January 15, 2004 | Commentary on Sex Education and Abstinence
The dangers of early sexual activity are well documented. It leads to higher levels of child and maternal poverty, elevates the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and often leaves teenage girls depressed, even suicidal. It contributes to marriage failure in adulthood.
So why is the government spending 12 times more promoting so-called "safe sex" than it does encouraging people to wait?
That's the finding of a new, in-depth survey of government spending by The Heritage Foundation. In 2002 (the most recent year for which complete information is available), the federal and state governments spent at least $1.73 billion on programs that, in various ways, encourage "safe sex."
At the same time, we invested only $144.1 million in programs that encourage people, primarily teens, to abstain.
Of course, some of the "safe sex" spending was used to provide contraception and AIDS prevention information to people in their 20s and 30s, and all of the abstinence funding was spent on teens, the group that most needs to hear the abstinence message. Still, governments spent $4.50 on "safe sex" programs aimed at teens for every $1 invested in abstinence.
These spending priorities are the exact opposite of what parents want. In a recent Zogby poll, 85 percent of parents said the government's emphasis on abstinence for teens should be equal or greater than the emphasis placed on contraception. Only 8 percent said teaching teens to use condoms is more important than teaching them abstinence.
Abstinence-education programs work. Many evaluations show they can substantially reduce teen sexual activity. That's all to the good, as many social science studies link beginning sexual activity at an older age to higher levels of personal happiness in adulthood.
Unfortunately, that won't stop many lawmakers from ignoring the evidence and pushing for even more "safe sex" funding when Congress considers reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform bill later this year.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has already tried to abolish some $50 million in abstinence-education funding and replace it with sex-education money states could use for either safe sex or abstinence programs. Waxman's bid failed, but others are in the works.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wants $100 million per year for "comprehensive sexuality education." Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Tom Carper, D-Del., are pushing for $50 million more to fund states' contraceptive programs. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is also pressing for $50 million in new "safe sex" funding.
Let's not forget that all of this would come atop the $1.73 billion we're already spending on this type of sex education.
Worse, all of these programs, and many others, play off the popularity of abstinence education by claiming to be "abstinence plus." But in reality, they focus on the "plus" and almost entirely ignore abstinence. While more than 90 percent of parents want teens to wait until they are at least out of high school before having sex, safe sex or "abstinence plus" programs don't give that message. Many contain sexually explicit material that shocks many parents.
For example, in the government-sponsored program "Focus on Kids," middle- and high school students are told about the joys of bathing together, watching sexually explicit movies together and reading erotic books and magazines. The "Be Proud! Be Responsible!" program promoted by the Centers for Disease Control asks teens to "think up a fantasy using condoms" then "use condoms as a method of foreplay." Kids as young as 13 are taught to "act sexy/sensual" while putting on condoms.
"Becoming A Responsible Teen," also pushed by the CDC, ironically gives students instructions that are likely to make them behave irresponsibly. The program has teens practice putting a condom on a plastic phallus and encourages them to scrounge around the house for a sexual lubricant. "B.A.R.T." helpfully suggests grape jelly, maple syrup and honey.
Clearly, any abstinence message children might happen to hear in these programs is overwhelmed by their real message: "We expect you to have sex, but please use a condom when you do."
We're putting our money in the wrong place. Instead of investing heavily in contraception and sexual education programs that send the wrong message to teens, we ought to spend more encouraging those teens to wait until they're older to have sex. After all, when they do, the news is better for them -- and for us.
Melissa Pardue is Weinberg Fellow in social welfare policy and Robert Rector is a senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire