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Religion and Sex: The Politics of Abstinence-Only Sex Education

Obama may be the President, but that does not mean that sex is not on his mind. Yes that’s right, Obama has been tackling the topic of  sex education. In his 2017 budget proposal, Obama cut all funding for abstinence only sex education. Though his proposal does not actually change anything (Congress has not yet approved the budget), he has managed to renew the debate over how sex education should work in the United States.

Currently, the federal government gives out $10 million in grants for abstinence only programs, reflecting its significant support for this form of sex education. Yet in recent years, the national tide has started to turn away from abstinence only sex education. Multiple studies have shown abstinence only sex education to be ineffective and to lead to higher rates of teen pregnancy and likelihood of getting an STD.  The purpose of sexual education is to teach kids about how to have safe and healthy sex lives—abstinence only simply teaches them not to have sex. In 2002, the Heritage Foundation claimed that “abstinence programs also can provide the foundation for personal responsibility and enduring marital commitment” in young people by encouraging them  to wait until marriage to have sex.  Yet teaching teenagers not to have sex does not necessarily mean that they will be more responsible. Though abstinence is undoubtedly the most effective way to avoid getting pregnant or obtaining an STD, many feel that it is unrealistic to expect teens not have sex. A 2009 survey in Mississippi–a state with an abstinence-until-marriage sex education curriculum—showed that 58% of female high school students and 64% of male high school students reported ever having had sex, illustrating one of the biggest issues with abstinence only education: not only does it not stop teenagers from having sex, but it also does not teach them how to have sex safely.

US map abstience

If abstinence-only education is not the answer, what is? Many states, like New York, use more comprehensive forms of sex education, and teach students how to prevent pregnancy and STIs. Though systems like this are more informative than abstinence-based curriculum, other countries have found even better ways to teach students about sex. In the Netherlands, sexual education starts in kindergarten and continues through high school.  At each stage of education, schools prepare children to have healthy sex lives. At age four, students start to learn about love, at age eight, they talk about gender-stereotypes and body image, and at age eleven, they start to talk about sexuality and birth control. The program is not just meant to teach kids how to prevent pregnancy and STIs—it is also meant to help students explore ideas of sexuality and help them develop healthy relationships. The broad curriculum has been dubbed sexuality education because it goes further than just talking about having sex. The Netherlands system has managed to build inclusiveness and decrease rates of unwanted pregnancies and STIs, making it a worthy model for the US.

Even though the current abstinence only system is ineffective in teaching healthy sex habits and preventing unwanted pregnancies, it receives federal funding and support from many members of Congress. For the past 3 years, Obama has proposed this controversial cut, and for the past three years, Congress has funded abstinence only. Why does Congress continue to fund this failed program? It is not because the public favors it. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans oppose giving federal funding to abstinence only programs, meaning that if the members of Congress were listening to the majority of the people they are supposed to represent, abstinence-only would not be federally funded.

This stance may be unpopular on a national level, but it fits in very well with the Republican party’s ideals. The party tends to support traditional family values, which to it includes not having sex until marriage. Since 1980, the Republican party has become very closely affiliated with Evangelical Christians, allowing many traditional Christian morals to be integrated into the political system. While Evangelicals do not make up the largest group of people in the country, their support has given the Republican party a long-term base of voters. People who are raised Evangelical tend to keep their faith later in life, and Evangelicals have high birthrates, creating an ever-growing group of voters. Evangelicals have been very loyal to the Republican party in recent years. In the 2014 election, 78 percent of Evangelicals voted Republican. But why does this matter? Why should the Republicans care about Evangelical voters? According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of eligible voters identify as born-again or Evangelical Christians, making them a very powerful group of voters. Even though only 30 percent of the general public is in favor of funding for abstinence-only sex education, 49 percent of Evangelicals favor it. Though looking to Christian values is not always a problem—many Americans are Christian and several Western ideas of morality are based on Christian teachings—it can cause issues when the government starts to impose them on the people.

All in all, the United States needs to take a critical look at its sexual education system and the motives behind maintaining the status quo. The United States has higher rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of contraception use, and higher rates of STIs than many European countries. This shows the need to make changes to our sex education system, whether it be by adopting the sexuality education system of the Dutch, or by simply making sure that teenagers have access to information about contraception and safe sex. Though the religious right wing may make this a political issue, Congress needs to look to what the majority of Americans have said its wants. If Congress were to wisen up and approve Obama’s budget proposal, the US would have the opportunity to become a healthier nation.

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