Abstinence-Only: It’s Baaack

Reproductive-health experts breathed a sigh of relief in 2009 when President Barack Obama did away with over a decade of funding for abstinence-only funding under previous administrations (which had added up to more than $1.5 billion over ten years). But now, abstinence-only looks to be back on the conservative agenda.

Under Bush, ab-only had become the norm in most U.S. schools, even though study after study [PDF] had revealed its ineffectiveness in reducing the number of teen pregnancies and reducing the spread of disease. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, virginity pledges–a staple of abstinence-only programming–not only failed to decrease teen STD rates, but actually resulted in pledge-takers avoiding medical attention once infected, leading to increased chances of transmission. So it appeared science had prevailed when President Obama’s 2010 budget swapped out all federally funded ab-only programs for comprehensive sex ed.

That is, until abstinence-only funding reared its ugly head again when Republicans sneaked it into the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, to the tune of up to $50 million per year through 2014. And just last weekend, conservatives in Congress pushed through an additional $5 million for ab-only funding in the federal 2012 appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is considering a bill–SB 237–to kill comprehensive sex-ed in the state and reinstitute abstinence-only-until-marriage programming. The bill has already passed the state senate and will certainly pass the majority-Republican assembly come January.

This should worry Americans. In addition to their ineffectiveness, abstinence-only programs have also come under fire for questionable instructional methods and regressive curricula. Periodic in-depth reviews of abstinence-only programs by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) regularly find that the programs often rely on messages of fear and shame–directed almost entirely toward girls–and promote biased views of gender, marriage and pregnancy options.

Take the Denver, Colo.-based WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) Training, now known as The Center for Relationship Education, an abstinence-only group that has received over $8 million in federal funds since 2005. During an assembly in a Colorado high school, a WAIT/CRE motivational speaker told her audience:

  • “This (holding up a waffle) is (like) a high school boy’s brain…we use waffles because waffles have all these little compartments … You guys have very cool brains. You can stick stuff away in your thinking … Guys can tuck stuff away. Girls aren’t like that.”
  • “Girls’ brains are like spaghetti noodles. If I pull these noodles up, what do the noodles touch? Everything. So girls, when you have sex with a guy what does it affect? Everything.”
  • “As soon as a guy gets an erection you have viable sperm at the end of your penis. You do not have to have intercourse to get her pregnant, you just have to get that viable sperm close to her vagina and she turns on the little Hoover vacuum, because girls are very, very fertile.”

Such messages don’t just reinforce regressive gender stereotypes–they are also extremely heteronormative. According to a study [PDF] by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network):

A significantly greater portion of students in schools that used an abstinence-only curriculum reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and gender expression—64.8 percent of these students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation compared to 57.3 percent of all other students.

WAIT/CRE is but one example of the legion of discriminatory, shaming and worst of all, medically erroneous abstinence-only programs. It is time to end this funding once and for all. We must stop lying to our kids about their sexual health, shaming our young women, stigmatizing our LGBT youth and padding the pockets of ab-only hucksters.

A pending House bill by Representative Barbara Lee pushes to end abstinence funding and reallocate money to comprehensive sex ed. To tell Congress to end abstinence-only funding (as well as require honest signage for crisis pregnancy centers), you can add your voice here.

 Photo from Flickr user romana klee under Creative Commons 2.0


Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The American Independent, RH Reality Check and AlterNet. She is a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor. She blogs at Off The Record and you can find her on Twitter @andykopsa