Health

Inside Federally-Funded Abstinence-Only Education: ‘Flushing Taxpayer Dollars Down The Toilet’

CREDIT: Shutterstock

It didn’t take more than a series of tweets to ignite a national controversy about what kind of information American kids are actually learning in their sex ed classes.

When Michigan resident Alice Dreger attended an abstinence-focused presentation at her son’s high school, and live-tweeted the information that the students were hearing about how condoms are full of holes and sex is a component of a bad lifestyle, she sparked widespread outrage. Her tweets were reprinted in national news outlets, and may help her local lawmakers push for sex education reform.

On the very same week that Dreger successfully raised awareness about the harmful nature of abstinence education, however, members of Congress quietly approved additional federal funding to prop up these programs.

Last month, lawmakers designated $25 million in additional funding for Title V, an 18-year-old federal program that doles out matching grants to states that agree to implement abstinence-only programs. The funding increase didn’t get widespread attention because it was slipped into a bipartisan health policy bill — a piece of legislation that was widely praised as a historic reform to the Medicare program.

Experts in the field of sexual health, who are armed with decades of evidence proving that abstinence programs don’t accomplish their stated goals of delaying teens’ sexual activity, aren’t exactly pleased with Congress’ latest legislative move.

“It’s very depressing,” Elizabeth Schroeder, a sexuality education expert, told ThinkProgress. “You’re basically taking this money and wasting it. You’re just flushing taxpayer dollars down the toilet.”

“We’re all frustrated by this,” Debra Hauser, the executive director of Advocates for Youth, added. “Why are we still in a place where we have federally funded programs that have to include information teaching young people that sex outside of marriage will cause them physical and emotional harm? It just seems absolutely crazy.”

Hauser is referring to the fact that Title V puts forth an eight-point definition of “abstinence education” that enshrines a very conservative approach to sexuality into law. In order to be eligible for the funding, programs must teach, for instance, that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

Ever since the Clinton administration, when federal funding for abstinence-only education ballooned under welfare reform, experts like Schroeder and Hauser have been advocating to eliminate ineffective “abstinence only until marriage” programs. They want the government to invest solely in the comprehensive sex ed programs that have actually been scientifically proven to help kids delay sex and make healthy sexual decisions. Instead, they’ve watched Congress continually find ways to keep Title V alive.

Opponents of abstinence-only education do have an ally in President Obama, who has successfully increased federal funding for evidence-based sex ed programs and even attempted to eliminate Title V during his first term. But conservative members of Congress haven’t been willing to give up the fight, and have positioned money for abstinence-only courses as somewhat of a bargaining chip. Republicans restored funding for the Title V program during the political fight over health care reform in 2010.

“These things are slipped in without a lot of debate,” Leslie Kantor, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, told ThinkProgress. “It’s going to be very challenging to actually get rid of abstinence-only programs.”

The extra $25 million approved last month represents the first-ever increase to the Title V program, which has doled out $50 million per year in abstinence education grants since 1998. And according to Hauser, Congress may also have just expanded the reach of religiously-affiliated organizations seeking to teach abstinence in schools.

Under the new measure, if a state government chooses not to use the grant money designated for abstinence programs, independent organizations within the state may apply to take it instead. That could funnel millions of federal dollars directly to right-wing groups like “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs), which have built a vast network across the country based on medical misinformation, anti-abortion rhetoric, and shame-based messages about sexuality.

CPCs have a long history of benefiting from Title V funding, and their employees are often brought in to public schools to deliver abstinence presentations. In fact, the lesson that Dreger live-tweeted last month was led by a CPC-affiliated group. School officials in Dreger’s East Lansing hometown say they were previously unaware that the speakers — who have partnered with schools in that area for the past 22 years — had ties to a religious anti-abortion group.

Sex ed experts say that these kind of partnerships represent one of the biggest risks of furthering Title V funding.

“If you have an outside speaker, very often, people have no idea what could come flying out of their mouth,” Kantor said. “I would say that, in general, people just can’t even imagine some of the silly tactics that get used in these programs.”

Abstinence-focused classes typically include activities that are designed to essentially communicate to kids that having sex will make them dirty. Some of the most popular exercises rely on props like used tape, chewed up gum, a cup of spit, and flowers with no petals. These exercises are supposed to drive home the point that having sex with multiple partners is damaging. Plus, abstinence curricula usually reinforce gender stereotypes by telling students that “boys will be boys” and positioning girls as the gatekeepers of sexual activity.

“You have kids leaving school with such a negative worldview of sex and sexuality, and when they get to the future, who undoes that? Is that what you want them to go into their future relationships with?” Schroeder said.

“I think far too many people see this as harmless — they don’t get the inside view of the kind of crap that’s being taught to our kids,” she continued, pointing out that’s why Dreger’s tweets made such a big impact. “We have to translate why this is such a big deal. Until we connect those dots better, people aren’t going to be as outraged about this as those of us who work in this field.”

In the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that goes toward abstinence-only education may not seem like a huge deal. Compared to what Congress spends on other areas, what’s the harm in conceding a few million dollars to conservatives in exchange for passing other important pieces of legislation — especially since lawmakers separately appropriate money for effective teen pregnancy programs?

But critics of abstinence-only programs say that it’s inappropriate for the federal government to put its stamp of approval on materials that aren’t based in science, don’t offer a good return on investment, and impart harmful messages to youth. They also note that the current patchwork of sexual education standards across the country threaten to widen some of the sexual health disparities that have already emerged between red and blue states.

“The states that tend to elect the abstinence-only funding have some of the higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. So you’re taking states where there are already bigger problems and giving those kids worse education, and we should really worry about that,” Kantor said.

Hauser was even more frank. “The truth is that the money is dangerous,” she said. “The more states that take this money, the more it seems as if this is an acceptable approach.”