If you do a Google News search on the phrase "abstinence only," you get hundreds of results and most of them are for one of two stories. There's the media coverage of teen mother Bristol Palin and her promotion of abstinence as the only completely effective way to avoid teen pregnancy. And there's the media coverage of the news that President Obama has removed hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for abstinence-focused programs. What I find fascinating is the use of the term "abstinence only." What is an "abstinence only" program? The term "abstinence only" is used by people who oppose abstinence education. It's not used by people who support it. So how did it get to be so widely adopted by the mainstream media?
I knew very little about abstinence education prior to writing an article about it a few months ago. An editor asked me to look into the curriculum of abstinence education programs. I did and it was enlightening. I never found a curriculum that promoted abstinence only -- although I'm honestly unsure what that would look like. Would it be stern teachers telling students to write "abstinence only" on the chalkboard thousands of times? I have no idea what that term means -- although I of course understand why anti-abstinence education advocates use it polemically.
Anyway, I was surprised to find out that abstinence education programs have much less to do with sex than you might expect. They deal heavily in self-esteem training, goal setting and relationship advice. My research made me realize that there are many interesting angles for the mainstream media to explore about the differences in sex education. And my research made me sad that we tend only to see stories about sex ed that run about a quarter of an inch deep. Usually we see stories claiming that studies show abstinence education isn't "effective." What they rarely tell you is that these studies also show that other forms of sex education aren't "effective" either. While there's usually not much of a difference -- overall -- between different programs, the stories are not pitched as the failures of "explicit sex" education but of "abstinence only" programs. The best studies have a very narrow focus since there is no universal approach to sex education and there are humongous discrepancies even among programs that advocate explicit birth control training or any other form of sex education. But even those studies tend to get blown up and misreported.
Which brings me to the most recent coverage of the budget and Bristol Palin. I'm just going to use this ABC News report from Jake Tapper as an example although his report is really representative of what everyone else in the mainstream media is doing with these stories as well:
Unwed teenage mother Bristol Palin might be out there talking about abstinence, but President Obama isn't buying abstinence-only education.
Two $100 million programs from his predecessor's budget pushing abstinence only are casualties in President Obama's $3.55 trillion budget proposal.
The President is replacing them with $110 million "for teenage pregnancy prevention programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation," as spelled out on pages 490 to 495 of the budget appendix.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., applauded the move, saying "eliminating funding for ineffective abstinence-only programs is a win for science. The Obama budget proposal invests in programs that are effective and based on sound science, rather than wasting millions of dollars on efforts that have been proven to be ineffective at best."
Palin, meanwhile, told GMA's Chris Cuomo that "regardless of what I did personally, I just think that abstinence is the only way you can effectively, 100 percent foolproof way you can prevent pregnancy."
She didn't have an answer readily available when pressed on how her personal story squares with the abstinence only campaign she's pushing.
Okay, let's start at the end here. I hate to break it to all these reporters but Palin is correct -- abstaining from sex is, you know, scientifically speaking, the only 100 percent foolproof way that you can prevent pregnancy. It's true. I know we have stories about storks and tons of urban myths about toilet seats and what not . . . but abstaining from sex is actually the only way to avoid pregnancy.
It is, in fact, so obvious that I'm incredulous that the view is considered controversial. Palin's personal story squares 100 percent with the abstinence campaign she's pushing. She's saying she did *not* abstain from sex and, as a result, now has her hands full raising a child.
She and her boyfriend were using birth control. They were using it, as studies show us, the way most everyone who uses birth control uses it -- imperfectly. I mean, even if they did use it as directed and all the time, it's not foolproof. Nothing is as effective as abstinence, of course. But more than that, it's beyond a doubt that people who use birth control use it ineffectively or imperfectly. I can't be the only person in the world who has dozens of smart and capable friends -- married and not -- who got pregnant or impregnated someone while using birth control. And studies show that pregnancy despite birth control use is pretty common.
Now, remember, back when we first learned of Bristol Palin's pregnancy, how the media was overloaded with stories about how she was proof that "abstinence-only" education didn't work? Except for the fact that her own mother advocated sex education that encouraged abstinence but taught about birth control? Here, for instance is how the Los Angeles Times reported her views as being out-of-step with the Republican platform:
In a widely quoted 2006 survey she answered during her gubernatorial campaign, Palin said she supported abstinence-until-marriage programs. But weeks later, she proclaimed herself "pro-contraception" and said condoms ought to be discussed in schools alongside abstinence.
"I'm pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues," she said during a debate in Juneau.
But it's still, somehow, "abstinence-only" education's fault that Bristol Palin became pregnant. And never mind that the principal of Bristol Palin's high school said that the sex ed curriculum there was "middle of the road" -- we still blame abstinence "only" education for some reason.
Back to the excerpt above -- we get a quote from my hometown member of Congress (who is notorious for her support of embryonic-destroying stem cell research, abortion rights and comprehensive sex education) without rebuttal. Perhaps someone could be brought in to tell readers that advocates on both sides of the debate appeal to science. Or we could even just include a note that children who receive abstinence education delay the onset of sexual activity by years. Instead, Tapper links to a study (that was interpreted wrongly by most mainstream outlets as) showing that virginity pledges don't work. The study compared teens who take virginity pledges with those who are extremely similar in a sociological sense (same religious views, same economic background, etc.) and found very little difference in whether they eventually had sex before marriage. But that study -- which had nothing to do with formal abstinence education in public schools (we don't even know to whom they pledged or under what circumstances) -- actually showed that both of these religiously/economically similar groups were extremely different from their peers in that they delayed sexual interaction for years beyond the average. Either way, though, that study did not measure "abstinence-only" programs. We know nothing from that study about what sex education the students in question received.
One of the reasons why studies about the effectiveness of different sex ed programs are all over the map appears to be because some approaches work better on some types of girls than others. In other words, if you're seeking to get pregnant or indifferent to it, learning how to use birth control might not help you as much as a course in how to build your self esteem and set reasonable goals for your future. But if you're seeking a high-profile career and an active sex life outside of marriage, you may be more inclined to learn about how to properly use birth control.
What I learned when studying this topic is that a lot of studies on this issue are flawed, biased or blown way out of proportion. This is a problem for people on both sides of the issue. But for some reason the mainstream media are deeply invested in advocating for one side. Whether or not encouraging children to abstain from sex is effective or a wise policy approach is up for debate. Whether or not abstaining from sex before marriage is the most effective way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not up for debate. When teenage mother Bristol Palin understands this better than the newsrooms in the country who spend their free time mocking her, you know you've got a reporting problem.
Perhaps it's time for reporters to admit that how humans approach sexuality is a deeply important topic with many passionate advocates on all sides. And perhaps it's time to stop pretending that it's only Christians or social conservatives who are engaged in advocacy and begin approaching the issue a bit more cautiously.
My husband and I are expecting a visit from the stork some time on Tuesday. Image via LawnStorkSigns.