Posted by Adam @ 10:08 pm on April 25th 2008

The evils of information

I’m aware that my posting has been light (although, inexplicably, my commenting has not) but anyhow, I was just reading again about the ‘abstinence only’ programs, in particular those that get funding from the Federal Government.

So, my questions would be:

    Why is this a federal issue?
    Why should all teens abstain from sex? And again, why is this a Federal issue?
    Why do some support the reduction of information given to teenagers so as to restrict their information to what they’re told about abstinence plus what they pick up as gossip from their friends? Oh, and why is this a Federal issue?

There’s nothing extraordinary or original about those questions, but I haven’t seen convincing answers even in principle, let alone answers that fit the actual reality of teenager behaviour.


  1. Well, in principle…

    If the federal government is going to involve itself in sex education in local secondary schools, its only proper role is as a protector of public safety.

    Abstinence is the only sexual behavior which is guaranteed to be safe; ergo, it is the only behavior of which the federal government can permissably approve. Any other role would put the feds in the role of a moral arbitrer, or at best as an aribitrer of conflicting claims about the efficacy of particular methods.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/25/2008 @ 10:56 pm

  2. I could see sex education as a part of health and/or biology education in high school. In that case, it seems to me that the only academically legitimate approach is to provide the most accurate and complete information possible, which would include facts about abstinence (and the notation that it is the only 100% safe sexual behavior).

    Comment by Talarohk — 4/25/2008 @ 10:59 pm

  3. The government now agrees to pay welfare to unwed mothers. This costs everyone money.

    So, the government now feels it has the duty, or the right, to try to reduce the number of people who take these funds.

    Now, I would rather have the government get out of the taking care of unwed mothers business altogether, but once you let the government take care of you they are going to try and control you.

    Comment by daveg — 4/26/2008 @ 5:36 am

  4. If teenagers know about sex, they might want to have it, Adam.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2008 @ 3:34 pm

  5. Abstinence is the only sexual behavior which is guaranteed to be safe; ergo, it is the only behavior of which the federal government can permissably approve.

    On the other hand, if they have an education to provide appropriate advice, they should consider how people behave and what experts in the field think, surely?

    In the UK, sex education is, indeed, part of biology education. We do point out that the only entirely safe sexual behaviour is abstinence, we discuss safer behaviour when people are having sex and we discuss the risks associated with those.

    Comment by Adam — 4/26/2008 @ 4:20 pm

  6. If teenagers know about sex, they might want to have it, Adam.

    Hmmm. The key to the winning strategy will be not to mention sex at all, ever, until they’re married.

    Comment by Adam — 4/26/2008 @ 4:22 pm

  7. Exactly.

    In fact, go a step farther. Active disinformation. Show them this movie by 8th grade.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2008 @ 5:01 pm

  8. As to the in principle bit,

    I don’t honestly think the main thrust is what Rojas mentioned, though that does provide cover (in much the same way that “evolution is only a theory” provides cover for ID advocates; it would be a hard sell to argue that what they’re interested for is more information for accuracy’s sake).

    Really at issue in principle is that, by teaching about anything but abstinence, you’re giving tacit approval to its alternatives. To speak of protected sex is, in some views, for that to be “on the table”, or at least to send that message. I suppose there’s a bit of a slippery slope both ways on it too. When protected sex among teens is something verboten enough to be taught in schools, then it has already crossed far too much of a threshold of mainstream acceptance. So I suppose the “abstinence only” crowd are fighting it both ways. By not even giving the tacit acknowledgment (ergo, in some views, endorsement), that protected sex is even an option, you don’t contribute to further making it a part of the life and culture of a mainstream American teenager. The other way is since it is ALREADY a part of the life and culture of a mainstream American teenager, the fight over sex ed curriculum is at least one battleground that Christian parents have control over where they can try to roll back some of that mainstreamness.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2008 @ 6:21 pm

  9. By the way, this is an issue that John McCain is markedly on the wrong side of. He “strongly opposes” any efforts to disentangle sex education from “abstinence-only” education, as well as favors making both school budgets and international aid dependent on it. Most people assume he would veto any legislation that would set any standards on sex education that went beyond abstinence-only, not for federalist reasons (most assume he would NOT veto such legislation if the standards were “abstinence only”; he has co-sponsored such legislation as Senator), but for moral ones.

    “Senator McCain has a long legislative record of supporting abstinence-based initiatives in his record in the U.S. Senate,” said Trey Walker, McCain’s South Carolina campaign director. “He thinks that abstinence is healthier and should be promoted in our society for young people.”

