Sex (Mis)Education: ‘Abstinence-Only’ Programs Still Fail Public School Students

Sex education has long been a target for fringe groups concerned about the mythical “gay agenda,” alleged promotion of promiscuity, advocacy of abortion and other sundry outrages.

John Oliver is a comedian; his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, is satirical. But this week’s episode highlighted a real problem: Flawed sex education in public schools.

“There is no required standard for sex ed in this country,” Oliver pointed out. “In fact, only 22 states mandate that kids receive it, and only 13 require that the information presented be medically accurate.”

It’s a sorry state of affairs – “a weird patchwork system,” to quote Oliver – and it exists largely because of the Religious Right.

Sex education has long been a target for fringe groups concerned about the mythical “gay agenda,” alleged promotion of promiscuity, advocacy of abortion and other sundry outrages. Focus on the Family’s Chad Hills neatly summarized their position in a 2013 piece.

“More often than not, parents learn of their child's exposure to objectionable sexual content in the classroom after the fact. This is a troubling circumstance parents should attempt to address before it happens,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, groups such as Planned Parenthood zealously offer to come into public schools and teach ‘comprehensive-sex education,’ which surveys find is contrary to what most families want their children to learn about sex.”

“A sex-education curriculum that leaves parents in the dark – and violates God’s context for sex – puts children at risk: physically, emotionally and spiritually,” he added.

These views are extreme, but they’re influential. As Oliver demonstrated on his show, states and school districts often demand that the curriculum be taught from a pseudoscientific, and sectarian, perspective.

In Mississippi, sex ed teachers are forbidden to show students how to use condoms; it’s also one of eight states that significantly restricts what teachers are allowed to say about homosexuality. MSNBC reported last year that the state’s teachers are required to tell students that the state legally defines “unnatural intercourse” as “the detestable and abominable crime against nature committed with mankind or with a beast.”

If that sounds unconstitutional, that’s because it is. Sodomy bans were based purely on religious doctrine, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court nullified them in 2003. Mississippi can’t actually enforce its statute, and yet its teachers are forced to pretend otherwise.

Oliver also took aim at another favorite Religious Right tactic: providing inflammatory speakers for school assemblies. Pam Stenzel, an old AU favorite, made a charming cameo appearance in a video that depicted her screaming at a high school audience about genital contact. (Spoiler: You will get pregnant. And die.)

Stenzel’s a fixture on the speaking circuit, despite the fact that she isn’t exactly discreet about her sectarian connections. Her website boasts endorsements by conservative Fox pundit Sean Hannity and the Family Life Council’s Dan Ziedler; it also lists Focus on the Family, the Heritage Foundation and Rock for Life as ministry partners.

She also made national news in 2013 after a particularly incendiary performance at George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va. School administrators had advertised the event as a lesson on “God’s plan for purity.” During the actual assembly, Stenzel insulted single mothers and told girls that if they took birth control pills, their mothers “probably hate” them. Some students walked out; one, Katelyn Campbell, complained.

“Her information was inaccurate,” Campbell told Church & State at the time. “She’s both factually and ethically wrong.”

This is true. But, unfortunately, the West Virginia flap didn’t slow Stenzel down. She still speaks at public schools, and so do many others like her. And abstinence-only sex ed isn’t going away, even though it clearly doesn’t work. Under pressure from congressional conservatives, the Obama administration in 2012 approved $5 million for use by abstinence-only groups, and there remains no federal requirement that public schools teach accurate sex ed if they’re going to teach it at all.

“Human sexuality, unlike calculus, is something you actually need to know about for the rest of your life,” Oliver concluded. And he’s right. It’s a complicated subject, but an important one.

Students deserve access to real information that isn’t tainted by reactionary, dogmatic and inaccurate claims.