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When Will We Learn? The Many Failings of Abstinence-Only Programming

Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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October 3, 2008

(Originally posted at ACSBlog.)

In Lesson One: Your Gender is Your Destiny, Bonnie Scott Jones and Michelle Movahed offer creative and insightful analysis on the constitutionality of teaching gender stereotypes in federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.As the authors of the Issue Brief recently released by ACS note, the gender stereotypes found in many of these programs indoctrinate students with a retrograde vision of relationships between males and females and teach students that their abilities and aspirations are circumscribed by their gender.

In addition to being vulnerable to attack under the federal Equal Protection Clause, as the authors meticulously detail, these programs are also subject to challenge under state constitutions and state anti-discrimination statutes.For example, some state constitutions contain explicit equal rights amendments that require state courts to engage in a higher scrutiny of sex-based classifications than what is demanded under the federal Constitution.Moreover, many states prohibit sex discrimination in schools under either a statute that applies specifically to the public school setting, or under a statute that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

This gender discrimination is part and parcel of an overall discriminatory scheme:by definition abstinence-only-until-marriage programs exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth because the federal definition of marriage is limited to a man and a woman.

A federal district court judge in Florida recently acknowledged that fact in a case involving a challenge to a school district’s refusal to allow a gay-straight alliance (GSA) student organization.The court held that prohibiting the GSA to meet after school violated the federal Equal Access Act, which requires schools to allow student groups to meet on an equal basis.In reaching that holding, the court dismissed the school district’s nonsensical argument that recognizing a GSA would conflict with the well-being of students because it conflicts with the school’s abstinence-only program.

In fact, the court found that it is the abstinence-only programs that ignore students’ well-being.For example, the court noted that abstinence-only-until marriage programs “do not provide information of a kind usable by non-heterosexuals to prevent disease.”The court also recognized that though LGBT individuals have a right to form intimate relationships and raise children, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that teach the benefits of marriage and the benefits that accrue to children of married parents are of “little use” to these students who “may aspire to parenting but lack the prospect of a legally sanctioned marriage.”The court concluded by saying that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are therefore of “limited utility to . . . non-heterosexual students, the well-being of whom must also be considered.”

Beyond perpetuating harmful stereotypes and fostering discrimination, these programs are ineffective and dangerously inaccurate. Teens who participate in these programs initiate sex at the same mean age and have the same number of sexual partners as teens who do not participate (PDF). Moreover, these programs are rife with misinformation about such important topics as condoms and sexually transmitted infections (PDF).We need to not only eliminate these programs through legislation, organizing, and litigation, but we also need to replace them with what students need: comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, sexuality education that will give young people the information and skills they need to make healthy and responsible decisions throughout their lives.