t is as if the sins of the father are being visited
upon the sons and daughters. Having spent a wayward youth
(and later) Presidents Bush (getting drunk) and Clinton (smoking
pot) and indulging in numerous sexual encounters, it seems
a new puritanism is being advocated for the children.
Despite being a highly sexualised society, in which Hollywood
and the media portray and advertise it in a million and one
different ways, sex it seems is something dangerous, even
subversive and to be prohibited in American youth.
In a new pamphlet from the National Children's Bureau Sex
Education Forum, Just Say No to Abstinence Education,
Gill Frances and Simon Blake report on a two week fact finding
visit to the US. The report makes disturbing reading. Big
money has been poured ($50 million for every state) from the
federal government to every state willing to promote the abstinence
programme of sex education. So far, only California has declined
So what does the abstinence approach mean? Essentially it
is about the teaching through elementary and high school that
abstinence before and sex only within marriage is the way
to health and happiness. The components of the programme which
comes in the form of teacher training and teaching manuals
for class room use are that sexual activity outside marriage
will have harmful social, psychological and physical consequences.
Condoms and other forms of contraception are only discussed
in terms of failure rates (often exaggerated). Abstinence
from sexual activity before marriage is taught as the only
acceptable behaviour; while adoption is promoted as the only
morally correct and mature decision for a teenager faced with
an unintended pregnancy.
American youth subjected to this programme will have little
opportunity to develop social and decision making skills or
explore diverse attitudes and values. Insofar as the programme
has a value base, it is an authoritarian Christian religious
one. As for the evidence, there is precious little of it.
Ostensibly the programme is designed to tackle high teenage
pregnancy rates and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
Although the programmes have been running in some states for
nearly 20 years the reality is quite different. Over half
of American teenagers have had sex by the age of 17, and teenagers
have the highest rates of STIs of any group: one in four contact
an STI by the age of 21.. The overall 1996 teenage pregnancy
rate has returned to about the same level that it was in the
early 70s. The teen birth rate between 1986 and 1999 has dropped
marginally from 50.2 per thousand to 49.6 per thousand. So
claims from supporters that teenage pregnancy rates have declined
due to abstinence programmes look pretty limp.
The programme largely relies on fear and shame to control
young people's behaviour and is either biased or omits information
about topics such as abortion, masturbation and sexual orientation.
Programmes often include inaccurate information or exaggerated
statistics about (STIs) including HIV, suggesting they are
the inevitable result of premarital sexual behaviour. It was
also reported that some abstinence advocates asserted that
condoms don't protect from HIV and that many actively promote
the idea that homosexuality is reversible.
Satirical films like Pleasantville depicting a colourless
world of chastity, hard work, traditional patriarchal relations,
routine and emptiness as the all-American idyll seem chillingly
close. Of course, colour came to the film when sex, art and
emotion became manifest.
There are alternative approaches in the US loosely grouped
around the idea of comprehensive sex education, but these
receive no federal funding. Many also make significant accommodations
to the abstinence model. But what we learn from many European
countries, including latterly Britain, where sex education
embeds the knowledge and skills within a relationships and
personal, social and health education curriculum, is that
these approaches can result in delayed sexual activity, safer
sex and reduced pregnancy rates. However, the bottom line
is that accurate, honest, values and skills based sex and
relationships education is an entitlement to young people.
It is interesting to note that the US is one of only two
countries that has not signed the United Nations Convention
on the rights of the child. And young people's views and rights
seem to take a very back seat in current US practice, with
marginalised groups like young Latinos, poor African Americans
and homosexuals not getting a look in.
The US prides itself on being in the vanguard of civilisation.
What the abstinence before marriage sex education programme
suggests is that a generation of even more neurotic, guilt-ridden
and sexually repressed people could be raised in the US to
lead the world into the 21st century. The exile from Nazi
Germany and great sexual health pioneer Willhelm Reich spoke
of the authoritarian personality at the heart of the repressed.
Fortunately, the US still enjoys relatively liberal laws in
relation to film and TV and alternative life style models
are abundant so it is unlikely the class room morality messages
will work in practice. However, the US ambassadors for the
abstinence programme are already seeking outlets in the UK.
You have been warned.