Trump's Embrace of Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Is a Threat to Your Health
Instead of learning safer sex practices, students are simply taught to keep it in their pants.
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As a sex researcher and educator, watching the first year of the Trump administration unfold has been frightening. This administration’s rejection of science—especially the science of sex—has resulted in numerous budgetary decisions and political appointments that will ultimately cause untold harm to Americans’ sexual health.
The scariest thing to witness was they way the administration cozied up to advocates of abstinence-only sex education, while freezing out supporters of evidence-based approaches to sexual health promotion. Nowhere was this more evident than in the federal budget proposal released in the spring, which recommended retaining millions of dollars in funding for the government’s “Abstinence Education and Personal Responsibility Education Program,” an initiative the Obama administration sought to eliminate completely from the budget the year prior.
This program emphasizes one thing above all else: teaching adolescents to avoid sexual activity until marriage. Instead of learning sexual communication skills and the information they need to know in order to practice safer sex, students are simply taught to keep it in their pants.
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Time and again, research has shown that these programs are not only ineffective when it comes to achieving their goals, they may be counterproductive. Studies have found that abstinence-only programs do nothing to reduce rates of teenage sexual activity or STD diagnoses. Further, research has found that abstinence education is paradoxically linked to higher rates of teen pregnancy and births.
These programs don’t work, in part, because many of them actively promote misinformation and falsehoods about condoms, abortion, and STDs. But it’s not just that—the abstinence approach is also just completely unrealistic in an era where the average age of marriage is approaching 30, while the average age of first sexual intercourse is between 15 and 16. Does anyone really think we can start convincing teens that sex can—nay, should—wait until they’re in their thirties?
At the same time the Trump administration has been angling to invest in ineffective abstinence-based sex education, they’ve quietly been cutting funding for approaches that do work. So far, more than 80 teen pregnancy prevention programs funded by the federal government have been informed that their grants will end within the next year, with some having their funding yanked abruptly without any time to wind down. All in all, it amounts to a cut of more than $200 million to scientific programs aimed at helping teenagers to make healthy sexual decisions, avoid STDs, and prevent unintended pregnancies.
Many of the researchers in charge of these programs were simply informed that their work was "no longer in the federal government’s best interest.” Translation: Their work wasn’t in the interest of the current administration’s appointees at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS). For example, Valerie Huber, chief of staff to the assistant secretary for health, was once the president of a group called Ascend, a group that formerly went by the title “National Abstinence Education Association.”
The current embrace of abstinence-only advocates and policies comes on the heels of years of improvement in American adolescents’ sexual health. In fact, the teen pregnancy rate in the United States is currently at a historic low; however, I should point out that it’s still much higher than the rate in other industrialized nations, like those of Western Europe. In other words, while we appear to be doing better than we were a few years ago, we’re still lagging behind our peers.
Unfortunately, by doubling down on abstinence programs and gutting evidence-based sexual health promotion, we risk halting, perhaps even reversing these positive trends. And by the time the effects of this administration’s damaging policies show up in the data, it will be too late for today’s younger generation. They will have suffered the negative impact of poor sex education, something that could have lifelong implications for their overall health.
Among other things, we know that untreated STDs—like gonorrhea and chlamydia—can cause infertility. Likewise, some STDs—like HPV—can cause devastating cancers of the throat and genitals. And yet other STDs—like HIV—are deadly.
No matter what current HHS employees say, protecting the health of our youth always has been—and always will be—in the best interest of our federal government. Teaching adolescents what they want and need to know about sex will help them to make sexual decisions that will ultimately reduce rates of STDs and their damaging consequences. It will reduce rates of unwanted pregnancies and, by extension, abortion. It will also help folks to establish happier, healthier, and longer-lasting relationships and marriages.
The way to accomplish all of this is by paying attention to science and evidence, like the mountain of data showing that is linked to better sexual health outcomes on virtually every possible metric. What the research shows is that, in terms of sex education, more (and accurate) information is always better than less (and false) information.
Here’s to hoping that Americans send a message at the ballot box next year that we want our government to go back to making decisions about sex education and sexual health promotion that are based in science, not willful ignorance.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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