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Dump 'abstinence-only' ed

Why subject students to archaic baloney?


Six weeks ago while shopping at Target, I ran into a college freshman named Maya, and we began to talk. Maya (not her real name) was part of a story I wrote in 2005 about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' "abstinence-only" sex education policies, and so we spent a few minutes catching up. She loves her new school and hopes to become an architect. "And guess what?" she asked, laughing. "I'm not pregnant! Despite all the stupid sex-ed stuff."

That's when our conversation turned to the subject of the 2005 article. Unfortunately, there wasn't much new for me to tell her on that score, as CMS' sex education program -- called FLEBHS (pronounced flee-bus), short for Family Living, Ethical Behavior and Human Sexuality -- is still bogged down in a 1950s-ish fantasy-world view in which teenagers and sex don't mix, and neither homosexuality nor abortion even exist.

To receive federal funding, a state's sex-ed programs must teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies and STDs, and that sexual relations are acceptable only within a married, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. So much for contraception, changing times, or nonheteros -- those realities have no place in the Ozzie & Harriet fantasy we're paying to have delivered to tens of thousands of kids.

Maya's reality certainly didn't fit that 1950s mold. She was raised since age 3 by her mother, after her father left for parts unknown. In the eighth grade, her health teacher told the class that marriage was the one and only circumstance in which anyone should have sex, which left Maya with the feeling that, "my mom had messed up her life by having me, and that the way we lived, just the two of us, was a terrible thing."

Luckily, Maya and her mother have "a tight, honest relationship," which helped her develop a healthy level of self-esteem. She finally decided that, "if the school system didn't know any better than that, why should I pay attention to the rest of what they had to say [about sex education]?"

"FLEBHS was such a bad joke," Maya says today. "Everybody always said their FLEBHS teacher was just going through the motions, and there were some things they wouldn't talk about, even if you asked them directly. I think it does more harm than good."

Apparently, some members of Congress feel the same way. House committee hearings a couple of weeks ago were held to investigate whether the federal government should continue funding abstinence-only sex education. The hearings came on the heels of a December report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing the first rise in teenage pregnancies in 15 years, and a recent CDC report announcing that one in four American teenage girls has a sexually transmitted infection. Those problems have gotten worse, said critics of the current approach, in spite of 11 years of mandated "abstinence-only" education that social conservatives swore would change things for the better. Most speakers at the hearings advocated for sex education that includes information on how teenagers can protect themselves from STDs or pregnancy if they engage in sex.

Various groups are working to change government policy, but none have been more outspoken than the American Medical Association, which says, "American teens deserve medically accurate, realistic, and honest information about sex. Anything less in the era of HIV and AIDS is not only naive and misguided, but also irresponsible and dangerous."

State governments have started to get the message. Of the 49 states that originally signed up for the feds' "abstinence-only" method, 17 have since decided to reject the funding in order to be able to tell students about the real world.

North Carolina still subscribes to the "abstinence-only" approach. Although CMS' sex education curriculum, which is required for students in grades K-9, is less restrictive than most in North Carolina -- for example, it does acknowledge the existence of contraceptives -- it is far from what the majority of experts consider a balanced, comprehensive understanding of human sexuality. In the CMS curriculum, for example, homosexuality, masturbation and abortion are simply not allowed to be mentioned.

Many North Carolinians want a change in the way human sexuality is taught here. A 2006 statewide survey of more than 1,300 N.C. public school parents, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that an overwhelming majority of them think schools should teach students about the use of birth control methods, including where to get condoms and how to use them; testing for HIV/AIDS and other STDs; and homosexuality.

It's high time our state legislators heed those parents, as well as the majority of experts, and change the archaic programs that, over and over, have been shown to have next to zero impact on teens' behaviors -- and that can increase risk because students are denied information on the subject.

Maya hopes a change to a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum would make a difference for students, "but like I said before, it all depends on whether the teachers would talk to students about the way things really are today."

Well said, as you'd expect from someone who lives in the real world, unlike the people who want kids to be denied critical information about their own bodies.

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