “sexually active” means. Often, abstinence is defined in behavioral terms such as “postponing sex,” or “refraining from [vaginal] sexual intercourse.” However, the definition fails to provide any clarification for that non-coital gray area that makes anyone over the age of 40 blush. This has created a lack of consensus within the pro-abstinence camp. In a 1999 e-mail survey of 72 health educators, nearly one-third responded that oral sex was considered abstinent behavior. A similar portion (29%) responded that mutual masturbation would not qualify as abstinence.3 To make matters more complicated, some programs are committed to educating about sexuality in as scientific a manner as possible, so as not to provoke any objection from parents. This, according to researcher Tom Klaus, creates a Catch 22: “Adolescents cannot practice abstinence until they know what abstinence is, but in order to teach them what abstinence is, they have to be taught what sex is.”

Abstinence only education is also defined in a moral and even religious context, which is highly problematic when considering the language used and the connotations it carries. Very often, programs use words such as “chaste” and “virgin” or emphasize morality in phrases like “being responsible” or “making a commitment.” Should students engage in sexual activity, they are subject to becoming viewed as a pariah (especially girls who become pregnant), especially when federal regulations demand that programs to receive funding will “[Teach] that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”4

This generic cultural standard that young people are expected to embrace utilizes outdated gender roles, fear-tactics, and bogus science. This is done with insufficient or no government oversight of curriculum they fund. Consider the following excerpts taken verbatim from AOE teaching guides. All of these programs received federal funding.5

Men sexually are like microwaves and women sexually are like crockpots…men respond sexually by what they see and women respond sexually by what they hear and how they feel about it. 

AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.

If [a girl] has been involved in sexual activity…sexually, she is no longer a virgin, she is no longer pure, unspoiled, fresh.

    It is also important to note that when (or more likely, if) the curriculum covers sexual assault, it is stressed that it is up to the girls to prevent their own rape by not “teasing” boys or sending “mixed messages” by wearing revealing clothes or engaging in any behavior deemed “risky.”

Under the same federal requirement, emphasis is placed on heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual relationships. This has a detrimental effect on the well-being and education of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) youth as it consistently frames homosexuality as deviant, unnatural and even detrimental to society. This complete lack of information represents either a failure by the federal government to acknowledge the needs of the 1 in 10 young people struggling with questions of sexual identity or simple ignorance.

AOE is the cause of much backslapping and self-congratulating by social conservatives. After all, protecting an idealized sense of morality is something that, unlike sustainable economic policy, the safety of food or environmental health, is politically easy to support. However, the federal expectation of abstinence-only education has created a generation of young people that are misinformed and confused by a lack of accurate information about all forms contraception and/or marginalized by a morality that is alienating and unrealistic for the majority of young people.

Today this model is unfortunately embedded in the education system because of the attractiveness of federal funding for cash-strapped states. In addition, supporters of AOE believe that the parameters for teaching young people to practice abstinence are consistent with other standard messages regarding other risky behaviors such as drinking or drug use. An article written by Senator Tom Corburn, M.D., R-OK for the CQ Researcher on the topic of sex education, stresses the importance of this so-called consistence:

Abstinence education also makes good sense. We don’t tell teens to smoke a little. We tell them not to smoke. We don’t tell teens to drive carefully if they drink and drive. We tell them to never drink and drive. We don’t tell teens to use narcotics in moderation. We tell them to “just say no” to drugs. Our message on sex should be consistent.6

    By this logic, safe, consensual sex between two partners is something to be as avoided as crack cocaine or 160 proof vodka. But when placed in the context of what any teen experiences every day, it registers as inconsistent. As demonstrated through my own anecdote, there is no “consistency” between messages regarding drugs, alcohol and especially sex given to young people and the cues provided by the environments they inhabit. Popular culture emphasizes and glorifies lifestyles that are far more risky than depicted. Any thoughtful education plan in a sensitive area such as this should intelligently engage those messages and encourage students to acknowledge and openly discuss them – not simply ignore or criticize it from a distance or an obstinate moral “high horse.” As young people become adults, they will learn to evaluate these messages and decide what is best for them. Abstinence only education fails to help them make some of those important decisions in regards to sex by misinforming, shaming or ignoring them.

