First of all, don’t pretend that everyone in the world is heterosexual. Since high school students are well aware that this isn’t the case, it’s a good way to lose credibility.
Loudoun County High School yesterday had a mandatory assembly on “abstinence,” presented by self-described “Christian comedian” Keith Deltano. The program was funded by Lifeline Pregnancy Care Center, a faith-based anti-abortion organization in Leesburg. When the assembly was announced, a concerned parent contacted the ACLU, which then contacted the principal.
What concerned the ACLU was the liklihood that such a program, since both the speaker and the sponsoring organization make faith-based arguments for abstinence, would unlawfully impose a particular religious view in a public school setting – for example, Keith Deltano’s website makes reference to “biblical inerrancy” and “God’s plan for sex.” The ACLU asked for assurances that there would be no explicit endorsement of religious views, no promotion of religious books and videos, or of Lifeline materials, and no invitations to off-campus religious events.
Deltano’s presentation did not do any of those things. This is unsurprising when one visits his website, which is divided into “Faith-based shows” and “School shows” sections. He describes the reason for the secular material as the need to present his ideas in a way that permit public funding. The content description of the secular material is exactly the same, only without the overt references to scripture and “God’s plan,” a manuever also noted by the Washington Post reporter who attended.
While the program was not unlawful, it was unethical. It isn’t neccessary to make overt statements of a particular religious belief system when the unarticulated, foundational assumptions of that belief system are embedded throughout the presentation. The unarticulated assumptions in question did a tremendous disservice to these students, who need factual information, not ideology. Let’s be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with those who hold Keith Deltano’s beliefs from living by them and talking about them, and absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging kids to reject the commodification of sex and to abstain from sexual interaction until they are mature enough to be responsible. But lying to them is not the way to do that.
As alluded to earlier, there was no acknowledgement that anyone in the audience might be gay – because, of course, Deltano’s unspoken fundamentalist world view rejects that reality. If the behavioral objective is “abstinence until marriage,” where does that leave those who are told they may not marry their partner? The message to GLBT kids is “You don’t exist. You have no future to look forward to.” Unfortunately, this is identical to the message of the entire Family Life Education curriculum, as written. The damage this does to our kids is inexpressible and inexcusable, and this assembly was yet another mandatory dose of it.
The foundational assumption upon which this program is based is that sex is only for procreation. This is unequivocally a religious view (“God’s plan for sex”), unsupported by the facts, but it was presented here as if it were self-evident. The simplistic logical arc was explicitly spelled out at one point like this: Being a parent is hard. Are you ready to be a parent? (No.) So are you ready to have sex? (No.) It was as if contraception doesn’t exist. It was as if two people never get married and decide to delay childbearing, or forego it altogether. Sex is for making babies, period. Clearly, this idea is central to the world view that Deltano is representing – only he has edited out the part where he articulates it because this is his “secular” show. The result is that this fallacy is even more insidious than would be the case if it were stated outright.
The medical information that was presented was carefully cherry-picked to emphasize danger and invoke fear, so that “the reality of sex” is pregnancy, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, and “pussy sores.” To make a point about condom failure rates, Deltano cites a single NIH study from 1991* that supports his position, rather than a meta-study that would accurately represent the risk. To a typical high school student, such a study might sound authoritative, and that’s the point. Deltano similarly simplifies and misrepresents the risk of STD transmission, in the process infantilizing the concept of probability in a way that would make a epidemiologist cringe.
* UPDATE: The study referenced above is actually dated 2001, and is the product of a “workshop” convened by social conservatives with the objective of launching “a campaign to disparage the value of condom use” and promote “abstinence outside of marriage as official government policy.” The biased study produced by this workshop, led by far right Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, is thoroughly debunked in this report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
There was one positive statement, which got a well-deserved round of applause from the students, and that was that the value of girls and women comes from their intellect and character, not from their capacity to be sexually attractive.
Unfortunately, that message was undercut by a pervasive message that women have no sexuality apart from wanting to feel loved and meeting the sexual needs of men (“Girls want to feel loved, guys just want sex.”) Superficially, this was presented as the product of cultural conditioning, implying that this distorted sexualty is learned and can (and should) be unlearned. However, one anecdote reveals the underlying assumption. Presumably, Keith’s wife is an adult who has outgrown this culturally conditioned reduction of her value as a human being to her sexuality. In a story about how they couldn’t get their baby daughter to go to sleep, and therefore didn’t have sex for 2 1/2 years, Keith relates his wife turning to him in bed one night and asking “Are your needs being met?” This is perfectly emblematic of a gender rigid worldview that reads female desire as entirely defined by pleasing a male partner. Never once was there a hint of acknowledgement that a woman might have sexual needs of her own.
In fact, one of the most disturbing things about the program was its relentless, insulting stereotyping of both women and men, excused by a kind of in-your-face humor. Women are portrayed as hormone-crazed harridans that can’t possibly be understood by their hapless husbands; young men are simply “stupid.” There is the foundational assumption of an extreme “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” model at work here, regarding women and men as different and nearly hostile species. How could such alien creatures ever have an equal partnership?
The superficial mask of “respect yourself” female empowerment ultimately reinscribes female desire as naturally subservient to and defined by male needs – a fundamentalist model of gender difference and human sexuality.
“The reality of sex,” then, is this: Sex makes babies, seemingly every time, since that’s what it’s for. Except that oral sex is also sex, and inevitably results in disease. Condoms don’t work, so don’t bother using them. Other forms of contraception don’t even exist, but if they did they wouldn’t work either. Everyone is heterosexual and will in the future get married and have children.
There is a problem with non-health care professionals doing health education, and this is it: material chosen for some objective other than to provide factually and medically accurate information.
The objective, it will be argued, is not to inform these students, but to alter their behavior. So does this approach work? The evidence says no. Abstinence programs are effective at one thing: Convincing people that there is no such thing as safer sex, so there’s no point in protecting themselves. The objective measures of the efficacy of these programs – rates of pregnancy and STDs – demonstrate this.
Virginity may “never fail” as protection, but it is only a realistic option for those who share the underlying world view of human sexuality that constitutes this message. Everyone else needs and is entitled to know all the facts. At best, this kind of program is unhelpful and a waste of time. Our kids are smarter than this approach gives them credit for, and they deserve better.