Experts Challenge Abstinence-Only Programs


Julie Kay of Legal Momentum and Jodi Jacobson of the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
The full panel discusses abstinence-only education.

Speaking in front of a packed lecture hall of more than 150 people at Harvard Law School, a panel of experts offered sharp, and at times very harsh, criticism of the effects of United States abstinence-only until marriage policies within the U.S. and abroad.

The September 28 panel, “Sex, Lies and Silence: The Harm of U.S. Abstinence-Only Policies at Home and Abroad,” attempted to spark discussion on the push by the Bush administration to substantially increase funding for abstinence-only until marriage education programs over the past five years. As a result of this drastic increase, said panelist Julie Kay, a staff attorney for the organization Legal Momentum, “what we’re seeing with the abstinence-only programs is one of the most concerted and well-funded efforts at restricting women’s rights.”

Kay explained that U.S. abstinence-only programs harm women in a number of different ways, from perpetuating gender stereotypes to providing a wealth of misinformation on sex and sexual decision-making.

“As we take a look at curriculum examples, I think what we’re seeing is a real attempt to make girls fearful of sex by emphasizing harmful consequences,” said Kay. “At a time when women and girls need honest and comprehensive information about sex and sexual decision-making, and the risks and pleasures associated with sexuality and relationships, instead they are getting a full program of miseducation, misinformation, and deception.”

In order to qualify for federal funding, Kay said, U.S. programs must teach only abstinence. According to Kay, the federal government prohibits programs that receive federal funding from teaching or promoting contraception or condom use, from distributing or demonstrating the use of contraception, or instructing students on the use of contraception. Furthermore, Kay stated, programs may not promote safe sex, inform about preventing or treating sexually-transmitted diseases or infections, and may not recognize same-sex marriage.

“I think when you look at these definitions, it really shows part of the moralizing approach that these programs are required to adopt,” said Kay.

Panelist Jodi Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), said that the hyper-moralizing of these programs is leading to skewed information for students, both in this country and around the globe, and leaving millions of people at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

“We’re not going out into the population and saying ‘here’s all the ways in which you can protect yourself,'” said Jacobson. “It’s not just that there’s a movement among ideologically based groups to implant this kind of anti-sexual health or anti-sexual rights thinking… it is the Administration that is actively promoting these kinds of programs.”

Jacobson cited statistics in many parts of the world, particularly developing countries and Sub-Saharan Africa, that show the highest rates of HIV-infection are among adolescent girls ages 15-19. Further Jacobson said, the highest rates among women in their 20s and 30s are among married women.

“So when you see these sorts of curricula that are saying ‘Wait for the bling, get your ring,’ or whatever they say, in effect they’re implying and many times explicitly saying that marriage is a protective factor against HIV,” said Jacobson. “The reality is the facts are as told by the evidence in many of the countries in which we are working is that married women are among the highest risk in the generalized population, where high rates of economic and educational discrimination exist, and where there’s high rates of gender violence particularly.”

William Smith, Vice-President of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECU.S.), agreed with Jacobson, saying that the current Administration has lost touch with reality when it comes to sexual health programs.

“When you have completely lost sense of any sort of realism in public policies, that’s overreach,” said Smith. “They have really stretched beyond the bounds of credibility…it’s becoming abundantly clear that U.S. policies have become involved in abstinence promotion and marriage promotion – and condom denigration – in countries where upwards of 30 percent of the population is infected with HIV.”

Smith said that what we’ve seen over the last 25 years is ever increasing “and increasingly ridiculous” restrictions on how U.S. dollars can be spent on sexual health programs. As a result, Smith said, U.S. policies are in a state of overreach, condemning any aspects of sexuality outside of the bounds of marriage – whether it’s safe sex, kissing, or even the type of stimulation one gets from looking at someone or holding someone’s hand.

“Apparently, if you look into someone’s eyes and you have a response, you’ve just become non-abstinent according to this administration,” said Smith. He added that when abstinence-only until marriage programs hold up misinformation like an overly high failure rate for condoms, or that you can contract HIV through tears, sweat and saliva, those policies become classic overreach.

Smith also pointed toward several signs of hope for those looking for a change in the way sexual health education is carried out. He cited a group of parents in Georgia who organized against an abstinence-only curriculum founded by the Board Chairman of the State Department of Human Resources, and succeeded in getting the state to suspend the teaching of the program. Smith also said there are “cracks in the foundation” among conservatives over how best to teach sexual health.

“Abstinence-only until marriage proponents may look like a monolithic movement, but there is an all-out war between people supporting only marriage, and those who tolerate condoms and contraception,” said Smith. He concluded by saying that “this is a political problem, and will require a political solution,” urging those in the room to vote in the upcoming elections and in 2008.

The panel was moderated by Mindy Jane Roseman, Academic Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. It was co-sponsored by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, Legal Momentum, the Program on International Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights, HLS for Choice, AIDS Tank, and the Student Group for Reproductive Health and Rights and the Harvard School of Public Health.

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