Social conservatives tout AOE programs for their comprehensiveness and “scientifically proven” efficacy in preventing premarital sex. In comparison to other youth health programs such as drugs and alcohol awareness, however, AOE is not remotely reliable. More than a dozen states have evaluated abstinence-only programs and have found a disappointing failure to foster significant behavioral change. Past studies with conclusions that supported AOE (1) did not have a clear definition of abstinence (2) lacked appropriate research design, (3) did not address variables such as social desirability bias in surveying, and (4) did not sufficiently use demonstrable behavior changes as conclusions.7 A 2004 review of 11 states did show abstinence programs to have a positive effect on encouraging students to refrain from sexual activity until marriage, but only for the short term. They gradually lost their efficacy. States where abstinence is stressed and methods of contraception are either ignored or insufficiently covered rank higher in teenage pregnancy as well as STD rates. Mississippi leads the nation in preference for AOE, yet has the highest rate of teen pregnancy8 as well as the highest rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia and primary and secondary syphilis (CDC).

It can be concluded that despite all best intentions, AOE represents a shocking lack of focus and adequacy in terms of what young people need and deserve from any health education. Fortunately, health classes are a commonplace in many public school systems across America. The framework for providing effective and necessary education that young people can relate to and appreciate is in place. What is needed is a focus-shift away from equivalence of abstinence with morality and towards the needs and desires of the students and the young people having sex for the first time. What is needed is a comprehensive sex education plan that still presents abstinence as the most effective contraception choice available.

While social conservatives howl about the need to protect purity and family values, the rest of the United States is in the midst of a sexual paradigm shift. It would be easy enough to indicate the hypocrisy of some individuals who preach such moral righteousness as grounds for dismissal (Bill Clinton had an unfortunate encounter with a blue dress; Herman Cain’s presidential bid has been derailed by sexual abuse allegations). But what is more important than individual mistakes is the fact that the likelihood of an individual’s first sexual partner to be that person’s spouse has been gradually diminishing since the 1970’s as the gap between first (vaginal) intercourse and first marriage widens.

Given the behavior of the majority of Americans, it is unsurprising that most Americans support a comprehensive sex education plan. A recent nationwide poll by the Guttmacher Institute found that 90% “believed it was very or somewhat important that sex education be taught in school.” This is paired with 7% that did not want sex education to be taught in schools. Not only do the majority of parents want their children to receive a complete education, they want their students to be knowledgeable and aware of all possible areas that an abstinence-only approach would neglect. 95% of parents want their students to know how to make responsible decisions regarding sex based on individual values, 91% of parents want their children to know how to use and where to obtain contraceptives and 77% of parents want their children to know about homosexuality.9

Comprehensive sex education is valued and desired in part because of its inclusive nature towards every student, including GLBTQ students. Instead of ignoring or emotionally isolating them from their peers, a comprehensive plan would foster a safe and inclusive community for students who are insecure in their sexual identity.

Parents’ approval of a comprehensive plan is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the Society for Adolescent Health And Medicine.10 Clearly this plan has the support of medical professionals, parents, and most importantly, students, because it equally values every individual and provides them with answers they need, instead of forcing them to explore on their own and make uninformed decisions that could put their health and life goals at risk. Comprehensive sex education for young people is not only logical and attainable, it is what they deserve.


1 “Report: Jessica Milly Has Put Out,”The Onion, November 16, 2011, http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-jessica-milly-has-put-out,26696/.
2 Karen Perrin and Sharon Bernecki DeJoy, “Abstinence-Only Education: How We Got Here and Where We’re Going,” Palgrave Macmillan Journals (2003), http://www.jstor.org/stable/3343387
3 Lisa Remez, “Oral Sex Among Adolescents: Is it Sex or Abstinence?” Guttmacher Institute (2005), http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3229800.html.
4 J. Santelli, M. Ott, M. Lyon, J. Rogers, D. Summers, and R. Schleifer, “Abstinence and Abstinence-Only Education: A Review of U.S. Policies and Programs,” Journal of Adolescent Health 38.1 (2006): 72-81.
5 “No More Money- In Their Own Words: What Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Say,” No More Money (2008), http://www.nomoremoney.org/index.cfm?pageid=950.
6 “Teen Sex,” CQ Researcher 15.32 (2005): 777.
7 “U.S. Teen Sexual Activity,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Jan. 2005, http://kff.org.
8 Perrin and DeJoy, “Abstinence-Only Education”.
9 Remex, “Oral Sex Among Adolescents”.
10 “No More Money-In Their Own Words”.


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