During the first one hundred hours of the new 110th Congress, the Democrats plan to defy expectations by showing that they have a backbone. They’ve announced their intention to introduce legislation that would toughen ethics rules, increase the minimum wage, increase support for student loans, back stem-cell research and authorize Medicare to negotiate drug costs with the pharmaceutical companies.
Unfortunately, they have decided to avoid the grander failures of the Bush administration, notably the occupation of Iraq, immigration and the abstinence-only adolescent sex policy.
The Bush administration’s abstinence-only program toward teen sex codifies the deepest evangelical Christian fear of pleasure as public policy. It is the domestic corollary to its disastrous international PEPFAR Crusade. (PEPFAR is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; see Counterpunch, December 22, 2006.)
According to the ACLU, the federal government has spent more than $700 million since 1997 on abstinence-only programs; this year alone it has allocated approximately $170 million. While only a handful of states like California, Pennsylvania and Maine have refused federal abstinence money, dozens have gladly taken it. One can only hope that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who has voiced strong concern over how the Bush administration has politicized public health, will push for a full investigation of the abstinence-only program backed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Confounding the Bush camp’s abstinence-only sex police, teens are engaging in extensive sex exploration and they are doing so in ways that have led to lower pregnancy and STD rates. Nothing speaks louder as to the failure of the abstinence-only policy than teen’s rejection of it.
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“We teach abstinence because it’s the truth,” insists Denny Pattyn. “We don’t analyze ourselves based on reducing the risk [of STDs and pregnancy].” In 1995, Pattyn founded the Sewickley, PA, group, Silver Ring Thing (SRT), to promote an evangelical Christian abstinence program. Its mission is “to saturate the United States with a generation of young people who have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage and put on the silver ring. This mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” The group’s goal is to put two million rings on teens’ fingers by 2010; in 2005, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 19.6 million teens in the U.S., so they’ve got a big well to draw from.
Pattyn claims that about 60,000 youths have made virginity pledges after attending one of his three-hour rock concert (the “Thing”). Participants buy a $15 silver ring inscribed with a Biblical verse from First Thessalonians 4:3-4: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor.” The ring is a virginity symbol to be removed on the wearer’s wedding day and given to his or her spouse. Like other pledge programs, SRT endorses the concept of “secondary virginity,” by which a teenager who has “lost” her/his virginity can wipe the slate clean by taking the abstinence pledge.
Beginning in 2003, SRT received over $1 million in federal funds until the ACLU sued HHS in 2005 contesting that SRT was promoting a religious agenda; in 2006, SRT decided to no longer accept federal support.
But what is the evidence that the SST’s Ring succeeds in keeping the bodies of pledging teens in a state of sex-free holiness?
Pattyn assesses SRT’s effectiveness by sending e-mails to participants four months after they take a pledge to measure if they are abstinent. SRT says that it is about to launch a study of its long-term effectiveness. According to researcher Paul Kennedy, SRT conducted a small online survey in March 2006 involving 2,500 youths who had attended SRT sessions and found that 97 percent reported having an improved understanding of the benefits of abstinence and an awareness that oral sex does not eliminate the risk of contracting an STD.
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Adolescent sex education and practice are serious concerns that, like so much else in the age of Bush and the 4th Great Awakening, has become highly politicized. Unfortunately, the numbers paint a pretty sad picture. Every year in the U.S. close to one million young women under the age of 21 become pregnant; one seventh (13%) of all births are to teenagers; African-American teenage girls have higher pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth rates than their white and Hispanic sisters; and, surprising to many, since 1980 these rates are rising faster among whites. Much of this can be traced to the lack of effective sex education.
And here are other shocking statistics to make matters worse:
ß A girl who does not use birth control the first time she has sexual intercourse is four times more likely to become pregnant than the person who uses birth control.
ß 9 times out of 10, the sexually active female who does not use birth control will become pregnant within a year.
ß In all likelihood, one-fourth to one-third of all teenage mothers will have a second child within two years of their first child.
The Christian Right rarely discusses the role of poverty as a causal factor in early childbearing. Unfortunately, between 60 and 80 percent of the half million adolescent girls giving birth each year live in poverty and come from low-income families. Equally disturbing, compared to children born to mothers who are older, the children born to teen girls in poverty are more likely to suffer poor health, perform poorly in school, be neglected or mistreated and end up confronting the criminal justice system.
The Christian Right is deeply hostile towards a secular approach that emphasizes unbiased scientific analysis, sound sex education and an ethical approach that empowers young people to make the most appropriate personal decision about their sex practice.
