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In the last week, a congressional committee began -- finally! -- taking a real look at government-funded abstinence-only sex "education" programs which all of us who pay taxes in the U.S. have watched billions of our collective dollars be wasted on. For those of us who work we in comprehensive sex ed (many of whom work for a pittance because we can't get funding due to the ab-only mandates), some of which often includes cleaning up after the mess of abstinence-only problems, that waste is often felt even more profoundly. This week, this committee called on public health experts and some awesome young adults to testify and inform the issue with real experience, sound data and a clearer understanding of why abstinence-only education programs are not just not helpful, but can do some real harm. A couple of your peers have been doing excellent work in these House hearings to speak against abstinence-only sex education and make the need clear for accurate, comprehensive and inclusive sex education.
What did the secularized abstinence-only program for students in my school district look like? Well, it was taught by the same pastor who officiated at my religious purity pledge ceremony. Many of the students were already having sex and needed information to protect their health. But our teacher only mentioned condoms to talk lengthily, and inaccurately, about their alleged "ineffectiveness," explaining in graphic detail, and with even more graphic pictures, the sexually transmitted diseases students could get if we trusted our health to a “flimsy piece of latex.”
...But back in my high school class, where we were all too intimidated or embarrassed to ask for clarification, it seemed as if sex with a condom was equivalent to sex without one. Our teacher also touched on the ills of masturbation and warned against the dangers of homosexual sex.
One demonstration our teacher used left little doubt as to our worth as a future spouse or partner if we were to engage in sex before marriage. He would routinely pull an often squirming and reluctant, and always female, volunteer onto the stage, take out a toothbrush that looked like it had been used to scrub toilets and ask if she would brush her teeth with it. When she predictably refused, he pulled out another toothbrush, this one pristine in its original box, and asked her if she would brush her teeth with that one. When she answered in the affirmative, he turned to the assembly and said, “If you have sex before marriage, you are a dirty toothbrush.”
Max Siegel, an HIV-positive 23-year-old who acquired the virus from his first sexual experience, and who now works with the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families, blogged about it at Reproductive Health Reality Check here. From that blog:
More individuals have this virus now than ever before in history. Most children born with HIV no longer die; they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Within and outside of marriage, these young people must know how to prevent transmission of HIV to their sexual partners and how to protect themselves. Instead, abstinence-only disparages HIV-positive youth by suggesting they are dirty, dying, and unfit for love.
While most abstinence-only programs are more extensive than the class I experienced, they rely on similarly exclusive and stigmatizing messages that lack basic information about sexual health. What I experienced is a routine example of the messages of abstinence-only that children across still experience today. These programs ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are at high risk for HIV, and use government dollars to condemn them. They also compromise young women's safety by portraying sexually active females as scarred and untrustworthy. From a healthcare perspective, it's essential that scrutiny of these programs focuses on the consequences of abstinence-only's condemnation of young people.
Some of you voice to us the frustration and anger you feel about these programs, both in the purposeful misinformation found in them and in the way they privilege certain types of people and certain types of sex, while disenfranchising and demeaning others. When you do that, we've heard some of you say sometimes that for all of your upset, you don't feel like your particular voice could be meaningful or effective.
So, I wanted to be sure that you got a look at two young people who have made clear this week that that's just rubbish, and that your voices, especially on this particular issue, are not only exceptionally meaningful but deeply important to have heard. You may not have the opportunity to speak at a hearing like this, but you can certainly write letters to your school boards, your congresspeople, your communities, organize peer outreach boards to talk to adults about this, actively challenge teachers and classmates in schools where you are getting inaccurate or discriminatory sex education or find other original ways to provide the perspectives which everyone who has anything to say or do on this topic very much needs to hear.