According to surprising new federal report— which was released late on recent late Friday afternoon so that no one would know about it— abstinence-only sex education classes have had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence."
Unfortunately, this study comes at a bad time for abstinence-only advocates in the Bush Administration.
Wade Horn, the unfortunately named point man for the administration on abstinence-only education, just resigned after overseeing a huge increase in funding for the program to over $200 million, and already those who want to turn our kids into a generation of hos are bouyant.
"After 10 years and $1.5 billion in public funds these failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs will go down as an ideological boondoggle of historic proportions," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. "The tragedy is not simply the waste of taxpayer dollars, it is the damage done to the young people who have been on the receiving end of distorted, inaccurate information about condoms and birth control. We have been promoting ignorance in the era of AIDS, and that's not just bad public health policy, its bad ethics."
But Robert Rector of the Abstinence Clearinghouse cautioned that we shouldn't be worried so much about whether the program is effective, calling that a "bogus issue." Instead we should focus on the importance of the "values being taught."
He has a point. Just because the War on Drugs has been a failure, for example, that's no reason to stop it, so why should we care if abstinence-only sex education doesn't work as long as we are doing the right thing?
If these programs have in fact been a failure, I don't think it is because kids were being given too much inaccurate information. I think the real problem was that they were given any information at all. We need more ignorance about sex, not less. The word "abstinence" itself is probably too explicit. Once you tell kids to abstain from sex until marriage, you have already told them too much. When kids start experimenting with abstaining, it should be no surprise that things can get out of hand and that they will move on to actually having sex.
Kids who are told to abstain from something are naturally going to start wondering what they are abstaining from. Instead of then telling them what sex is in explicit detail, and then telling them not to do it, it might be better if teachers described sex using vague, confusing metaphors the way adults used to back when teens were not having sex.
For example, instead of outlining the mechanics of sex, a teacher could say, "Are you familiar with the workings of the internal combustion engine?" After an hour of talking about pistons and carburetors and spark plugs and power strokes, the class would be over.
Parents used to be the ones to teach their kids about sex even though they usually didn't know a lot about it themselves, and most waited until the day before their children got married. The idea that people should know anything at all about sex before they were married is a peculiarly modern one.
In the past, for example, British mothers used to give their daughters very succinct advice before their wedding nights. "Lie back and think of England," they would say. Obviously, that wouldn't quite work here, but I see no reason why American mothers can't tell their daughters to lie back and think of America. Boys, meanwhile, will have already picked up enough information on the street and from the Internet porn to fill in any gaps.
Some people believe that kids need to learn about sex now to avoid diseases like AIDS. Many abstinence-only programs mistakenly gave lip service to this idea. For example, they would discuss condoms, though only in terms of their failure rates, telling kids that they don't always offer protection from AIDS, which is technically true. But perhaps it would be better not to tell kids about condoms at all. If a student asks what they are, the teacher could tell them that they are balloons and blow one up as a demonstration. A particularly creative teacher could make them into condom animals. If that doesn't work, the teacher could claim that condoms actually cause AIDS.
Of course, there is so much sexuality in our culture now that many kids already know too much about sex despite the valiant efforts of the Justice department and FCC to battle obscenity and of conservative groups to ban contraceptives.
I'm afraid that the only way to fight all this information is with strategically released misinformation. Many young people (and some presidents) already believe that some sexual activities, such as oral and anal sex, don't even count as sex, an idea that may unfortunately have been reinforced by the fact that they are often unmentioned in abstinence-only sex education classes.
To fight this dangerous tendency to define sexuality down, educators should instead define sexuality up. In some Muslim countries men and women are forbidden from shaking hands. So let's take a page from their book and tell young people that a handshake is sex. Let's tell kids that they could get pregnant from cybersex or get a sexually transmitted disease from a kissing. By redefining sex, we could fool kids into thinking they are having sex when they really aren't. Then perhaps that would be as much of a risk as they would be willing to take.
The less accurate information given in a sex education class, the better, because what kids don't know about sex can't hurt them. Since abstinence-only sex education classes usually don't even discuss homosexuality, many gay kids don't know enough about their feelings to act on them, so they usually channel them into excelling in high school musical performances or band, activities that bring delight to other students. Then when they are older they can enroll in ex-gay therapy or become priests.
If more heterosexual students were kept in the dark about their hormonal urges, they would channel their frustrations into sports. Information-free sex education classes would be a boon for high school athletics.
Clearly, more needs to be done to frighten and guilt-trip kids and confuse them about sex. In the Bible when someone has carnal relations with someone the verb "know" is often used. Adam and Eve did not even have sex until they ate of the Tree of Knowledge. The lesson is obvious. If we really want our kids to stop having sex, we need to give them as little knowledge as possible. Abstinence-only sex education has been a good first step in reaching that goal, but we can do better.
If you aren't reading Jon Swift's superior satire every day, you have no idea what you're missing. His headlines alone— "Alec Baldwin's Daughter is a Disgrace"— have me in stitches for days. He very kindly allowed me to reprint this column.