The Right often invokes dubious if not false arguments to moralize against youthful sex. Not unlike campaigns against age-appropriate alcohol consumption (as exists in France) or non-legal drug experimentation (like in Holland), many conservatives use the fear of sex to terrorize young people, their parent, educators and public officials.
If it was not so pathetic, the most disturbing example of this approach is the recent “scientific study” by Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson and Lauren Noyes, “Sexually Active Teenagers Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide,” published by The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis. This is the same Heritage Society that has steadfastly championed the slaughter in Iraq: one can only wonder if they see a virgin American solider dying for his/her country as a patriotic hero?
Its findings are quite disturbing: “Teenagers of both genders who are sexually active are substantially less likely to be happy and more likely to be depressed than are teen-agers who are not sexually active.” It claims that 14.3 percent of girls and 6.0 percent of boys who are sexually active report having attempted suicide; this compares to 5.1 percent of girls and 0.7 percent of boys who were sexually inactive. (No corroborating peer-reviewed research can be found to validate these findings.)
In conclusion, it champions abstinence until marriage: “[T]een abstinence is an important step lead-ing toward a loving marital relationship as an adult. Such abstinence education programs are uniquely suited to meeting both the emotional and the physical needs of America’s youth.”
However, a study by Lydia Shrier, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of clinic-based research for the division of adolescent/young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, directly challenges the Heritage study. She shows that sexually active young people 15 to 21 years old report more positive feelings on the days they had sex than on the days they didn’t. Shrier urges that “[w]e have to tailor the [sex education] messages to reflect our understanding that for many people, sex is not a bad thing or a thing that is ridden with guilt, but as a more positive and less negative experience, for some of these young people, than other things in their lives.”
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Like Shrier, few experts who work in youth healthcare or sex education believe that the abstinence-only approach works. Martha Kempner, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), argues against it. “This is a social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention,” says Kempner. “They’re going so far backwards in the messages they’re giving women — that purity is the most important thing and what you should be striving for is a wedding. Saying that the most important thing you can do is [to] get married and have children isn’t the most empowering message.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has also come out strongly against the abstinence Crusade. Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the committee that wrote the AAP’s new recommendations on teen pregnancy policy, stated: “Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy.”
With greater fury, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports sex education, insists, “To be preaching abstinence when 90 percent of people are having sex is in essence to lose touch with reality. It’s an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with public health.”
A series of studies released over the last few years only reinforce this conclusion. The University of California San Francisco’s AIDS Research Institute reported that in 2005 almost two-thirds (63%) of all high school seniors in the U.S. had engaged in sex. A 2004 youth risk assessment survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that just under half (46.7%) of high school students said they had had sexual intercourse; this was down from the 54 percent reported in 1991. Similar findings were reported in a 2003 CDC survey that found that half U.S. students in grades 9-12 have had sex.
For the first time since the government began its National Survey of Family Growth in 1973, more girls (47%) say they have had sex than boys (46%). Girls also report a high use of contraceptives (83 percent). In 2002, the National Center for Health Statistics conducted a survey of 12,571 Americans aged 15 to 44 years. Among its findings was that, from the teens surveyed, more than half reported having engaged in oral sex, with an equal proportion among both girls and boys. Equally revealing, 11 percent of girls 15 to 19 reported that they had at least one same-sex encounter; this was the same percentage for women 18 to 44, but less than the 14 percent reported by the 18 to 29 subset.
An analysis of this development, “Abstinence-Only Education: Politics, Science, and Ethics,” by John Santelli of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (with Alan Guttmacher Institute support), confronts the Christian conservative argument head-on. He attributes the decline in teen pregnancy rates to increased use of contraceptives and argues: “Although advocates of abstinence-only government policy have suggested that psychological harm is a consequence of sexual behavior during adolescence, there are no scientific data suggesting that consensual sex between adolescents is harmful.”
In his study, he found that between 1995 and 2002, U.S. teen pregnancy rates declined by almost one-quarter (24%). He notes that most of the decline (86%) was due to more sexually active teens in 2002 using contraceptives, using more effective methods (e.g., condoms and birth control pills) and using multiple methods (e.g., the pill together with condoms) than in 1995.
Finally, a longitudinal statistical analysis by Janet Rosenbaum, a Harvard doctoral candidate and published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 53 percent of adolescents who said they made a virginity pledge denied doing so a year later, often after they had become sexually active. In addition, 10 percent of teenagers who said they had had intercourse and then made a pledge or became born-again Christians subsequently (i.e., “secondary virginity”), said they were actually virgins. She reports that previous studies found that teenagers who make pledges contracted STDs at nearly the same rate as those who didn’t, but that they have fewer sexual partners, are less likely to use condoms and more likely to engage in anal or oral sex.
