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


  1. Studies show that the abstinence ed programs have made a positive impact on teen behavior. The stats from CDC show different story than the media tells us. Since abstinence-centered education (now called Sexual Risk Avoidance education) began in the early 1990s, teen pregnancies are DOWN 35%, teen abortion are DOWN 49%, teen sexual activity is DOWN to the point that 54% of high school student have NOT HAD SEX and the teen birth rates are DOWN so far that in Feb 2011 it was reported that the 2010 teen birth rates hit a 70 year low. Now you can’t give abstinence ed 100% of the credit for these positive trends, but don’t say it had 0 effect. It is puzzling why are there so many abstinence haters in the media? Waiting until you are in a lifetime committed relationship (which our society typically calls marriage) to engage in sexual activity is the best health message for all teens irrespective of sexual orientation. The good news is that according to the CDC, more teens are embracing that positive message. Check out http://www.abstinenceworks.org for more stats and facts.

    • FighttheChristianTaliban says:

      thinker33 your name is wrong. It should be uninformed666.
      Your figures that you pulled from a biased site are ludicrous at best.
      You left out the rest of the story
      The studies show that a comprehensive program of sex ed which includes birth control (condoms,the pill etc) do work.
      All the studies show that abstinence education by itself does not work.
      So quit LYING.

    • I’m sorry but you’re missing an important point, Thinker33. This article is not about programs that provide abstinence as an option, or even programs that emphasize abstinence as the best option. It is about funding programs that force adstinence as the only “correct” option and use false information to do so.

      As Courtney said, “While teaching abstinence as one option can be helpful, it should still be taught as an option – not THE option.” Encouraging abstinence is very different from saying that abstinence is the only morally correct choice. Programs that only promote abstinence while ignoring important information about sexual health are deceptive and destructive. This isn’t just about teaching youth how to use a condom, it’s about preparing them to make important decisions about their own sexuality and health (physical and emotional).

      Whether they wait for marriage or not, everyone should be educated in a way that allows them to make an informed decision that works best for him/herself. Propagating false information among our youth is just plain wrong and it hurts us all.

  2. James Breck says:

    thinker33 about 90% of the schools in Texas teach abstinence-only in their sex ed classes. For several years running Texas has been #2 in the nation in teen births, percentage-wise, and been #1 in volume of teen births. Over $1 billion in taxpayer dollars was wasted last year paying the medical bills for teens giving birth. I’ve read 7 studies on the topic and each has shown the abstinence-only is a complete and total failure. It’s also terribly irresponsible not to eductate our children.

    I quit the GOP after 26 years after it was completely destoyed in 2000 by filthy parasites of the religious right. The hypocrisy is stunning; they don’t want to educate kids on sex, they want to end funding for planned parenthood AND at the same time they would like to outlaw abortion. That all adds up to a massive explosion in reqests going forward for taxpayer dollars in the form of Medicaid, welfare, food stamps and goverment assisted housing. Anybody that says they’re both a fiscal conservative and pro-life is a lying piece of garbage.

  3. As someone who went through 12 years of Catholic school and is now in her second year of college I can say with certitude that the “sex ed” program that was given to me (abstinence only) was completely useless in doing anything but scaring young people. When I was in Jr. High and High School, I was given a load of anti-choice, anti-sex abstinence only crap. We were told that having sex would – with certainty – ead to an unplanned pregnancy and that our only choice from then on was to give birth. We were taught that condoms and synthetic birth controls were completely useless and that “the rythm method” was the most effective – as well as the only acceptable – form of birth control. We were taught that Planned Parenthood was an evil, racist organization set out to destroy humankind. We were shown various, graphic slides of the side effects of certain STD’s which only worked in scaring students and shaming anyone who had an STD. Teaching abstinence only did nothing but lower our self esteem, shame women who had unplanned pregnancies, scare us out of having sex for about 5 minutes, and fill our heads with useless information.

    Luckily as I got older I began to realize that what I had been taught was completely ridiculous. I always questioned the things I was taught and always had much more progressive views than the ones in the book which I often challenged. However when I began college, and we began talking about birth control in my first bio. class I realized how much false information had been ingrained into me.

    While teaching abstinence as one option can be helpful, it should still be taught as an option – not THE option. The conservative, religious-driven abstinence only sex “education” programs that I was taught are far too common and should no longer continue. I understand that I went to a Catholic school and they have their views that they want to promote, but they should not shame students – particularly women, because we were the ones shamed the most – and they should NOT give us false information. Teens will continue to have sex no matter how much abstinence propoganda you throw at them. Sex and sexuality should be celebrated and be viewed as something positive, and sexual activity as a personal choice with positive AND negative consequences that can be properly dealt with.

    • Kudos to Andy Kopsa and Ms for unearthing the jaw-dropping “Why Am I Tempted” videos. It’s too bad that the organization has blocked access to the videos, perhaps fearing they would wilt under further scrutiny. But it does give us yet another look at how bad science and scare tactics (not to mention sexism) is being used as an alternative to teaching our kids’ sex ed.
      And Courtney: Your story is so frustrating and sadly all too common. Thanks for telling it. Do you want to share it for our project at virginitymovie.com?

  4. Nonsense, “Thinker.” We have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. Countries in Europe, like the Netherlands, teach medically accurate sex ed and have far lower rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies.

  5. One reason they push abstinance only and are against abortions and birth control is that they are all for the corporations and corporations need growth. The more people, the more growth, and the more money.

  6. So remarkably sad to hear.

  7. Am I the only one who read: “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.”

    And thought “Huh, so what they are saying is, if guys want to have sex, it should be with other guys? Just so they don’t affect the brains of the ‘women-folk’?”

  8. P Brewer MD says:

    As a college health service medical director I can say I am appalled at college students’ widespread lack of knowledge about sex. The ones from catholic high schools are the worst but even public school students’ is miserable. I spend a lot of my office time doing that job that a competent sex-ed teacher using a good comprehensive sex-ed curriculum and materials should have done.

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