    For the record.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2008 @ 6:28 pm

  10. I know; it’s one of his less admirable policy positions, to say the least.

    As I said, in the UK we teach (and I taught this, too) that abstinence is the only 100% safe sexual conduct; however, teaching abstinence only is a bridge several bridges after the bridge too far. Greatly emphasising abstinence (which is where, I guess, McCain stands) is also a mistake, because it flies in the face of the expected behaviour and, thus, deprives the class of what is, let’s face it, some of the most useful information they could have.

    Comment by Adam — 4/26/2008 @ 10:42 pm

  11. All teens should abstain from breathing as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by James — 4/27/2008 @ 2:58 am

  12. One of the huge issues with this is that with the rise of abstinence only/focused sex ed has come the rise of STDs in teens. It is estimated that 1 in 4 sexually active teenagers have an STD.

    Sexual education wasn’t like this when I was in high school. The way it was taught to me sounds similar to how Adam says it is taught in the UK. Of course, the climate was much different. It was the Clinton administration and people were terrified of HIV.

    Comment by Liz — 4/27/2008 @ 2:40 pm

  13. Actually, my sex ed was the same, in a public middle school in Topeka, Kansas. It was wrapped into our Health class, though our teacher was pretty weird. He was a coach for something or other, and spent an inordinate amount of time talking to us about how buttholes are not meant for anything but excreting (sorry, no delicate way to say that). He’d go on and on about how unnatural anal sex was.

    But I digress. Point being, we didn’t have abstinence-only sex ed either, but much like Adam described, it was made clear that abstinence is the “ONLY 100% safe choice”, and the rest just followed as part of the health curriculum.

    Comment by Brad — 4/27/2008 @ 4:05 pm

  14. I will add though that it’s amazing to me how stupid certain 20-somethings are when it comes to sex, if all they hear about it is abstinence-only scaremongering. I went to college (the first time) in the Midwest, so I hung out a lot with guys and girls from communities that practiced abstinence-only sex education, and the few times a conversation about STDs or pregnancy or something cropped up, I’d be flabbergasted by the bizarro ignorance that they’d often exhibit. It’s not that they didn’t KNOW about stuff outside of abstinence-only, it’s just that, at whatever critical age, it had been taken away from authority-figures to talk about and thus had been left instead for the kids to hash out amongst themselves. So the end result was sort of like a game of telephone.

    I had a roommate from Wisconsin, cool guy, who had the condom break while he and another girl were getting it on. Anyway, when they realized what had happened, they began planning their lives around having a baby. For like three days they were all-consumed about “now she’s pregnant”. Eventually I got back (I didn’t stop by my place very often in those days) and heard about it, and had the most surreal conversation wherein I had to explain to both of them that semen being in the vagina is not a 100% guaranteer of pregnancy. These were 19-year-olds, who for some reason thought that if sperm hit, that’s it, you’re pregnant. I had to sit there and explain to them that it’s a bit more complicated than that, and maybe they ought to go out and get a pregnancy test.

    This led, a little after, to the exclamation from my roommate, “so wait, you can fuck a bitch without a condom on and she can NOT get pregnant?”

    I’m not sure I had a point with this, just recalling one of the weirder conversations I had in those days, sitting my roommate (and his girlfriend!) down and explaining how fertilization worked.

    Comment by Brad — 4/27/2008 @ 4:14 pm

  15. I went to a public middle school in northern Virginia so, operating under the large assumption that you are about my age; it appears that the country used to be a lot more practical about sexual education as a whole. And my health teacher was weird too. We had to yell the words penis and vagina in the middle of the hall to get into her class. This was, in her words, to desensitize us. It is a humiliating thing for a 13 year old to do, although I can certainly appreciate that she wanted us to be able to talk about sex without giggling.

    The ignorance about sex in this country is staggering. I don’t think I’ve ever had to have a reproduction conversation with anyone, but I have had to sit one of my sister’s friends down to tell her that it is in fact responsible for her to ask that her cheating, skeezy boyfriend wears a condom. (I didn’t call him skeezy to her face.) She didn’t think that it was a polite request to make even though she knew he was sleeping around.

    This marriage of holier-than-thou evangelical ideology with government policy is affecting something as important and basic as sexual health and understanding. It pisses me off.

    Comment by Liz — 4/27/2008 @ 5:24 pm

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