In a Family Way: The misunderstood philosophy of abstinence education

Of all the ways in which the mainstream media and liberal elite demonstrated a failure to understand the phenomenon of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, their reaction to the news of her teenage daughter Bristol’s pregnancy stands out.

One of the three front-page articles the New York Times ran the day after the story broke promised tumult in the GOP and said that “social conservatives” and “groups that oppose abortion rights” may not continue to support Palin. Except that all of the quotes from actual Republicans showed them “uniformly supportive.” One 61-year-old Republican delegate, upon hearing the news, said, “Well, she wouldn’t be the first one.” Others related to the situation, sharing details of their own struggles raising families.

That same media call and response was repeated nationwide. Headlines would promise evangelical (or conservative or Republican) unrest over the news only to find right-leaning voters remarkably blithe and non-judgmental. The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn questioned Palin’s mothering skills and predicted that the pregnancy news would be “a hard one for the Republican conservative family-values crowd to swallow.”

But it was liberals who struggled to come to terms with the pregnancy. A Democrat interviewed for one of the Times’ front-page stories said she hoped the Republicans would undergo “a fundamental re-evaluation of what they mean by family values” and use the moment to teach young women about sex education.

CNN transitioned from a clip of Barack Obama telling reporters that Palin’s daughter should be off-limits (he also reminded reporters that his mother was pregnant with him when she was Bristol’s age) to a segment using the pregnancy as a hook to condemn abstinence education. ABC’s Good Morning America pounded a Republican campaign strategist on the validity of abstinence education programs. Headlines blared “Bristol Palin: Proof that abstinence-only education doesn’t work.”

No one bothered to find out what type of sex education, if any, Bristol had received and assumed her mother—despite on-the-record comments supportive of teaching both abstinence and contraception—opposed sex education.

Though it is empirically laughable to judge the effectiveness or utility of abstinence education based on one teen pregnancy, the response revealed a profound misunderstanding of the aims of abstinence education.

The liberal caricature of abstinence education is of school marms rapping the knuckles of teens and telling them—day after day—not to have sex. In fact, a review of curricula for abstinence education programs shows surprisingly little about sex—and a lot about building self-esteem, understanding risky behavior, finding responsible partners, and growing a family.

ReCapturing the Vision, one abstinence curriculum used for girls-only education, begins with a unit designed to help students see their bodies as beautiful and to accept themselves as they are. Other units teach them how to define their morals and values, resist negative influences, manage conflict and understand their emotions, and determine how to achieve personal, academic, professional, and financial goals. The final unit uses mock interviews, job searches, and résumé writing to help girls transition to adulthood.

In other words, abstinence education isn’t only, or even primarily, about preventing teen pregnancy. It is about learning life skills, encouraging the formation of families, and taking responsibility for your behavior, which helps explain the cultural chasm between its supporters and those who saw Bristol Palin and screamed “hypocrisy!”

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Abstinence-only education doesn’t actually exist. It’s a term used by critics of abstinence education rather than purveyors, who prefer, simply, abstinence education. The term “abstinence-only” attempts to create the perception that abstinence education is a narrow and unrealistic approach. While such loaded terms are to be expected of activists, the media usage of the term is regrettable.

The main federal funding arms for abstinence education (Title V, Section 510 of the Social SecurityAct and the Community-Based Abstinence Education earmark) require that curricula teach the gains realized by abstinence: that it’s the expected norm for all minors, that it’s the only certain way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, that sex outside of marriage is likely to have negative psychological and physical effects, and that out-of-wedlock childbearing has harmful consequences for families and society. The programs also instruct students on how to reject sexual advances, how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability, and the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

So why all the hullaballoo? Well, the two major types of sex education, commonly known as abstinence education and comprehensive sex education, are markedly different and represent opposing values. Abstinence programs strongly encourage abstinence, preferably until marriage. They teach that casual sex, particularly at a young age, poses serious threats of pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease, and can harm one’s ability to build intimate relationships as an adult.

Comprehensive sex education focuses on teaching about contraception and encouraging teens to use it. It neither encourages nor discourages teen sexual activity but, rather, tries to minimize the physical consequences. It treats casual teen sex as a physical phenomenon, not a moral issue. Value-based discussions, such as whether sex should be contained within marriage, are avoided.

While the media may favor one type over the other, there are solid arguments to be made in favor of both. Studies of the effectiveness of the two types of programs are contradictory and all over the map, made weaker by the patchwork quilt of different programs and methods used across the nation. About two-thirds of teens receive comprehensive sex education while around one-quarter is taught abstinence. Politicking infects far too many of the studies, and some observers question whether enough time has elapsed to judge the effectiveness of the relatively new abstinence-focused education. For now, meta-analyses of longitudinal studies show remarkably similar outcomes in the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the programs when it comes to age of sexual debut, use of contraceptives, and pregnancy. While these studies are usually spun as evidence that abstinence education doesn’t work, they could just as easily be taken as evidence that comprehensive sex education doesn’t work.

Part of the problem is that the fundamental differences between the aims of the programs are rarely taken into account.

* * *

Imagine a teenage girl who doesn’t see college as a viable option. When she looks at her community, she doesn’t see a lot of economic or social mobility. There’s little social stigma against getting pregnant out of wedlock and some pretty reasonable incentives for getting pregnant even apart from the natural longing for children. Maybe she thinks it will secure her relationship with her boyfriend. Or maybe she is just ready to transition to adulthood and, with career and college not high priorities, the timing seems right for her. If a demanding career or a college education aren’t on the horizon, having a baby may not seem problematic at all.

How does distributing condoms and teaching teens how to use them help girls who have decided they actively want a child? How does Planned Parenthood’s rhetorical support of “choice” address this girl’s decision-making?

