By Paige Munshell

Many college students may remember the days of high school health, where sexual education was an awkward right of passage. It would be unsurprising to hear from many of them that their sexedincluded the preaching of “abstinence-only,” as these are the types of sex education programs that receive federal funding.

When asked if she thought her abstinence-only program was effective, freshman architecture major Melissa Baum had a simple answer, “No.”

“I still knew nothing about anything,” she said. Abstinence-only education just didn’t seem to make sense.

“It’s not like they think you’ll never have sex in your life” she commented. “So why don’t they just teach you safe sex?”

Federal funding of such programs began in 1981 under the Reagan administration. The federal government has continued such funding, despite research that shows abstinence-only is detrimental in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

The Trump administration has continued this trend by cutting $213.6 million in funding toward teen pregnancy prevention groups, discarding five-year grants supported by former President Barack Obama’s Replication of Evidence-based Programs. Obama’s grant awarding system was the first federal budget to fund comprehensive sex education programs.

On July 14, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal released Trump’s budget cut along with a list of over 80 programs that have lost federal funding. Among them are the Choctaw Nation, Johns Hopkins University and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. These programs work with at-risk populations and parents to educate teens on safe sex and pregnancy prevention.

Abstinence-only sex education does not have good track record among citizens and research groups alike. The U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health published a study in 2011 that spanned sex ed programs in 48 states. Their results found that not only did abstinence-only not cause abstinence behavior, but teenagers in abstinence-only programs were more likely to get pregnant. Abstinence-only programs are positively correlated with teen pregnancy rates and teen birth rates.

Jordan Bryant, a freshman marketing major, does not believe abstinence-only education is effective because “there’s bound to be some kids who don’t necessarily believe or take part in abstinence, and if you teach abstinence-only there’s no way for those kids to learn how to be safe.”

If all the evidence is against the effectiveness of abstinence-only education, why does the federal government continue to cut comprehensive pregnancy prevention programs and support abstinence-only? In regard to Trump’s slashing of funding to comprehensive sex education programs, Reveal commented that Obama’s grant program had “two strikes against it: Former President Barack Obama started it, and social conservatives don’t want to give teens access to birth control.”

Angeline King, a sophomore letters and sciences major, drew a colloquial comparison to highlight the uselessness of abstinence-only education, “What’s the safest way to ski? Don’t ski.”

She said abstinence-only education doesn’t make sense because it ultimately sets teens up for failure. King did not have an abstinence-only program at her high school, but sees other flaws in sex education for teens, even when contraceptive use is taught.

King commented that her “high school health class was almost only heterosexual” and it “only applied to part of the school.” She said she believes sex education classes neglect the needs of LGBT+ teens by failing to represent their sexual health needs.  

Even within comprehensive sex education programs, not all student needs are treated equally. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has made it part of their mission to call for more inclusive sex education that includes LGBTQ+ youth instead of further stigmatizing them.

In a collection of data from sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GLSEN found “only 19 percent of US secondary schools provide curricula or supplementary sex education materials that are LGBTQ-inclusive” and that “fewer than five percent of LGBT+H students have health classes that included positive representations of LGBT-related topics.”

In fact, eight states have what are known as “No Promo Homo” laws, statutes that prohibit teachers from discussing LGBT+ issues in a positive light or at all. These laws prohibit education on LGBT+ sexual health and HIV/AIDS risk in the classroom, and to some extent can limit LGBT+ supportive groups, such as Gay-Straight Alliances.

A shocking example is Alabama’s state code (Alabama State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8)), which dictates classrooms to emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

Nate Rogers, a freshman computer science major from Alabama, was unperturbed to find that this is actually law in Alabama, considering his own sex education class, which had a strong emphasis on abstinence-only.

“That’s what they do in Alabama,” he said.

While it is hard to say whether the more than 80 programs that received funding from Obama’s grant program would all have been LGBT+ inclusive, there was hope among advocacy groups such as Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States that federal funding was finally moving education towards research-supported methods.

With funding cut in the middle of a five-year plan, many research projects are being forced to end. Reveal reports that health officials find it rare to cut off funding in the middle of multi-year projects. The federal funding that has already been spent on such projects will go to waste with no scientifically valid findings.

With Obama’s grant program slashed, there is once again an uncertainty as to whether or not the federal government will follow the path of scientific research, and support the programs effective in preventing teenage pregnancy and teaching safe-sex practices.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of eltpics Flickr account.

Paige Munshell is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at pmunshel@terpmail.umd.edu.

 

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