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Abstinence and the Rise of Anti-Reality Education

Abstinence-only sex education is making the rounds again. It's an anti-science farce, but one that impacts so much more than sex education in public schools.

Abstinence-only sex education is stupid. So when Sharon Slater of Family Watch International sent me her new “study of studies” that promised to bolster abstinence-only education and debunk comprehensive sex education in schools, I planned on ignoring it. When you don’t have anything nice to say, delete the press release, right? Besides, everyone surely knows that the best way to keep kids healthy and safe is to provide comprehensive sex education.

There’s a well-documented scientific consensus. No debunk necessary.

But, of course, there is. Because abstinence-only education isn’t just about a failure to teach kids about sex. It’s about what happens when government officials insist that classes be held at the top of a slippery slope. Thanks in part to that program — and the willingness to ignore evidence that resulted in its popularization, people who have a shaky relationship with evidence can now claim to be professional educators without getting laughed out of school. People who tout the Common Core, believe DARE works, and advocate realistic active shooter drills. People who think abstinence-only education is scientifically sound, despite the positions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,the American Public Health Association, and the freakin’ United Nations.

The United Nations defines CSE as “an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information”. The UN considers it fundamental human right, and they make a compelling case. Turns out the Universal Declaration on Human Rights guarantees “the provision of unbiased, scientifically accurate sexuality education.” The comprehensive kind.

And as long as we’re on the topic of scientific accuracy, there have been literally hundreds of studies on the efficacy of CSE. It’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative. Researchers have known since 2007 that abstinence-only education has no impact on delaying sexual intercourse, reducing risky sexual behaviors or, you know, abstinence. In 2012, the CDC doubled down with an analysis of 66 CSE programs and 23 abstinence-only programs. The comprehensive approach decreased the rates of sexual encounters, risky sexual behaviors, teen pregnancies, and—guess what?—abstinence. “Comprehensive risk reduction was found to be an effective strategy to reduce adolescent pregnancy, HIV, and STIs,” the authors of the report concluded. “No conclusions could be drawn on the effectiveness of group-based abstinence education.”

I could go on. There’s the 2016 paper that reviewed 224 randomized, controlled studies and concluded that abstinence-only education utterly fails students; the longitudinal data that suggests kids taught abstinence failed to use condoms; the studies that link broken virginity pledges to HPV and teen pregnancy. Even if Sharon’s “study of studies” had anything to offer, it would first have to dispatch with decades of consensus. You shouldn’t be opposed to the notion that a rogue physicist could disprove gravity. But it should take more than one research paper, from an organization that traffics in fundamentalism and homophobia, to convince you.

Tragically, decision-makers in school districts across the country don’t understand the difference between legitimate scientific inquiry and guesswork. Sure, it sounds right that kids should train to respond to school shootings the same way they train for fires. But the evidence suggests that realistic active shooter drills cause psychological damage and offer little or no protection in the event of an actual emergency. On paper, Just Say No looked like it would discourage drug use. But studies have shown that DARE and related initiatives are all but useless. To an armchair philosopher, teaching the controversy about evolution or climate change seems like the sort of thing that would broaden horizons. But researchers have demonstrated that questioning the fundamentals muddies the waters, rather than expose students to varying viewpoints.

Yet DARE is still telling kids to Just Say No, science teachers in the midwest are still calling out Darwin for hating god, and kids are still ducking and covering while actors bleed out in their hallways. Support for abstinence-only sex education is a symptom of a much more insidious disease. The people charged with teaching our children how to critically examine information are often, themselves, unable to separate evidence from hocum. We should be worried.

And look, I’m not saying that religious parents don’t have the right to indoctrinate their children. If your conscience says premarital sex is wrong, or that god created the world in six days, one of the wonderful things about America is that you can teach that to your kids. The issue isn’t what we believe—it’s what we claim science believes. Tell me that premarital sex is immoral. Maybe it is. But don’t tell me that abstinence-only education prevents teen pregnancy. It doesn’t.

I have no concrete solutions. Until the folks running school districts and classrooms learn to separate their private beliefs from hard evidence, kids are going to continue to suffer from archaic sex education and Luddite science textbooks. I’d love to empower the next generation of teachers to follow the best available evidence and resist the urge to make outrageous claims just to bolster local superstitions. But that’s a long-term goal, and not terribly realistic at that.

Right now, I’d be content just to see policymakers agree on some of the fundamentals. Abstinence-only sex education is garbage. Comprehensive sex education is flawed, but the best we’ve got. These are the facts. Even if one rogue study—“a study of studies”—says otherwise.