Abstinence-Only Curriculum and Establishing Gender Hierarchies

Through SPRANS (Special Programs of Regional and National Significance Community-Based Abstinence Curriculum), The Department of Health and Human Services provides grants to community organizations that teach abstinence-only curriculum to youth. A federal report by the House of Representatives collected in 2004 found that 80% of abstinence-only curriculum, used by two-thirds of SPRANS grantees in 2003, contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health (United States. Cong. House i). Not only did some curriculum contain false information regarding the effectiveness of contraceptives, but many perpetuate dangerous gender stereotypes as scientific fact. Restricting information and providing misinformation about sexual heath to youths not only contributes to a nationwide epidemic of teen pregnancies and sexual diseases, but it also encourages harmful stereotypes and promotes hierarchal gender orders.

Many falsehoods reported in abstinence-only educations are transparent scare tactics aimed to discredit any measures to prevent pregnancy and STD contraction other than refraining from sex altogether. Several curricula cite a flawed 1993 study on condom effectiveness that has been discredited by federal health officials. The study was conducted by Dr. Susan Weller and concluded that condoms reduce HIV transmission by only 69% (Fed 9). Dr. Weller’s conclusions were adamantly rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services statement (Fed 9). Other curricula claim that HIV and other pathogens can “pass through” condoms. One states that, “Sperm cells, STI organisms, and HIV cannot be seen with the naked eye — you need a microscope. Any imperfections in the contraceptive not visible to the eye, could allow sperm, STI, or HIV to pass through. . . .” (Fed 9). This statement is not scientific and has no factual basis. In actuality, the CDC concludes that “Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.” (Condoms and STDs: Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel)

None of the curricula provides information on how to select a birth control method and use it effectively. Even worse, several curricula contain misleading data on condom failure rates in preventing pregnancy. One curriculum states that condoms used in “real-life situations” have a 14% failure rate (United States. Cong. House. 11). In reality, when used correctly, condoms have a 2-3% failure rate. When used improperly, the failure rate rises to 15% (United States. Cong. House 11). This curriculum misleads readers into believing that proper condom use is nearly impossible. The fallacies regarding pregnancy in other curriculum are even more incredulous. One even states that touching another person’s genitals “can result in pregnancy.” (United States. Cong. House 12)

The previously referenced examples demonstrate that abstinence-only curriculum depends on scare tactics and the distortion of facts to advocate a narrow sexual lifestyle. False or misleading information discredits other viable options for healthy sexual habits that are not abstinence. Abstinence-only curricula aim to eliminate personal choice and enforce abstinence until marriage as the only option to ensure sexual health (Forrest 93). They have a basis in ingnorance. On the other hand, a comprehends sex education regards having sex and issues to do with sexuality as matters of personal choice that should not be dictated by religious or political dogmas (Forrest 93). People are entitled to access information about matters that affect them and the decisions that they make (Forrest 93). With this thinking, sex education should provide young people with the means by which they can protect themselves against abuse and exploitation as well as unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS (Forrest 94). The key factor to this approach is the emphasis on personal choice which is an aspect that abstinence-only curriculum neglects.

By their nature, an abstinence-only curriculum teaches moral judgments alongside scientific facts (Forrest 92). For example, the SPRANS program mandates grantees must teach that having sex only within marriage “is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” (United States. Cong. House 13). Many abstinence-only curricula begin with a detailed discussion of differences between boys and girls. Some of the differences are presented as biological fact when they are harmful and incorrect stereotypes. One book in a series titled “Choosing Best” presents a story about a knight who saves a princess from a dragon. The next time the dragon arrives, the princess advises the knight to kill the dragon with a noose. Another dragon arrives and this time the princess suggests that the knight use poison to conquer the beast. Both methods work but leave the knight feeling “ashamed.” The knight eventually decides to marry a village maiden instead of the princess, but did so “only after making sure she knew nothing about nooses or poison.” The curriculum concludes, “Moral of the story: Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.” (United States. Cong. House 17-18). Keep in mind that the program that teaches this curriculum is federally funded. The harm this story and others like it can cause is undeniable. It aims to establish gender hierarchy which positions females in a subordinate position to males. When this story is present in a book on sexual health it suggests that men need to be in a position of power and dominate women sexually to assert their masculinity. It also suggest that woman have a limited choice in terms of sexuality and that leaving a man to decide is the natural order of things.

Another curriculum lists “Financial Support” as one of the “5 Major Needs of Women,” and “Domestic Support” as one of the “5 Major Needs of Men.” (United States. Cong. House 17) This again reinforces traditional gender roles that place women in a subordinate role to men. Yet another curriculum teaches that, “The father gives the bride to the groom because he is the one man who has had the responsibility of protecting her throughout her life. He is now giving his daughter to the only other man who will take over this protective role.” In this example girls are presented as passive objects that can be possessed and exchanged by males. If this passivity is placed in a sexual context, it leaves females more vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse.

Abstinence only education eliminates the authority one has over his/her sexual well-being by portraying abstinence as the only viable option for reproductive health. This is often achieved by presenting false or misleading facts on alternative sexually healthy practices. The basis for many abstinence only curriculum is ignorance. There is also a tendency for abstinence-only curriculum to promote a gender hierarchy in which females are subordinate to males and prevent the feminist ideal of an egalitarian society. In her essay ‘The Origin of the Family”, Kathlene Gourgh lists eight characteristics of male power. Number eight on her list is withholding knowledge (Rich 132-133). By denying women and girls a comprehensive sex education, one is denying them the information to combat sexual oppression. Bell hooks wrote, “Feminists are made, not born.” (hooks 7). We need to educate girls and to the options they have to live free of sexual oppression and subordination.

Lasly I’ll leave you with a link to a video about an abstinence summit sponsored by the Mississippi Dept of Human Services The video discusses some of the points I brought up, and also points out the problem that federally funded abstinence-only programs pose to the separation of church and state.

Works Cited

“Condoms and STDs: Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel.” Centers for Disease Control And Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 04 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2013. <http://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.htm&gt;.

Forrest, Simon. “Sex Education Is More Effective Than Abstinence-Only Education.” Do Abstinence Programs Work? Detroit: Greenhaven, 2010. 91-98. Print.

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everyone: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” Feminism andSexuality: A Reader. Ed. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott. New York: Columbia University Pres, 1996. 130-41. Print.

United States. Cong. House. Committee on Government Reform-Minority Staff SpecialInvestigation  Division. Democrats.­reform.­house.­gov. 108th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. N.p., Dec. 2004. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. <http://www.apha.org/apha/PDFs/HIV/The_Waxman_Report.pdf&gt;.


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