It’s not just theoretical. Last year, it was reported that 17 girls at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts got pregnant, significantly more than the school’s historical average of three or four a year. Whether or not they had a “pregnancy pact” as the media initially reported, no one disputed that the girls were elated about their buns in the oven. Time’s story focused on the supposed inaccessibility of birth control in the town. It failed to explain how to force girls to take birth control religiously when, in fact, they want to get pregnant.

The Washington Post reported in December that 70 girls at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, had children or were expecting. Most were poor Hispanic and black girls. The school opened a day care center two years ago to handle the crush of children. In an era of Jamie Lynn Spears andJuno, some of the school’s teachers wondered how helpful the school’s comprehensive sex education program, neighboring clinic providing birth control, and family workshops for teens really were.

It’s true that teenage pregnancy can happen to anyone, but the worse a teenager’s socio-economic situation, the more likely it will happen to her. A 2001 study published in Family Planning Perspectives found that 40 percent of the poorest American women gave birth to a child before the age of 20 compared to eight percent in the highest economic strata. That same study showed that 65 percent of women then aged 20-24 who failed to graduate high school had a child prior to their 20th birthday, compared with eight percent who went to college.

As Kristin Luker wrote in Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy, “Poor women realistically know that postponing their first birth is unlikely to lead to a partnership in a good law firm.” The policy mindset of affluent suburbanites results in a rhetoric that warns that early pregnancy will destroy future education and career prospects, but this warning assumes that all women are or should be working toward a future in which a prestigious career should precede a family. Such warnings are unlikely to resonate with teenagers who don’t see this as the only legitimate path to adulthood.

In Promises I Can Keep, a study of unwed mothers, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas noted that poor women need reasons to wait if they are to delay having children. They found that poor teen mothers have few incentives to wait to have children since they “have about the same long-term earnings trajectories as similarly disadvantaged youth who wait until their mid or late twenties to have a child.”

From the perspective of disadvantaged youth, the teen years might not be the worst ones in which to bear a child given government and parental help available at that time. And the upper-middle-class ideal of waiting until the end of one’s fecundity to pop out some babies, provided you haven’t mistakenly held off too long, probably seems downright odd. The fact is that millennia of history show teenage pregnancy isn’t exactly uncommon or unwelcome to humans. Just because the normal social encouragements in favor of delay (waiting for the involvement of an active father, a marriage, a stable income) have been swept aside as outmoded doesn’t mean the desire for children has also gone out the window.

As Christopher Caldwell wrote of the Gloucester girls in the Financial Times, “If the old ‘pregnancy pact’ that went by the name of marriage is no longer so readily available, they are not fools to look for a substitute.” Abstinence education, rather than trying to eradicate this maternal impulse, attempts instead to corral the urge to have children into a desire for a stable family and responsible adulthood.

* * *

A typical liberal talking point is that in order to avoid teenage pregnancy, all that’s really needed is information about, and access to, contraceptives. And it’s true that contraceptive information and access can be marginally helpful. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Research, it tends to have the greatest impact in higher economic strata with high rates of education, where economic incentives to delay pregnancy are greater and the social environment stigmatizes it more strongly.

Planned Parenthood is one of the major proponents of the idea that teen pregnancy decreases with increased contraceptive use and know-how. It actively encourages teen sexual activity, saying “recognizing that sexual expression is a crucial component of teenagers’ development will help guarantee teenagers the right to honest, accurate information about sex and access to high quality reproductive health services that will empower them to express their sexuality in safe and healthy ways.” And yet Planned Parenthood never views pregnancy as a healthy expression of teen sexuality. The next line reads “Lower teenage pregnancy rates will follow as a natural outcome.”

In fact, the entire Planned Parenthood approach is to discuss teenage pregnancy as a physical malady to be prevented and treated rather than a mostly positive aspect of life that requires an appropriate context. There is no suggestion in Planned Parenthood’s sex education materials that it is ever desirable to be pregnant before the age of 20, even in the context of marriage.

By contrast, abstinence education focuses on decision-making and self-esteem boosting. It doesn’t tell teenagers that children will destroy your life, but that the more you make good decisions and dodge risks—by avoiding drugs and casual sex, by seeking a loving partner who respects you, by having children in the context of a family—the likelier you and your children are to be happy. Whether that happens when you’re 19 or 39, a business executive or a grocery store clerk, a college graduate or a GED holder doesn’t matter. Abstinence education proposes that childbearing and family-raising is perhaps the most egalitarian road to happiness in our society, and its pre-requisite is not race, class, or education, but rather good character and strong relationships.

The usefulness of the abstinence curriculum’s message—and its broader recommendation that sex and childbearing take place within the context of marriage—is that it doesn’t hinge on economic status. On average, getting married provides economic gains for rich and poor alike. The benefits of marriage are evident across all socioeconomic groups, but especially among black families, according to the Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman, largely due to economies of scale and the possibility of two-wage earners. Marriage also provides additional flexibility and work-life balance. The benefits of marriage for children are undisputed, providing children with much better educational opportunities and chances for success in life. And a strong marriage can also help partners avoid risky or unwise behaviors.

Abstinence education aims to teach teens that sex isn’t just a physical phenomenon but that it has emotional, psychological, social, economic, and educational consequences. It’s about skill-building for life, says Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. “It’s about what makes for a healthy relationship and how to get out of an unhealthy one, how to identify real friendships, skills for avoiding sexual pressure and how to get out of uncomfortable circumstances in general, making goals for your future, how to make good decisions,” she says.

In the real world, where some teens crave pregnancy and child-rearing, it turns out that of the two sex education programs available, the one that goes by the name comprehensive might be the least, well, comprehensive.

-Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a writer in Washington, DC.


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