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He-Men, Virginity Pledges, and Bridal Dreams: Obama Administration Quietly Endorses Dangerous Ab-Only Curriculum May 2, 2012

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by Debra Hauser, Advocates for Youth

and Monica Rodriguez, Sexuality Information & Education Council of the US (SIECUS)

and Elizabeth Schroeder and Danene Sorace

May 1, 2012 – 9:20am, www.realitycheck.org  

Sometime this month, an updated list of “evidence-based” teen pregnancy prevention programs was endorsed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and posted to the website of the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH).

No notice, not even a press release to announce the addition of three programs to the coveted list of 28 deemed effective and carrying the HHS seal of approval. Until now, this list was the holy grail of the Administration’s commitment to a science-based approach to teen pregnancy prevention and a directive for grantees of the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI).

So why the secrecy about the new additions? What does the Administration have to hide?

We have been around long enough to expect politics as usual in Washington, D.C. The backroom deals and secrecy should not surprise us. The jettisoning of young people and their sexual health for political expediency is not new. But, this blatant hypocrisy needs to stop. This latest example is just too much.

Perhaps the Administration realized that the inclusion of Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education on this select list would call into question its commitment to young people and their sexual health. Once again, they have succumbed to the political pressure of social conservatives and allowed the ideology of the right to prevail over the health and well-being of the nation’s youth. The Obama Administration’s endorsement of this abstinence-only-until marriage program runs in direct contradiction to its stated commitment to the health and well-being of young people and, quite possibly, its promise to uphold science and evidence.

The Trampling of Young People’s Sexual Health

The President has talked about his administration’s commitment to LGBT health and rights by recording his own “It Gets Better Video” and announcing support for both the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act. And, the CDC has recognized the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on young men who have sex with men and has committed millions of federal dollars to reducing the burden of disease on this population.

Yet, at best Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education ignores LGBT youth – and at worst it promotes homophobia. The stigmatization of LGBT youth throughout the program reinforces the cultural invisibility and bias these students already face in many schools and communities. The curriculum’s focus on marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual behavior further ostracizes LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents who still cannot legally marry in most states.

The Director of the CDC has called teen pregnancy prevention and HIV prevention two of the country’s six “winnable battles,” and recent analysis of National Survey of Family Growth data trends indicates that significant reductions in teen births have been primarily fueled by increased contraceptive use.

Today roughly 40 percent of high school students have had sex and young people under age 29 continue to account for approximately 30 percent of all new cases of HIV infection.

Yet, Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education does not include information about the health benefits of contraception or condoms.

Igniting Fears and Spreading Misinformation

In fact, Heritage Keepers contains little or no information about puberty, anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, or sexual behavior. Instead, most of its lessons are devoted to promoting the importance of heterosexual marriage and the value of abstinence before marriage. Students are asked to take virginity pledges and class time is devoted to having students envision and plan their wedding days. Heritage Keepers also teaches students that:

  • “Males and females are aroused at different levels of intimacy. Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated.” The implications of this difference are explained further: “This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46)
  • “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous.” (Heritage Keeper, Student Manual, p. 22)
  • “Cohabitation (when two people live together before marriage) is not like marriage! [Heritage Keepers, p. 30] When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are weaker, more violent, less [equal], and more likely to lead to divorce” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26)
  • “One reason may be that when people bond closely through sexual activity, then break up and bond with someone else, and then someone else, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain a lasting bond.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 56)
  • Sexual activity outside of marriage can lead to:“Sexually Transmitted Viruses, Sexually Transmitted Bacteria, Cervical Cancer, AIDS, Legal and financial responsibility for a child until he or she is at least 18, Raising a child alone, Emotional hurt and regret, Increased chance of abuse from a partner.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 35)

When planning their weddings during class:

  • Young men are asked to envision their wedding day: “The doors swing open and there stands your bride in her white dress…This is the woman you have waited for (remained abstinent for) who has waited for you…This woman loves you and trusts you with all that she is and all that she has. You want to be strong, respectful and courageous for her. With all your heart, you want to protect her, and by waiting (sexually) you have.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 59)
  • Young women are asked to envision their wedding day: “Everything is just as you have seen it in a million daydreams…” When the bride takes her father’s arm: “Your true love stands at the front. This is the man who you have waited for (remained abstinent for) and who has waited for you…This man wants to be strong and courageous for you, to cherish and protect you… You are ready to trust him with all that you have and all that you are, because you have waited (sexually) you have it all to give.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 49)

Limited Evidence of Effectiveness

Not only does the Heritage Keepers program ostracize LGBT youth, withhold life-saving information from sexually active and HIV-positive youth, and use fear-based messages to shame sexually active youth, youth who have experienced sexual assault, and youth living in “nontraditional” households, there are also questions about the effectiveness of this program to delay sexual initiation or favorably impact sexual behavior among youth. The original evaluation by Stan Weed, et al., of the Heritage Keepers program in 2005 was criticized by other researchers for having a flawed design and was never published, much less published in a peer-reviewed journal. Next, the program was reviewed in a congressionally mandated study of Title V abstinence-only-until marriage programs conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and published in 2007. Mathematica found no evidence to support the effectiveness of the program. Specifically, their interim report stated:

…the [Heritage Keepers] Life Skills Education Component did not have significant impacts on 11 of the 12 intermediate outcomes related to sexual abstinence. The one exception is a significant impact among middle school youth on their friends’ support for abstinence.

