Eliminating Heterosexual Bias in Sex Education Programs
Programs regarding sex and sexuality education in public schools have, until recently, only focused on abstinence. However, abstinence-only education did just that: it abstained from educating. With a lack of results from the “abstinence-only” programs many groups rallied for change. Thirty years after its introduction and no results later most people favor a more comprehensive sex education program. Abstinence-only programs did nothing to lower teen pregnancy rates and are therefore being replaced with a more “comprehensive” form of sex education. What is generally agreed upon as a “comprehensive” sex education program is one that emphasizes abstinence but also includes information regarding contraception. The new curriculum offers basic information regarding reproduction, birth control, disease prevention and (hetero)sexuality. Just as the “abstinence–only” model did not work; the newer programs also fail to include necessary information concerning all sexualities (hetero, homo, and fluid). The new programs are heterosexually biased because they do not give information concerning non-heterosexual sex. The lack of information is both exclusionary and discriminatory.
While the format of abstinence only sex education has been deemed ineffective on many fronts, Hazel Glenn Beh, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii, and Milton Diamond, professor of anatomy and reproductive biology at the University of Hawaii, linked the program to increases in non-heteronormative sex. They claimed one particular problem was that young adults were engaging in non-coital activities in efforts to remain “abstinent.” They support the facts that not only were “abstinence education” programs not working but claim that they were driving adolescents to “riskier” behaviors. Beh and Diamond state:
“adolescents who have undergone abstinence-only education and who later engage in coital and non-coital activity, as most will prior to marriage, are ill-prepared to protect themselves; they may not use a condom because they do not know how or because they mistakenly believe that condoms are ineffective, may be unaware of the risks they experience when engaging in non-coital sexual activity as a strategy to remain "abstinent," and may be more vulnerable to adverse consequences of unprotected sex because they have not rehearsed and otherwise prepared for the contingency that they will not always be abstinent. (Beh, Diamond).
In 2002, Lambda Legal produced a toolkit “Tell Me the (Whole) Truth.” This was “the first action-oriented resource specifically addressing the anti-gay aspects of ‘abstinence-only’ programs and their effect on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth” (New Toolkit).
Beh and Diamond missed the fact that not all adolescents identify themselves as heterosexual. The assumption of their behaviors as “risky” because they are non-coital is off the mark. The risk factor lies in the lack of information as to how they can adequately protect themselves against diseases while engaging in non-heterosexual sex. Lambda Legal begins to offer information to non-heterosexual adolescents in its 2002 toolkit, but it focused on “abstinence-only” programs, and would need to be updated in order to be effective in the new programs. A majority of Americans believed that teaching “abstinence-only” until marriage was a disservice to our youth and have embraced the new comprehensive programs. However, some of these new programs fail to fully address the wide spectrum of sexual identities and needs associated with each. I will address the faults of a heteronormative program and offer solutions for inclusion of all sexualities. I will also show results that could be attained by following or incorporating aspects of the Dutch model of teaching sex and sexuality education. I will also offer suggestions for ensuring incorporation of a non-heterosexually biased sex education program.
A contributing factor to the problem of teen pregnancies was that the “abstinence-only” programs provided false information about the effectiveness of condoms (if they provided any information at all). This combined with a shifting definition of “abstinence” among teens may have lead heterosexual young adults to engage in alternatives such as oral or anal sex. This raised concern and was seen as “risky” behavior. However, sexually active homosexual teens would engage in these acts and need adequate information regarding disease prevention.
There is no need to fully scrape everything when forming a new program. A non-biased program could draw from the previous abstinence model. The program holds valid points. The “abstinence-only” education programs were born out of an eight point definition based on religious idealism. Unfortunately, the “comprehensive” programs are essentially incorporating the same standards with the addition of information regarding heterosexual sex, specifically STD and pregnancy prevention. I believe half of the “abstinence only” program’s outline should be saved and incorporated into new sex education programs, while the other half cannot be incorporated into any program that wishes to include all sexualities. The points that should remain are backed by science, not religious ideals. The expectation of marriage draws attention to the obvious exclusion of large groups of sexually active people. Laws regarding same-sex marriages support this point. The expectation of sex occurring only in marriage excludes not only pre/extra-marital heterosexual sex, but any and all non-heterosexual sex. I believe these aspects constitute indoctrination into religious ideals and a heteronormative culture without regard to nature or science. In order to fully educate our youth about sex and sexuality, we must rely on facts and proven effective programs, not standards of religion.
“The report "Births: Preliminary Data for 2006," prepared by CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, and are based on data from over 99 percent of all births for the United States in 2006, shows that between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years rose 3 percent, from 40.5 live births per 1,000 females aged 15-19 years in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006. This follows a 14-year downward trend in which the teen birth rate fell by 34 percent from its recent peak of 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991” (Ventura). So not only is the “problem” not being solved, it’s getting worse. Birthrates are actually rising rather than falling among teens. These statistics have proven the ineffectiveness of abstinence only programs in regards to not decreasing the rate of teen pregnancy, but the focus on this aspect alone shows the heteronormative bias of expectations. With pregnancy being an obvious result of heterosexual sex, the focus on these statistics draws attention from other sectors. While pregnancy may not be as pressing of an issue for lesbians or gays as it is for heterosexuals, disease prevention most definitely is.
