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Cruising with Lazarus

Who's in Charge of Abstinence, Anyway?

March/April 2005

David Salyer
Abstinence. Hey! Who's in charge of abstinence in this country, anyway?

Well, it's Wade Horn. Last December, W, The President, appointed Horn, an Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, head of a new federal program to promote sexual abstinence. Horn blames Hollywood for teen promiscuity and believes comprehensive sex education programs that include information about contraception or condoms send "mixed messages." Despite having a name that makes him sound like a porn star, he's all pumped up about spending millions and millions of dollars to make sure teens just say "no" to sex and feel supported in that choice. This tired, recycled and very retro Nancy Reagan approach is doomed, and so is Wade Horn. He's already been dubbed the "chastity czar" by the media; that "czar" title is pretty much the kiss of death.

Do we need Wade Horn? Do we need a federal program to promote sexual abstinence? According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, 61% of America's graduating high school seniors have had sex, so maybe somebody ought to be talking to teens about abstinence. But wait a minute ... hasn't the federal government already been spending big bucks on abstinence-only programs for years? Sure! Back in 1996, Congress passed that welfare reform law, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, and it authorized $50 million annually for five years so schools would "teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." You remember that legislation; it's the one where they managed to come up with eight different ways to declare that sex outside marriage is always bad and wrong and harmful. And just last year, Congress committed another $168 million for abstinence-only education in 2005.

Truth be told, the Feds have been spending money on abstinence since 1982, way before this Horn dude entered the picture. In fact, the federal government has never funded any comprehensive sexual education. In the 1970s, the feds doled out money for school programs that featured monotonous little films about sperm or menstrual cycles. Boys in one room, girls in another -- why do we accept the arbitrary notion that teenage boys don't need to know anything about the female menstrual cycle? If school systems wanted money for any other kind of program, they had to look elsewhere for funding. Plenty of states, especially those in the South and Midwest, just took the government money and let schools screen those feckless flicks.

By the 1980s, HIV and AIDS had made it impossible for public school districts to ignore sex. As a result, many adopted a more comprehensive approach, sometimes known as "abstinence-plus," that emphasized saying "no" to sex in addition to providing medical and scientific information about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and sexual orientation. By the 1990s, two out of three public school districts mandated sexuality education -- a development that galvanized America's Religious Right and had them scheming and plotting ways to have sex education removed from the classroom altogether. But since all kinds of polls and surveys tell us the majority of parents want comprehensive sex education in schools, the Religious Right was forced to concoct a new strategy: take control over what is taught.

And so the shrill, ultraconservative voices behind groups like Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition rabidly promoted the misconception that comprehensive sexuality programs don't really discuss the merits of abstinence, but provide explicit directions about how to have sex. When presented with evidence that such programs actually corresponded to a decline in out-of-wedlock teenage births and sexually transmitted diseases in the 1990s, they huffed and puffed and predictably ignored the facts in favor of something they have always put first: getting their way.

In 1995, several quasi-Christian, self-described family groups approached Lauch Faircloth, the Republican senator from North Carolina, with a plan to draft abstinence-only legislation. Their goal was to restrict the language of all federally funded sexual education by mandating that any program "have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity." Buried in 1996's welfare reform law, abstinence-only legislation passed with little debate and no revisions. If states wanted funds provided by the new legislation, they were forced to abandon whatever programs they had in place and adopt abstinence-only education. Plenty of states with education budget problems accepted the funds and this has ultimately led to the widespread institutionalization of abstinence-only education.

Ironically, one year before the Religious Right succeeded in getting their agenda subsidized by the federal government, a study conducted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States found that nearly two thirds of teenagers believed teaching "Just Say No" was an ineffective deterrent to sexual activity. With all the energy America's Religious Right puts into the crass manipulation of politicians and fretting over the sexual orientation of every puppet and animated creature on TV, there's probably no time left for them to care what teenagers think or feel, anyway. The Right's goal is to create generations of sexless, puritanical Stepford teens, devoid of passion or curiosity or even a hint that sex feels good. With these folks, it's not even clear if it's supposed to feel good in the context of one of those traditional, monogamous, heterosexual marriages they consider sacred.

The five-year abstinence-only funding cycle created by 1996's welfare reform law ran its course and legal challenges from various states assured it wouldn't be revived. In 2000, Congress simply established another abstinence program to bypass state governments and send grant money directly to community-based organizations. This allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to fund any kind of public, private and faith-based entity committed to promoting abstinence. Shockingly, grants have been awarded on the basis of nothing more than the submission of a table of contents page or a brief summary of the curricula.

Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform (Minority Staff Special Investigations Division) released an analysis of the 13 most commonly used abstinence-only curricula in the country. Eleven curricula, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, contain errors, misrepresentations, subjective conclusions and outright falsehoods about reproductive health, abortion, gender traits, condoms and HIV. It's pretty shameful to be teaching kids that sweat and tears are risk factors for HIV transmission when we've known for over 20 years that they are not. Regretfully, it appears that abstinence-only proponents will do anything -- lie, distort facts, blur religion and science -- in their efforts to stop teenage sexual activity. Is this what it has come to in America?

Again, let's ask: Do we need Wade Horn? Do we need a federal program to promote sexual abstinence? Since the Department of Health and Human Services is crawling with publicly pro-abstinence appointees -- Tommy Thompson, Claude Allen, Dr. Alma Golden, William Steiger -- who needs Wade Horn czaring up the place? And why create a new federal program to promote sexual abstinence when HHS is all over it?

Like everything else beget by W, The President, none of this adds up.

David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer-sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Abstinence Programs


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