During the Barack Obama administration, the Department of Health increased federal funding for comprehensive sex education. As a result, in late 2016 and early 2017, U.S. teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates hit historic lows. But Donald Trump is about to undo all that with his Department of Health’s recent announcement to stop spending federal dollars on comprehensive sex ed programs and start funding abstinence-only sex ed instead. These programs have largely been proven ineffective, employ fear and slut-shaming and are opposed by American medical and public health organizations.
Last week the Trump Administration issued a funding guidance for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP), a grant program created under former President Obama that funds organizations and programs working to reduce teen pregnancy rates.
The guidance said that it would end all TPPP grants two years early, immediately cutting off $213.6 million in funding to 81 programs serving millions of teens across the United States. It will redirect that money to fund “more effective” programs focused on “sexual risk avoidance” and “sexual risk reduction,” both euphemisms for abstinence-only sex ed.
“Sexual risk avoidance” is the new abstinence-only sex ed
While “risk avoidance and reduction” might sound great, the guidance makes apparent that these are just re-branded words for abstinence-only sex ed. This move is hardly surprising considering that Trump appointed longtime abstinence-only sex ed advocate Valerie Huber as Chief of Staff of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, the office that oversees the TPPP.
Before getting her new job, Huber served as the president of Ascend, a group previously called the National Abstinence Education Association. While serving as president of Ascend, Huber said, “As public health experts and policymakers, we must normalize sexual delay more than we normalize teen sex, even with contraception.”
She often used “sexual risk avoidance” and “sexual risk reduction” as her ambiguous go-to words instead of the increasingly unpopular (yet more accurate) phrase “abstinence-only sex ed.”
Abstinence-only sex ed is worse than useless
But we know what abstinence-only sex ed looks like. In Texas — a big adopter of “ab-only” programs, which also has the country’s highest birthrate — a 2009 study of 960 Texas schools teaching abstincence-only sex ed found that only 4% taught anything about contraceptives like condoms (and even those schools mostly didn’t cover how to actually use them).
The study also found that these programs only cover heterosexual sex and families (completely excluding LGBTQ students) and use fear of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), slut-shaming of sexually experienced teens as “unclean” and use gender stereotypes involving predatory boys and naïve girls.
But several studies show that abstince-only sex ed is actually useless — or worse. A 2011 study found that an “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates.”
A 2017 study of “abstinence only until marriage” (AOUM) sex ed program outcomes declared that “AOUM programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other sexual risk behaviors … [and] AOUM programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information and life.” Another 2017 study showed that kids in abstinence-only sex ed are actually more likely to contract STIs.
What is comprehensive sex education, and who supports it?
Comparatively, comprehensive sex education provides age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, decision making, abstinence, contraception and disease prevention. These programs encourage healthy communication with family members and peers about sex, teach sexual assault and harassment prevention, discuss how alcohol and drugs impact decision-making and the existence of LGBTQ people.
The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine and the Society of Adolescent Medicine all support comprehensive sex ed as superior to abstinence-only sex ed. Polling also shows that a majority of American adults prefer comprehensive sex ed as well.
The real reason conservatives don’t want teens learning about sex
In the United States, approximately 40% of girls and 44% of boys have sex before age 17. Huber and Trump want to just tell these kids to keep it in their pants until … later. By the time they become adults, these young people will remain ignorant about how their bodies work. American age of consent laws say that young people are ready for the legal consequences of sex by ages 16 and 17, but our government refuses to equip these people with the power to make informed decisions about sex beforehand.
It might seem weird for a president who had five children by three different women to want to dumb-down sex ed, or for supposedly anti-abortion conservatives to support programs that will inevitably increase abortion rates. But religious conservatives that form Trump’s base consider sex wicked, and childbearing as a woman’s Christian duty, so they let teens experience the consequences of sex while keeping abortion, comprehensive sex education and contraceptives far out of reach.
This way they have a citizenry stuck raising kids rather than, say, thinking for themselves or challenging institutional power over women’s bodies and children’s minds.
What do you think of Trump’s plan to only fund abstinence-only sex ed? Sound off in the comments.
Featured image by Evan Agostini via the Associated Press