Mathematica’s final report concluded:

Findings indicate that the [Heritage Keepers Abstinence Program’s] Life Skills Education Component had little or no impact on sexual abstinence or activity.

But, we are expected to believe that the third time must be a charm? This winter, Mathematica was contracted by HHS to review evaluations for their rigor, and this time they recommended Heritage Keepers for inclusion on the list of HHS-approved programs. To date, there is still no published peer-reviewed manuscript to help assess what, if anything, changed for the program to make the list. Was a new study conducted? Did the authors submit new data or simply rework the old?

A Call for Evidence and Rights

Whether the data exists to support the program’s effectiveness is still in question, but the egregious content of the program is crystal clear. The Administration’s hypocrisy must end. It is time to embrace both an evidence- and a rights-based approach to youth sexual health promotion. Evidence of effectiveness is important, but it should not be sufficient. It is not enough to help some students delay sexual initiation while leaving others ill-equipped to protect themselves when they do have sex. It is unacceptable to promote teen pregnancy prevention at the cost of ostracizing LGBT youth, survivors of sexual assault, or youth who are sexually active. Thirty years of public health science clearly demonstrates that providing young people with information about the health benefits of both abstinence and contraception and condoms, does not cause young people to initiate sex earlier or have sex more often. Abstinence-only-until marriage programs leave young people unprepared. They are unethical.

Young people have the right to honest, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health information to help them protect their health and lives. The Administration should immediately remove Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education from the HHS-endorsed list of evidence-based programs currently posted on the Office of Adolescent Health’s (OAH) website. America’s youth deserve better.

Follow Debra Hauser on Twitter, @AdvocatesTweets

Texas: The state of sex (mis)education February 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Education.
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I wish this were a bad joke — the unfair caricature of Texas that you might see on a Prius’ bumper sticker — but it isn’t: a whopping 94 percent of school districts in the lone star state teach only abstinence, according to a new report. Worse yet, the review by two professors at Texas State University found that “sexuality education materials” used in the state “regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs.” They also found that classes promoted gender stereotypes, sexual orientation biases, shame and fear. Oh, what fun!

Disturbing as they may be, those top-line summaries of the findings are nothing compared to excerpts included in the report (PDF) from actual teaching materials. Suicide is a favorite scare-tactic: One program predicts non-virginal students’ miserable future, “You know people talk about you behind your back because you’ve had sex with so many people … Finally you get sick of it all and attempt suicide.” There are fun skits about suicide, too. In one, titled “Jumping Off the Bridge,” the moral of the story is put like so: “Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, ‘Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads — they may protect you some?'” (Got it: Handing out condoms = assisted suicide.)

Pre-marital sex presents a triple-threat, though: If you don’t kill yourself, you’ll probably die anyway — and if you don’t die, you’ll probably kill your sex partner. In response to a question about having pre-marital sex, an abstinence-only education video warns: “Well, I guess you’ll have to be prepared to die. And you’ll probably take with you your spouse and one or more of your children.” (Noted: Pre-marital sex = murder-suicide.) Boys are warned that they might kill their girlfriend by having sex: If you give her HPV, she’ll “probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death.” (So, you know, sure, go ahead and have sex, you murderer.) A curriculum for wee little sixth-graders exclaims: “WARNING! Going on this ride could change your life forever, result in poverty, heartache, disease, and even DEATH.” Another cautions in all-caps: “FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE TO ENGAGE IN SEX NOW IS LIKE PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH ALL BUT ONE CHAMBER FULL!”

Suicide, death, murder? These programs gotta be pretty good at scaring teens out of having sex, right? Mmm, not exactly. Texan teens “rate well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors,” according to the report, and the state has the third-highest teen birthrate in the country.

Virginity pledges don’t mean much, study says December 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Women.
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(Roger’s note: I am reminded of the quote of former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders which goes something like this: “the most unreliable condom is stronger than the vow of abstinence.”  Those moralistic religious idiots who advocate the criminalization of abortion and these ridiculous “virginity pledges” are, in effect, criminally responsible for the damage that is created by such lunacy.  Prior to Roe v. Wade millons of young women suffered and died from infections resulting from back street abortions.  According to the study cited below, young men and women who take the virginity pledge are less likely to protect themselves when they are having sex because they have been prejudiced against the effectiveness of condoms, and therefore suffer from higher rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  Add these numbers to the millions of casualties that have resulted from the coming to power in the US of the un-Christian Christian evangelical right.)

