Funding Abstinence: The War on Sex Ed

This is a guest post authored by Mary Quantz.

The Trump administration is moving to reverse important progress the United States has made on sexuality education in K-12 schools. Initially, the Trump administration attempted to cut $200 million from the Obama administration’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs, causing funding to end in June of 2018 instead of the original end date of June 2020. However, the 81 organizations affected by this move sued the Trump administration and the courts ruled the funding cuts illegal, ensuring the funding until 2020. However, the criteria for future grants from the Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes “sex risk avoidance” and, unlike the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs, removes any reference to LGBTQ youth and their sexuality education needs . Trump also recently appointed Valerie Huber, president of Ascend , an abstinence-only youth advocacy organization, as the chief of staff of the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2017, Huber wrote in The Hill that the Obama administration’s support of comprehensive sex education “normalized teen sex.”

What Huber fails to recognize is that teen sex is normal, as is the decision teens make to abstain from sex. Comprehensive sex education, when done well, provides teens of diverse identities and backgrounds an array of options that can help them make healthy decisions about their bodies and their sex lives. Comprehensive sexuality education is linked to more responsible sexual behavior in teens and there is widespread support for sexuality education in middle and high school across the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics , the number of teens who have children has decreased by 57 percent between 2000 and 2016, reaching a record low in 2016. While there are still disparities in teen birth rates based on race and socioeconomic status, teen birth rates have been dropping across racial and socioeconomic groups . On the other hand, abstinence-only programs often include false or misleading information about sex, regularly neglect to teach youth about contraceptives and abortion, and promote harmful gender stereotypes. Abstinence is one of many options for teens, but it is not the only option teens choose. Abstinence-only education has been shown to be ineffective in delaying initial sexual intercourse among youth or in preventing teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. Comprehensive sexuality education from reputable sources gives teens the kind of information they need to make informed decisions about sexual activity.

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The Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge LGBTQ youth in their plans for abstinence-only education is even more troubling given that so few states and districts are providing sexuality education that meets the needs of these youth. In 2017, GLSEN reported that only 6.7 percent of LGBTQ students received sexuality education that included positive representations and information about LGB and trans/gender nonconforming perspectives, and LGBTQ students who experience such inclusive content in school report feeling more supported in their schools. LGBTQ students who do not receive comprehensive sex education are at higher risk for teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug and alcohol use while engaging in sexual activity than their heterosexual, cisgender peers. Though the programs that provide comprehensive sex education that is responsive to diverse genders, sexualities, and cultures are few in number, legislators need­ to provide resources to expand these programs. The Trump administration’s actions will make it even more difficult, if not impossible, for schools to provide such important sexuality education to all students.

Given the robust evidence for the benefits of comprehensive sexuality education, it seems that the current administration is either ignoring this research or other forces are at work in these decisions. In the past two years, we have seen threats to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the rights of people of color, particularly immigrants, and the rights of all students to have the education they deserve , regardless of content. Comprehensive sexuality education is the right of every student, and it can be done appropriately at all grades. Education programs that spread misinformation, center shame in discussions of sex and sexuality, and ignore entire populations of youth harm students. They deny the rights of youth to learn about their bodies and make informed decisions, and they deny the wishes of the majority of parents who approve of their children learning sexuality education in school. This move will only cause harm—and it will have a particularly negative impact on youth who are already marginalized in schools.

"If you have never been hated by your child you have never been a parent. " - Bette Davis

About the guest blogger: Mary Quantz is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder and former middle school language arts teacher. Her current work focuses on understanding teachers’ experiences advocating for LGBTQ youth in religiously conservative communities.