Trump’s Sex Education: Why We Should Be Scared

Since 1981, the federal government has provided grants to mostly religious sex eduaction programs that promote abstinence as the main vehicle for preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) contraction (Gonzalez et al., 2016). In 2010, Health Care Reform allocated $50 million annually to abstinence only programs ($250 million by 2014) as an incentive from the Obama administration to garner conservative support for the bill (SCIECUS, 2015). Given the conservative affinity for such programs, abstinence only sex education may be coming to a school near you very soon (figure 1).


What are students learning in abstinence only sexual education? As it turns out, not what sex is or how to avoid health risks associated with sexual activity: the House of Representatives found that 80% of abstinence only curricula supported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health, which includes but is not limited to: false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, untrue information about the risks of abortion, religious beliefs displayed as fact, stereotypes about boys and girls displayed as scientific fact, and false medical and scientific information regarding sexual health (Committee on Government Reform, 2004). Additionally, there is no federally mandated sex education curriculum, so students from different states are exposed to varied information about sex and sexual health (Figure 2). A majority of these students may not get information from any credible sources, given that there has been a significant decline formal instruction from any authority figures (such as teachers and parents) on topics of birth control, saying no to sex, STIs, and HIV/AIDS from 2006-2013 (Lindberg, Maddow-Zimet, & Boonstra, 2016).

Gonzalez Pic

I am not arguing that teens should be having more sex or that the discussion of sex should be purely scientific. Sex is profoundly interpersonal and there are benefits to conversations about morality, religion and sex: religious teens are 27%-54% more likely to have had fewer sexual partners than peers in a nationally representative sample of 15-21 year-olds (Haglund & Fehring, 2010). Also, Evangelical Christian college students report higher social and psychological well being, specifically when they are part of a community of students who choose abstinence (Freitas, 2015). However, religious teens that do choose to engage in sexual activity are more at risk of unhealthy outcomes. Teens with high religiosity have a higher teen birth rate, even when controlling for household income and abortions (Kappe, 2016).

Students in abstinence only programs have one option: abstinence. The curricula leaves numerous young Americans who choose to have sex without the tools they need to make healthy choices. But that doesn’t stop their questions. Teens in abstinence-only programs are significantly more likely to seek information in erotic sources, such as internet porn (Kleinert, 2016).

Since the Reagan administration, the resounding consensus from researchers is that abstinence-only programs do not decrease number of sexual partners, frequency of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, abortion, or STI rates (Carr & Packham, 2016; Kirby, Korpi, Barth & Cagampang, 1997). These programs have lived consequences far beyond the teen years, since many Americans have little to no additional formal sexual education after high school, but most go on to have sex (Figure 3). Further, women who had pledged abstinence until marriage and broke the pledge are at higher risk of HPV and unplanned pregnancy, even when controlling for exposure risk. They also reported less consistent and informed uses of contraceptives in comparison to women who did not take the pledge (Paik, Sanchagrin, & Heimer, 2016).


Can we call a class that gives students false information “education”? Would we tolerate this in any other setting?

With abstinence-only education we are asking students to drive one day without ever teaching them how a car works, which can have fatal consequences. In order to equip adolescents with the tools they need to make healthy and moral decisions about sex, sexual education should include scientifically accurate information.


8 thoughts on “Trump’s Sex Education: Why We Should Be Scared

  1. I really enjoyed how this post shed some light on an issue that people are aware of, but often never discuss. Abstinence only sex education is certainly doing more harm than good, but this post’s use of empirical evidence added a lot of weight to the central message. The research here is interesting and has been woven into the piece very well!


  2. The fact that abstinence only sex education has been proven ineffective but continues to be taught is appalling. This is a subject that legislators wish so passionately to avoid that they are actively endangering kids by ignoring facts which show that this type of program does not prepare teenagers for the reality of risks associated with being uneducated about sex. Your post brought to light a lot of statistics which are generally swept under the rug, so it was crazy and super frustrating to read about how the school system is failing students. The video at the end was also super cute 🙂


  3. I think this post brings up a lot of important points! Similar to Nora’s post on the role of religion in the classroom, it seems that students aren’t going to completely change their views towards sex or religion just by being taught about it. Providing information is very different than motivating students to have sex. I think the most important point you brought up is the lack of consistency between states. It’s baffling that education policymakers so fervently promote Common Core, which has the goal of creating national, consistent standards, but those standards don’t mention sex education whatsoever. A friend of mine wrote this article in 2014 on abstinent only sex education programs which is definitely worth a read if you’re interested! He looks at state specific sex ed programs and how the states who teach abstinence have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.