Theresa Tamkins, www.cnnhealth.com, December 30, 2008  

As many as one in eight teens in the United States may take a virginity pledge at some point, vowing to wait until they’re married before having sex. But do such pledges work? Are pledge takers more likely than other teens to delay sexual activity?

A new study looked at the sexual behavior of hundreds of young people, some of whom took virginity pledges.

A new study looked at the sexual behavior of hundreds of young people, some of whom took virginity pledges.

A new study suggests that the answer is no. While teens who take virginity pledges do delay sexual activity until an average age of 21 (compared to about age 17 for the average American teen), the reason for the delay is more likely due to pledge takers’ religious background and conservative views — not the pledge itself.

According to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, pledge takers are as likely to have sex before marriage as other teens who are also religious, but don’t take the pledge. However, pledge takers are less likely than other religious or conservative teens to use condoms or birth control when they do start having sex.

In the new study, Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, analyzed the large chunk of data used in all the studies that have looked at virginity pledges: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In this survey, middle and high school students were asked about their sexual behaviors and opinions starting in 1995-96.

In the analysis, Rosenbaum compared 289 young adults who took virginity pledges in their teens with 645 young people who did not take such a pledge. The researcher was careful to only compare teens who had similar views on religion, birth control and sex in general, regardless of whether or not they took a pledge. Health.com: What should I do if the condom breaks?

Five years after the initial survey the study subjects were aged 20 to 23. Eighty-two percent of pledge takers denied (or forgot) they had ever taken such a vow. Overall pledge takers were no different from non-pledge takers in terms of their premarital sex, anal and oral sexual practices, and their probability of having a sexually transmitted disease.

Both groups lost their virginity at an average age of 21, had about three lifetime partners, and had similar rates of STDs. “And the majority were having premarital sex, over 50 percent,” says Rosenbaum. Overall, roughly 75 percent of pledgers and non-pledgers were sexually active, and about one in five was married. Health.com: Who’s most at risk for STDs?

Unmarried pledgers, however, were less likely than non-pledgers to use birth control (64 percent of pledge takers and 70 percent of non-pledge takers said they used it most of the time) or condoms (42 percent of pledge takers and 54 percent of non-pledge takers said they used them most of the time).

“There’s been some speculation about whether teenagers were substituting oral or anal sex for vaginal sex and I found that wasn’t so,” says Rosenbaum. “But I did uphold a previous finding that they are less likely to use birth control and drastically less likely in fact to use condoms — it’s a ten percentage point difference.”

Rosenbaum is concerned that abstinence-only sex education programs that promote virginity pledges may also promote a negative view of condoms and birth control. The result may be teens and young adults who are less likely than their peers to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Health.com: Sex and teens: Test your knowledge

Federal funds for abstinence only education programs have increased from $73 million in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. About 25 states apply for such funds each year to educate teens, says Rosenbaum. Sometimes programs are measured by how many teens take virginity pledges, not whether the teens stick to them, avoid sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies, says Rosenbaum.

“Studies find that kids in abstinence-only programs have negative, biased views about whether condoms work,” she says. Since such programs promote abstinence only they tend to give only the disadvantages of birth control, she says. Teens learn condoms don’t protect you completely from human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, which is true, but they may not realize that they protect against all the “fluid-based STDs,” she says. “People end up thinking you may as well not bother using birth control or condoms.”

Virginity pledges, along with a six-hour curriculum, were first introduced in 1993 by an evangelical Christian group, and a 1995 survey suggested that 13 percent of teens had taken such a pledge (current survey data are lacking, says Rosenbaum.)

“Virginity pledgers are very different than most U.S. teens — they are obviously more conservative, they have more negative views about sexuality and birth control and so, even if they didn’t take a pledge, these would be teenagers who would be very likely to abstain anyhow,” says Rosenbaum. About 40 percent of the study subjects were born-again Christians, she notes.

The new study does not suggest that virginity pledges are harmful, says Andrew Goldstein, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, because they were not associated with an increase in STDs or unplanned pregnancies. However, they do seem to be “useless,” says Goldstein, who was not involved in the study.

Promoting the pledges gives a “false sense of security and energy could be better spent in education,” he says. “It is time to stop spending money on these useless programs and funnel it into safer-sex counseling.” Health.com: Six things your teen needs to know about sex

When it comes to advice for the parents of teens, Rosenbaum notes that just about every organization, from Focus on the Family to Planned Parenthood, offers a similar message.

“Parents should talk to their kids about their sex. It should not be single conversation, it should be a continued conversation at the moments that are teachable moments,” she says. “Parents tend to hope that schools will take care of it — they can’t, obviously.”