Obama’s Health Care Reform Continues Failed Abstinence-Only Programs

Programs negatively impact the health of youth and promote repressive gender roles.
by J.D. Benjamin

The health care reform legislation that President Obama signed in March 2010 contains provisions to renew funding to continue state level abstinence-only education and social programs, at a cost of $250 million over five years.  Since 1996, the United States has already spent over $1.1 billion on abstinence-only programs.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the programs must “teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems” and that sex before marriage will “likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Unlike comprehensive sexual education, abstinence-only programs frequently contain medically inaccurate or misleading information, discourage anything other than heterosexual sex within the bonds of marriage and over-emphasize the failure rates of contraceptives such as condoms.

Abstinence-only programs also promote traditional and repressive gender roles, in which girls should be primarily concerned with their “purity” and getting married and that boys are considered to have uncontrollable urges that they alone are responsible for guarding against.  Furthermore, the programs contain no information on sexual practices other than penile-vaginal intercourse, how to communicate with a sexual partner, and ignores anything to do with homosexuality or the trans-gendered.

The consequences of this drive to return to a 1950’s vision of sexuality have been entirely negative. Almost all science-based research has concluded that the singular focus on abstinence has failed to empower youth to make good decisions.  The Centres for Disease Control analysed the results of 62 studies on abstinence-only programs and concluded that there is “no evidence that abstinence-only sexual education programs cut teens’ risk of sexually transmitted disease, HIV, or pregnancy.” A 2009 study in Paediatrics found that religious teens who take so-called “virginity pledges” (a common feature of abstinence-only programs) are just as likely to have sex before marriage as other youth but are actually less likely to use condoms or other forms of birth control.  After decades of decline, the teen pregnancy rate has been on the rise since 2006.

With abstinence-only programs almost entirely focused on penile-vaginal intercourse, some youth are operating under false assumptions as to what counts as “real” sex.  A 2008 study by the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center found that an increasing number of heterosexual youth are engaging in oral and anal sex in part because they viewed it as a way to preserve “virginity”. Even worse, having only been taught the dangers of vaginal sex more youth are engaging in unprotected anal sex because they believe there is a lower risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection because it is not “real” sex.

With all evidence pointing towards the superiority of comprehensive sexual education, it becomes clear that abstinence-only is less about the health and welfare of youth as about reinforcing traditional gender roles and gender oppression.




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