Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

No sex please, we're American

Mike Davis on sex conservatives in US classrooms.

It 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 to apply.

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.


January/February 2002