After an “anti-choice, anti-sexuality education and anti-family planning” Bush administration, The Obama administration has promised change on many political fronts, sex education included (Osher). In his inaugural address he specifically stated that he “will stop funding education programs that don’t work.” This would obviously apply to unsuccessful “abstinence only” programs. Obama has a record of working toward more comprehensive sex education programs. “In 2007, as senator, Obama co-sponsored the Responsible Education About Life Act, which would have provided grants to states to provide abstinence-plus education”(Yoder). Abstinence-plus education would still emphasize abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs but it would also educate students about contraceptives and their proper use. Unfortunately, this bill, along with the Prevention First Act died in subcommittee.
When we begin to outline a new “all-inclusive” sex education program for the United States, we need to look to other programs that have succeeded. A great model that the United States could look to would be the Netherlands. I believe that the open forum of discussion about sex and sexuality as represented in the Dutch model is the framework that will lead to educated, healthy, wise-decision-making young adults. An “open-talk” curriculum has been embrace with great results. One example of a class exercise for twelve to fifteen year olds is: “How would you react if your boyfriend refused to use a condom? How do your friends feel about condoms? Write down what you think they will answer and ask them if you were right” (Guss). The program ensures that all students engage in the activities regardless of their sexual identity. For example, both males and females would have participated in the previous questions.
To anyone still unsure of whether the United States or the Netherlands are “winning” let’s look at the figures for teen pregnancies. In 1999, the United States teen pregnancy rates for fifteen to nineteen year olds was 87 per 1,000 (Reproductive), while the Dutch boast “the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe: 8.4 per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19” (Guss). That’s right 87 versus 8, and in this “game” of young lives, a higher score does make us a winner. And while these statistics still focus on one heterosexual aspect of a more all-encompassing program, they should not be ignored. The open dialogue in this one area has yielded amazing results and can be applied to a curriculum that would include all sexualities.
While religious fundamentalists like to hold to the “slippery slope” argument that talking about sex makes youth more likely to engage in sex, some may believe presenting information about non-heterosexuality will encourage more youth to engage in non-hetero sex. We can look to the Dutch for a response to this argument. Jos Poelman of the Foundation for STD control in the Holland says: “Face the facts. We have the lowest number of teenage mothers [in Europe], and Dutch students do not start having sex at a younger age than their foreign counterparts.” With results like these, it’s hard to argue that talking about sex is going to result in rampant sexual outbursts. The same argument can thus be applied to the opponents of incorporating non-heterosexual health information. By providing youth with information the subsequent response is not to enact the practices they have learned but they are now equipped to protect themselves when / if the situations arise.
Beyond the reduction on teen pregnancies and STDs, the Dutch also encourage inclusion of all humans, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background or age. The Rutgers Nisso Groep, the Dutch Expert Centre on Sexuality, “dedicates itself to promoting sexual and reproductive health” and works in cooperation with school systems to give information regarding all types of sexuality” (Nisso Groep). The Dutch have proven that acceptance and education produce desirable results.
There are ways we can ensure that as we change to a more comprehensive format in sex education programs, there is no heterosexual bias. Local school boards are comprised of elected officials. Contact with the board and use of “open-mic” time at these meetings will establish your concerns regarding the need to implement non-biased sex education to our youth. This will also allow networking and rally support for the cause.
The United States prides itself on being an equal nation in regards to race, religion, and sex/gender. While equality in these areas is still widely debated, in regards to education discrimination in these areas would not be tolerated. We must recognize, address, and correct the heterosexual bias incorporated into sex education programs. The United States has been a role model to the world in many instances, but not in regards to teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease rates, or inclusion of all sexualities in Statistics of European nations in regards to these epidemics are admirable. The programs they use are yielding the results that we want in our own country. Children grow to adults and take with them sexual knowledge, or lack of, into their adult relationships. The consequences from not teaching about pregnancy and STD prevention grows exponentially with each group of young adults who go into the world having not been taught how to protect themselves and others. Excluding information regarding non-heteronormative sex endangers those who practice…
Beh, Hazel Glenn, Diamond, Milton. (2006). THE FAILURE OF ABSTINENCE-ONLY EDUCATION: MINORS HAVE A RIGHT TO HONEST TALK ABOUT SEX. Columbia Journal of Gender and the Law, 15(1), 12. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from GenderWatch (GW) database. (Document ID: 1019127841).
Guss, Valk. The Dutch Model. July/Aug 2000. 20 March 2009.
New Toolkit Tackles Homophobia in ‘Abstinence-Only’ Education, Equips Communities to Fight for Real Sex Ed. 9 Sep 2002. 20 March 2009
Osher, Jason. SIECUS 2005 Annual Report. 2005. 20 March 09. http://www.siecus.org/_data/global/images/SIECUS%20Annual%20Report%202005.pdf
Reproductive Health Outcomes & Contraceptive Use among U.S. Teens. 20 March 2009.
Rutgers Nisso Groep. 2009. 20 March 2009. http://www.rutgersnissogroep.nl/english
Ventura, Stephanie. Teen Birth Rate Rises for First Time in 15 Years. 5 December 2007. 20 March 2009.
Yoder, Steve. Real Sex Ed Returns. 7 March 2009. 20 March 2009.