  4. I think your post tackles the complicated debate of sex education very effectively. Your use of strong quantitative data really helps to support your point that abstinence only sex education does not keep teens from having sex, but just leaves them without the information they need to make healthy and informed decisions about sex. I completely agree with you that policy makers have a responsibility to ensure that American youth are getting well rounded educations that will prepare them for the real world, but that at the moment, a lot of important information is being left out of the equation. I like that you brought up the point about teens seeking information from other, less reliable, sources, such as internet porn. It is a unique paradox that many of the conservative and religious proponents of abstinence only sex education are also adamantly opposed to pornography. Perhaps if our education system provided teens with answers to the many questions regarding sex that they have, they would not need to seek out riskier sources in the first place. This debate is interesting too because it is so intertwined with religion. Your post definitely made me think of Donna Freitas’ book, Sex and the Soul, and her point about how many sexually active youth at Evangelical Christian colleges really struggle because there are no outlets for them to talk to others about sex.


  5. This post bring up the problem of willful ignorance on a large scale. People think abstinence only sex education to work because it falls in line with their beliefs. The idea that it could not work does not make sense to them because it enforces a religious belief they have and how can that be wrong, so the studies must be wrong.


  6. This discussion of abstinence only sex education is bringing to mind the Just Say No initiative that started in the 1980s, around the same time as the federal grants that you have mentioned. This initiative started by Nancy Reagan as part of the “War on Drugs” has clearly not worked. The moral imposition of abstinence, whether it be in relation to sex or drugs, has failed. It is so apparently clear in both cases that this has not and won’t stop people from partaking in these activities, it will just make them more dangerous. Ultimately these reproductions will disproportionately affect certain minority groups.


  7. There is no doctrine saying that it is wrong to teach sex, but there are a lot saying that it is wrong to engage in premarital sex, or act promiscuously. Abstinence only initiatives, despite all their flaws, appear to be lowering the amount of sexual partners that these children and young adults have. It makes sense, you’re much less likely to go exploring if you don’t have a map. What we need is a study on whether marital satisfaction is greater among couples who had more or fewer premarital sexual partners. If we should find that fewer partners leads to greater happiness then we must accept that America is one nations under God, and promote abstinence education. If more sexual partners leads to greater marital happiness and stability, because one has sewn their wild oats, then the scientific approach must prevail. It all comes down to whether even in today’s modern era religion is better than science at facilitating societal stability.


  8. I really enjoyed reading your post and I thought that it was very relevant to the changes that Trump plans to enact regarding women’s health. It reminded me of how from 1867-1973, anti-abortion laws did not prevent abortions. Instead women decided that if they could not receive an abortion from a clinic, they would induce their own abortion – a procedure which, oftentimes, severely harmed or killed a mother. Similarly, although the legal drinking age is 21, minors still drink. One only needs to look at the college party scene to see evidence of how this law does not necessarily halt underage drinking. On the contrary, it may even encourage it. During my time abroad in Spain, I noticed that Spanish youth do not consume as much alcohol as American youth. However, when they did drink larger quantities, they usually drank over a longer period of time so they were usually not as inebriated as American counterparts. Ironically, the drinking age is far lower in Spain than in the US. The difference though is that in Spain youth sometimes casually drink with their parents. This teaches young teens how to drink in moderation, but it also makes them less tempted to drink alcohol. I think that part of the reason that American minors drink far too large quantities is because alcohol is framed as taboo and people want what they can’t have. Additionally, if people want to do something, they will do it regardless of barriers that they may confront. Rising cigarette prices have not stopped people from buying cigarettes. However, if someone does not have sufficient experience to understand how their body will react to alcohol, it is easy to go overboard. I think the same argument could even be extended to sex. Lack of sexual education may even encourage teens to have sex because sex is seen as forbidden, but they will do it without the resources that are necessary to protect themselves.

    P.S. I loved the video at the end!


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