A "Conspiracy of Silence" in Texas

A new study of sex education in Texas (via RHReality Check) by the Texas Freedom Network reveals just what our federal abstinence-only dollars have been paying for. Texas spends far more on abstinence-only programs, $18 million in 2007, than any other state.

What those dollars have produced, according to TFN's study, is "generations of sexually illiterate young people" fed "grossly distorted or simply wrong" information "at a time of high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs." (And teen sex, period: According to the TFN's report, kids in Texas are having more sex--and more unsafe sex--than kids in the US as a whole.)

Among the TFN's astonishing findings:

• Ninety-four percent of Texas school districts offer no sexuality education (beyond basically slapping kids on the wrist and saying 'don't do it') whatsoever. Added to the 2.3 percent of school districts that teach nothing about sex at all, that's 3.7 million students who aren't taught the most basic information about how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs. School district officials contacted for the study responded with variations on "our kids learn about sex at home," with one school superintendent telling researchers, "Most of these kids live on a farm... They get a pretty good sex education from their animals." As the researchers note wryly, "We found it interesting that some officials seemed to interpret 'sexuality education' as mostly a 'how to' discussion. Given that Texas has one of the highest teen birthrates in the nation, clearly many of our young people already know 'how to.'"

• Textbooks used in abstinence-only sex education classes typically focus on motivational skills and "pep talks" for practicing abstinence, ignoring anatomy, puberty, menstrual and ovulation cycles, sexually transmitted diseases, and any information about contraception except (often inaccurate or misleading) data about the drawbacks and limitations of condoms and other birth control.

• The TFN found outright factual inaccuracies (distinct from distorted or merely misleading information) in 41 percent of school districts' sex-education materials--meaning that "more than two out of five Texas secondary schools teach children demonstrably incorrect information in sexuality education instruction." Inaccurate information about condoms was "by far the most common type of factual error" the researchers found. Classes teach that condoms "offer virtually no protection" against STDs; that condoms fail a third of the time, and that "Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, 'Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads – they may protect you some.'"

• The ab-only materials also frequently lied about STDs like HIV and HPV--claiming, for example, that "HIV can pass through condoms," that HIV can be transmitted by kissing, and that condoms provide no protection from HPV, strains of which can cause cervical cancer.

• Some more bizarre claims, taken directly from abstinence-only curricula: Sexually active teens are more likely to commit suicide; women who lubricate during sex are more likely to get pregnant; people who have sex before marriage are less able to be "intimate" later; "the divorce rate for two virgins who get married is less than 3%." One abstinence-only video directly equates HPV with death, suggesting that if a woman marries a man with genital warts she'll "probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death."

• And, predictably, the materials are loaded with gender stereotypes, of the "boys pursue, girls wait" and "a woman who has sex is like a used-up gift" variety. One textbook says that girls who dress provocatively are saying, “Here I am. Come take me"; another compares women, sexually, to "crock pots" and men to "microwaves." Gay kids, meanwhile, are invisible--relegated to warnings that class materials "shall not represent homosexuality as a normal or acceptable lifestyle" and that "students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas and highly correlated with the transmission of AIDS."

These are public schools, in one of the largest states in the nation (one where, I should add, I grew up and received much more comprehensive sex education than kids are today. Who knew the '80s would seem enlightened in retrospect?) Obama and Congressional Democrats, to their credit, have taken some positive baby steps on ab-only--reducing 2009 funding for such programs by $14 million, for example--but it'll take a lot more than that to turn a tide of misinformation that is surely not limited to Texas. Obama pledged to cut federal spending on programs that "aren't working." By any measure, the $176 million we're spending on abstinence-only education qualifies.

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