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On abstinence education, talk is not cheap - it's against the law in some states.

Let's talk about sex - and George W. Bush, while talking about sex is still allowed.

Aside from invading Iraq, one of George W. Bush's favorite pet projects is pushing what is called abstinence-only education. According to Bush, the best way to teach kids about sex is to teach them about only certain aspects of sex. Think of it this way: Bush's plan kind of like teaching addition-only mathematics, or using tackle-only football coaching.

Cowed by the dominance of conservative religious lobbying organizations in the Republican Party, Bush has decided that it ought to be against the law for public schools to teach teenagers anything about sex other than the reasons that they shouldn't have sex. That's really all that abstinence-only education is: Adults nagging teenagers not to have sex, then not saying a word about how to handle it if they do have sex. Bush and his Republican religious reactionary allies really believe that if adults just tell teenagers not to have sex, and make sex seem really scary, then teenagers just won't want to have sex. The idea is that once teenagers stop wanting to have sex, there won't be any reason to educate them about it.If that sounds weird to you, it's because abstinence-only education is weird - really weird. I have done firsthand observation of abstinence-only programs, in South Carolina and in Tennessee, and what I saw scared the hell out of me.

The first problem I observed is that these programs are run, for the most part, by religious groups. What used to be solid sex-education programs with a scientific basis have become opportunities for conservative religious groups to spread theological teachings promoted by certain churches. Sometimes, the abstinence-only programs are established as non-profit organizations that are separate from churches in name, but receive financial support from churches and openly include the promotion of religious concepts in their organizational objectives. At their lunch meetings, I observed these "educational" organizations loudly praying that their Lord God would show them a way to bring Jesus into the hearts of their students.

When these groups actually go into the classroom, the problems get worse. Misinformation is the rule, rather than the exception, in the abstinence-only education programs that I have observed. For example, in South Carolina public classrooms, I observed several instructors who lacked any certification to teach science consistently exaggerate the dangers that come along with having sex before marriage.

For example, instructors told students over and over again that infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) - a sexually transmitted condition - will almost certainly lead to cervical cancer, and that the only way that genital warts can be removed is through freezing or burning. After some quick and easy research, I found that these statements were completely false. Abstinence-only education programs include false information like this because the programs are designed in order to meet the objective of frightening teenagers, not in order to tell teenagers the truth.

Abstinence-only education is founded upon the assumption that giving teenagers complete and accurate information about sex is dangerous. This foundation of George W. Bush's abstinence agenda goes a long way in explaining the Republican animosity towards education in general. In abstinence-only education we see that Bush and his Republican supporters believe that knowledge is dangerous, and should be kept from people as much as possible.

What George W. Bush never mentions is that the alternative to abstinence-only education is not some kind of hippy free love seminar in public schools. The medical community and responsible educational organizations promote an alternative called abstinence-plus. You won't hear conservatives talking about this approach because it makes a lot of sense, and it's easier for conservatives to sell abstinence-only programs when they're able to keep parents frightened about unrestrained adolescent promiscuity.

Abstinence-plus includes a strong component of information about the reasons that abstaining from sex can be an extremely wise choice for teenagers. The difference is that abstinence-plus does more than just tell teenagers not to have sex. Abstinence-plus programs also provide access to full and accurate information about sex, so that students can make intelligent decisions about having sex instead of remaining in the dark until it's too late. It's essential for public schools to provide students with complete sex education because if students don't get their education at school, they'll search for accurate information elsewhere. In a shocking display of naivete, George W. Bush and his Republican supporters suggest that teenagers would have sex less if only public schools did not let them know that sex exists. They ignore the fact that almost all American teenagers are skilled users of the Internet, which has plenty of information, both accurate and inaccurate. It's the job of public schools to cut through the clutter of publicly available information, and provide an accurate presentation of it for their students. When George W. Bush insists that American public schools only be allowed to teach students about the reasons people should not have sex, he is performing a monumentally perverse act of academic censorship. That not only fails teenagers' need for serious honesty about sex, it fails their need for an example of democratic principles in action.

All other points aside, George W. Bush's anti-education agenda is a dangerous idea because research shows that abstinence-only education just doesn't work. Not too surprisingly, researchers have found that when teenagers sign pledge forms in front of their parents, promising not to have sex, they're not really very likely to follow through. In fact, students who sign pledge forms as a part of sexual abstinence training are just as likely to have premarital sex as other students! The same is true of the students in abstinence-only programs in general. Full sexual education, on the other hand, has been shown not to act as an encouragement for students to have sex, and is shown to provide students protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases better than abstinence-only education does. The Bush Administration knows that abstinence-only education does not work at decreasing adolescent sexual behaviors, and actually increases students' risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. That's why George W. Bush ordered that all behavioral standards for evaluating the success of abstinence-only educational programs be eliminated. He didn't want to the government to gather information that he knew would show abstinence-only education to be a complete failure.

The ultimate irony is that George W. Bush is pushing abstinence-only education at the same time that he is pushing for governmental programs to be performed by religious organizations. So, Bush's plan includes promotion of taxpayer funding of abstinence-only programs by, among other groups, the Catholic Church.

Given the scandal in the Catholic Church about long term and pervasive sexual assault of children by priests, this plan seems not only doomed to failure, but actually quite dangerous. After all, the Catholic Church, like other major religious institutions, appears to have been unable to convince its own leaders to stop having sex with children. How, then, are we supposed to believe that the Catholic Church is deserving of government grants in order to teach teenagers not to have sex with each other?

As usual, Bush has got it backwards. If government funds should be used to promote sexual abstinence at all, those funds should go first to programs that educate priests about how to restrain their urges to have sex with the children under their care.


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