The Daily Beast, June 4, 2012 by Gail Collins
The state pushes abstinence sex education yet it has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy. So why is the rest of the country paying half a billion dollars a year to support their teen mothers? An excerpt from Gail Collins’s new book, As Texas Goes…
Fact: Texas refuses to accept federal funding for sex education programs that teach kids how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases with tactics other than celibacy. The reason, according to a spokeswoman for State Health Services, is that its “first choice is that teens chose not to have sex.”
Texas subscribes to the creed of America’s empty places. (Even though parts of it are actually getting quite crowded.) It’s an ethos that celebrates everyone’s right to be left alone, with no government telling you what to do. It’s an intense, deep-felt creed of personal freedom which for some reason does not apply at all when it comes to sex. Long after the Supreme Court struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law as unconstitutional, the legislature still refused to take it off the books. Texas regulations on abortion are among the most draconian in the country, and it pushes abstinence-only sex education in its public schools.
The state does not actually dictate what kind of sex education public schools should offer, beyond requiring that abstinence must always be presented as the best choice, and until recently, no one had any real notion of what was going on in all these classes. Then in 2009, the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal nonprofit, funded a herculean effort to come up with some answers. David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, two professors of health education at Texas State University, contacted every district and requested information on their sex instruction programs. Wiley said he was drawn to the subject since his undergraduate students regularly told him that they got little or no sex education in school. Also, he said, “Last year a sincere male student asked aloud, ‘What is my risk for cervical cancer?’”
The professors concluded that “abstinence-only programs have a stranglehold on sexuality education in Texas public schools.” More than 94 percent gave that instruction exclusively, while a small percentage completely ignored the rule that said they had to have something.
Most districts got their sex-education materials—and sometimes their speakers— from private vendors marketing programs like “Worth the Wait,” “Aim for Success,” or “W.A.I.T. Training.” If non-abstinence methods of preventing pregnancy came up in the class material at all, the researchers found, it was almost invariably in terms of condom failure rates. “Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be,” one abstinence speaker warned her classes. Students in another program were told to pass around a leaky balloon to illustrate the danger of using condoms. The teacher was instructed to tell the student left holding the deflated balloon at the end that “if he had been the one to get a leaky condom it could have meant he was at high risk or even death.” Another curriculum, “Why kNOw?” has the poor teacher construct an 18-foot-long model known as “Speedy the Sperm” to demonstrate condoms’ alleged failure to guard against STDs.
“There’s this huge myth that if you promote condoms it gives kids a false sense of protection,” said Dr. Susan Tortolero, an expert in pregnancy prevention issues. “Seat belts have a higher failure rate.” The only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy is, of course, not to have sex. But once that horse is out of the barn, there doesn’t seem to be any effective way to get kids to refrain from having it again. That’s the point at which it becomes important that they understand the dangers of unprotected sex, and that sex with a condom is far, far safer than sex with nothing at all.
Almost 30 percent of Texas school districts simply relied on one of the four state-approved health textbooks, whose publishers generally opted for self-censorship and obfuscation. Three of the four never mentioned the word “condom.” (The other brought it up exactly one time.) The most widely used book, the imaginatively named Health, warned that “barrier protection is not 100 percent effective in preventing the transmission of STDs,” but never explained what “barrier protection” was. Another, Lifetime Health, listed “8 Steps to Protect Yourself from STDs,” none of which involved using condoms. One of the steps was “get plenty of rest,” which the book suggested would lead to better decision-making.