National NOW Foundation Times  >> Spring 2008 >> Article

Abstinence-Only Education Just Says No to the Truth: Teen Girls Suffer the Consequences

By Kim Gandy, NOW Foundation President

During the discussion at a Chicago teen forum called Let's Talk About Sex, a young man offered a novel suggestion: if you don't have a condom, you can always use aluminum foil. I can't quite make my mind go there. This sparked a debate among the 14 to 19-year-old audience about the efficacy of homemade plastic bag condoms, having sex while standing up (to prevent pregnancy, of course), and bathing after sex to rid oneself of potentially harmful sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

While our president and his allies believe that talking to teenagers about sex is equivalent to putting them in a room together, naked, with instructions to try out their parts -- we are learning firsthand the dangers of abstinence-only education. Yes, having teen sex talks can be awkward for both parents and educators alike; but the alternative is worse. More teens are having sex without knowing the facts or the consequences, and abstinence-only funding is to blame.

Still, "Just say NO" and "condoms don't work" funding continues. We are reminded of its ineffectiveness in epidemic proportions: a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study released in March indicates one out of every four teenage girls -- that's 3.2 million young women -- "has at least one of the most common sexually transmitted infections." For African-American girls, the infection rate was double -- i.e. half of those between the ages of 14-19 were infected. Common STIs reported in the study included: human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, herpes simplex virus and trichomoniasis.

Higher susceptibility to HIV/AIDS, possible sterilization, and potentially terminal cervical cancer are just a few of the consequences of untreated STIs. It's appalling that before teens are equipped to make responsible decisions about sex, their entire sexual futures could be irreversibly compromised.

From 2000 to 2007, funding for abstinence-only education rose by $116 million dollars, totaling more than $1.3 billion over the last decade. In the last year alone, $176 million was allocated for programs that preach abstention from sex until marriage as the only viable option for adolescents and actually prohibit teaching about condoms or other contraceptives -- other than to discuss failure rates. And a Congressional study found that many of the programs provide false and misleading information to students, and some rely on gender-based stereotypes for their messaging.

As many as 17 states are leading the reality-driven revolt to keep our kids safe, refusing millions of dollars worth of "Just Say No" grants. And on April 23, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) held a hearing on federally-funded sex education programs. Testimony and data discrediting abstinence-only education was overwhelming. Waxman referred to a 2007 "longitudinal, randomized, controlled study of four federally-funded programs" that found "abstinence-only programs had no impact on whether or not participants abstained from sex. They had no impact on the age when teens started having sex. They had no impact on the number of partners. And they had no impact on rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease."

Of course we want our kids to wait. Comprehensive sex education does, in fact, encourage teens to abstain from sex until they are mature and ready. Yet it acknowledges that, with or without adult approval, sex is happening and there are consequences to ignorance.

Research, not religion, should guide us when it comes to our children's health. Education on human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and contraception can only contribute to kids making the right decisions about their bodies or at the very least informed decisions without lifelong physical and psychological consequences.