These findings have drawn the ire of the pro-abstinence brigade. Leslee Uhruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse of Sioux Falls, S.D., called Rosenbaum’s study “junk science.” “These programs work,” Unruh insists. “We see it all the time. I don’t trust this data,” she said. “Things have changed.” Yes, things have changed.
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Fifty years ago, Alfred Kinsey published his now (in)famous studies on American male and female sexuality. For all the methodological flaws in his research, Kinsey’s twin studies remain the touchstone for understanding sexual life in American. One of the many reasons he was assailed (like Freud a half-century earlier) was his unblinking acknowledgment of youthful sexuality. As Kinsey wrote, ” the onset of regular sexual performance is usually coincidental to the onset of adolescence.” His words are as true today as when first written.
This should not surprise anyone, least of all because we all experience this profound physical transformation of our own being. The political battle confronting young people today is over the meaning of this very personal, private experience. Under the incessant social pressure of the marketplace, youthful physical maturity, essentially the biological ability to sexually perform, has become exploited into highly eroticized commercial plunder.
In Kinsey’s day a half-century ago, young people were just beginning to be acknowledged as sexual beings–Dean, Elvis and Marilyn invoked a new, erotized sense of self, of possibility, of overcoming the scarcity culture that defined the previous quarter-century of depression and world war. Passion and pleasure were beginning to be mass marketed, suggesting a new sexual cultural available to all.
During the intervening decades, passion and pleasure has become a banality of consumer society. And youthful sexuality has been increasingly pulled apart, at once a great blessing and a terrible curse. Corporate America, championing secular modernization, has made it the most prized demographic; Christian America, invoking a regressive, Puritan-era resistance to the commodification of sexual life, has made it a false purity. The market champions a notion of a powerful, all-too-human desire driving adolescent sexuality; it is a notion that infuses youth with a sense of passion that all is possible. Unfortunately, under the Christian Right’s abstinence-only policy, the necessary knowledge and self-confidence needed to negotiate this torturous environment are denied.
The Christian Right has state power, but its policies don’t work. This failure is evident most vividly in the SRT virginity pledge and the Heritage study claims that adolescent sexual activity leads to depression and suicide. Both a group-think commitment at a high-tech rock concert or the use of a scare tactic long out of fashion (once masturbation was said to cause blindness and madness) cannot address the genuine challenges at the heart of youth sexuality.
Bush was elected in 2000 and 2004 on the strength of Christian Evangelicals and Conservatives. He pledged to extend federal funding to religious groups that provide social services, especially those that promote abstinence to young people. (Nearly all monies go to Christian groups even though conservative Jewish and Islamic organizations share their values.) He fulfilled his pledge–and it has not worked.
The Bush abstinence-only Crusade is a failure. Yet one more failure of a presidency defined by failure: whether Iraq and Katrina policies or its tax cuts, ever-rising national dept and the foreign PEPFAR program. One can only hope that the Democrats will remember their children and grandchildren, the sexual repression and lies that they live with, and move quickly to overcome Bush’s abstinence-only adolescence sex policy.
DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for “Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sources referred to can be found at:
ß Advocates for Youth–at adovatesforyouth.org
ß American Academy of Pediatrics — at www.aap.org.
ß Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics — at www.cdc.gov/nchs.
ß Alan Guttmacher Institute — www.guttmacher.org.
ß National Abstinence Clearinghouse–at www.abstinence.net
ß Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States — at www.siecus.org.
ß Silver Ring Thing–at www.silverringthing.org
ß University of California San Francisco’s AIDS Research Institute — at http://ari.ucsf.edu.
Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy and Clyde E. Martin, “Sexual Behavior
in the Human Male,” Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1948, p. 219.
Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson and Lauren Noyes, “Sexually Active Teenagers
Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide,” published by
The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis (cda 0304)–at
Janet Rosenbaum, “Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents’ Retracting of Virginity
Pledges and Sexual Histories,” American Journal of Public Health, June
2006, vol. 96 issue 6, pp. 1098-1103.
John Santelli, “Abstinence-Only Education: Politics, Science, and Ethics,”
Social Research, Fall 2006, vol. 73, issue. 3, pp. 835-58.
Lydia Shrier, Mei-Cdiung Shih and Laura Hallar, “Improved Affect Following Coitus: A Functional Perspective on Adolescent Sexual Behavior,”
Journal of Adolescent Health, 2006, vol. 36 issue 2.