Sex, Lies, and Federal Money: My Experience With Abstinence-Only Education

One federally funded program included a skit which concludes that giving a condom to a teen is like saying, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads."
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Every year when I was in high school in Lubbock, Texas, we were herded into the auditorium for a lecture from a local youth pastor about the birds and the bees.

At the culmination of every presentation, the pastor pulled a girl up onstage, produced a dirty, dingy toothbrush from his pocket and asked if she would brush her teeth with it. When she invariably said no, he pulled out another toothbrush, this one in its original box, and repeated the question. When she said yes to that one, he brandished the rejected toothbrush above his head and announced to the audience, "If you have sex before marriage, you are the dirty toothbrush."

A report recently released on the state of sex education in Texas details other bizarre things students are taught in the classroom about sex, contraception and their bodies, all subsidized by federal dollars. One skit, titled "Jumping Off the Bridge," concludes that giving a condom to a teen is like saying, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads." Another presentation equates pre-marital sex with instances of marital murder-suicide. Still another compares women's sexuality to crock pots that take awhile to get warmed up, and men's to microwaves that are ready to cook at a moment's notice.

An entire generation of American teens has been confused, misinformed and endangered by abstinence-only-until-marriage programs like these. They are not just paid for by the federal government; states can't use these dollars for anything else.

In the past 15 years alone, more than a billion taxpayer dollars have been doled out to every state to teach curricula that often contain factual inaccuracies about condoms and contraceptives, generalizations about sexuality that are based on biases about gender and sexual orientation, and religious messaging that probably violates the U.S. Constitution.

The programs were a pet project of the Bush administration, and key to attracting votes and contributions from the religious right. Now, much of the money is still being doled out to faith-based organizations and crisis pregnancy centers, the latter often stating as their sole purpose the convincing of pregnant women, including ten and twelve year-olds and their families, that having an abortion will mean a lifetime of regret.

Unbelievable as it may sound, there is no federal law mandating or supervising the medical or scientific accuracy of information taught in schools or given out in tax-exempt pregnancy centers, a loophole used to tell young people that condoms don't work, homosexuality is never part of normal human behavior and sexuality is the one academic subject in which students will be rewarded for lack of knowledge.

In fact, abstinence-only sex education is so damaging that 25 governors, Republicans and Democrats, have refused abstinence-only funds. Rising rates of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted teen births and an increased need for abortion have dramatized the inefficacy and danger of such programs. And last year, the Journal of Adolescent Health published its opinion that abstinence-only funding may constitute a human rights violation.

The huge majority of Americans agree. 88% think teens should receive information about condoms and contraception as well as abstinence in the classroom. Yet, no moves have been made in Washington to make good on these convictions.

If President Obama and Democratic leaders were to fulfill their own promises it could only be a financial win. The public costs associated with teen pregnancy alone total more than nine billion dollars a year, with additional costs of treating sexually transmitted infections. Economic impact statements have shown that every dollar spent on comprehensive sex education would be one of the few good investments these days. Failing to eliminate all funding for abstinence-only programs would be a setback for human rights and tempt a suit for taxpayer fraud.

President Obama and Speaker Pelosi, if you have to throw a bone to the right wing, let it not be the bones of the youth who elected you. The young people who so overwhelmingly voted for change -- partly on the promise of comprehensive sex education -- are certainly not asking for a bailout. We just want the facts that can save our lives.

Video by Charles Stuart. Originally published on

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