As children get older, the question of how much educators should stress abstinence comes into play. Photo by Michelle Love.

President Obama’s decision earlier this year to cut funding for “abstinence-before-marriage” education programs from the 2017 federal budget, including a $10 million a year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, caused both joy and pain to individuals nationwide.

“After three decades and nearly $2 billion in federal spending wasted on this failed approach, the president’s proposed budget increases support for programs and efforts that seek to equip young people with the skills they need to ensure their lifelong sexual health and well-being,” read a statement by SIECUS — the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

On the other hand, longtime abstinence-before-marriage advocate Bristol Palin was among those who offered a different viewpoint. She told Fusion.net that, “My stance on the issue is to let parents decide what they want to teach their kids — government shouldn’t interfere with how parents raise their children. However, I am thankful to Obama for cutting our federal budget, since we’re trillions of dollars in debt after his two terms.”

Not surprisingly, the debate rages on, including here in Alabama, one of 26 states that does not mandate that sex education be taught in school. Alabama law promotes abstinence as the primary method of sex education taught to students ages 12 to 19. But there are a number of educators questioning that approach.

One of them is Minor High School health teacher Janet Wood, who believes Alabama is out of step with the times. “[We are in] the Bible Belt,” she said. “I think that just like with any other legislature that deals with something that they [the legislators] think goes against God’s will, even though you’re supposed to separate religion and school — I think that very much has something to do with it. Their feeling is, if you teach abstinence everybody is going to follow and learn from that. But [the legislators think] if you teach [the students] how to protect themselves, you’re giving [the students] the okay to do this as long as they protect their self.”

Does abstinence-only education work?

For the past 25 years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has pushed approximately $2 billion in funding to abstinence-only programs in schools across the country despite lacking evidence that the programs yield the desired results. A 2007 report commissioned by the HHS suggested, in fact, that such programs don’t work as planned. “Of the more than 700 federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs,” SIECUS wrote, “the evaluation only looked at four programs. These programs were handpicked to show positive results and they still failed.”

In 2011 a report published by the National Institute of Health confirmed the 2007 findings and also stated that the programs may “be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rate in the United States.” Both reports pushed for a more comprehensive curriculum. But abstinence-only remains the primary curriculum taught in half of the U.S., including Alabama.

In 2015 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report arguing for more education centered around prevention of HIV, STDs and pregnancy. “We need to do a better job of giving our young people the skills and knowledge they need to protect their own health,” said Jonathan Mermin, the director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention. “It’s important to teach students about healthy relationships and how to reduce sexual risk before they start to have sex,” he said.

The Law

As of March 2016, the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization dedicated to “advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights,” reported that only 24 states mandate sex education in school systems at all, but 27 include guidelines to follow if sex education happens to be taught. Thirteen out of those 27 states require that students be given information that is medically accurate; eight out of the 27 require that the information provided be culturally and religiously unbiased against any race, sex or ethnicity; and two states prohibit the instructor from promoting religion within the curriculum.

Alabama does not mandate sex education, but does have guidelines.

The state requires that school systems teaching sex education must include and emphasize that “abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only completely effective protection against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome when transmitted sexually,” and must also include “an emphasis on the importance of self-control and ethical conduct pertaining to sexual behavior; abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons; and statistics based on the latest medical information that indicate the degree of reliability and unreliability of various forms of contraception.”

The topic of pregnancy and pregnancy prevention appears in state code under “parenting skills and responsibilities” relating to paying child support and the legal aspects of refusal to pay child support, and the overall ethical responsibilities of raising a child.

Alabama law on this subject was last updated in 1992, at which time it also included a mandate that instructors must place an emphasis “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable by the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

Renee Williams, executive director for SAFE (Sex And Family Education), a program dedicated to sharing pro-abstinence information with students of all backgrounds, said current law is “clear as mud” and that abstinence-only should be the standard for any sex education curriculum.

“You have to set the bar as high as you can possibly set it and know that not every kid will reach it,” Williams said. “But if you set the bar low, every kid can reach that bar, but not many of them are going to reach higher. That’s why I think that abstinence should be taught. I think the standard should be set high.”

Photo by Michelle Love.

The Numbers

While state law does encourage instructors to emphasize the reliability and/or unreliability of various contraceptives, recent statistics of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy rates suggest the message may not be achieving its goals. In 2014 the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy ranked Alabama among the top 10 states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy. That same year, a health and wellness report published by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), showed that there were approximately 5,084 births to mothers from under the age of 15 to the age of 19. The Alabama counties ranking highest among teen birth rates were Tuscaloosa (216 births), Madison (256 births), Montgomery (281), Mobile (499), and Jefferson County, which had the highest number of 630 births to teen parents.

The state also is home to a significant population of people suffering from STDs; in July 2015 Montgomery was ranked the “most sexually diseased city in the nation” based on CDC data, with approximately 1,899 STDs per 100,000 people. In the 2015 edition of the annual ADPH report of STD cases by county, Jefferson County had a total 5,543 reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis combined.

That was the highest number in the state, with 1,515 of those cases in people between the ages of  10-19. Following close behind Jefferson County were Mobile with 2,972 (904 ages 10-19); Madison County with 2,425 (579); and Montgomery County with 2,252 (830).

While the previous listed figures are referring solely to those three STDs, the most up to date reports on people living with HIV/AIDS in Alabama is also high. In 2014 the CDC released data indicating that Alabama has the 17th highest rate of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS (17.2 people diagnosed for every 100,000 in the population).

The Alabama AIDS Drug Assistance Program’s 2016 quarterly report revealed that 14 percent of their enrolled clients and 7 percent enrolled in their Alabama Insurance Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to those who are unable to support their pharmaceutical needs, fell between ages 13 to 24.

Does the way Alabama teaches sex education play a role in the high numbers of STDs and teen pregnancies? Wood thinks so.

“Because we are telling them that abstinence only is the only way to go until you get into a marriage,” she explained. “ And I agree with that, that you should be abstinent until you get into a marriage, but I also know that is not reality. And I think by not giving these kids the information that they need in case they choose not to do abstinence only, we’re setting them up to become infected. And they are infecting each other without knowing… So yes, I do think we are most definitely failing these kids.”

A Fly on the Classroom Wall

Wood has been the health teacher at Minor High for the past 13 years and covers a wide range of topics in her sex education class. “We cover male and female reproductive systems, STDs, healthy relationships,” she said. “We, of course, stress abstinence. We go over fertilization all the way through birth and how the fetus changes, and in our drug unit we go over what happens if the pregnant mother uses a particular drug during pregnancy.”

Wood, like many other sex education instructors, invites speakers to come and provide information to the students. Of the three speakers that visit Wood’s students, one gives information about STDs, the second goes over the options available to a student who may become pregnant and the third gives advice on healthy and unhealthy relationships (including abuse and trauma).

Despite the many topics discussed in the sex education portion of her health class, Wood said that she and many other teachers are encouraged to refrain from offering students too much information. “By state standards abstinence is what we have to cover,” she said. “Now, I do open it up to my students [saying] ‘If you have a question, I will answer anything you ask.’ I do go over protection when we talk about STDs, because with STDs I can talk about how to lower your risk—not minimize or eliminate but lower the risk,” Wood explained.

According to Wood, sex ed teachers are allowed to list the various methods of contraception in relations to preventing STDs, but giving full details about how such methods are used is only allowed if a student asks first. Depending on the student inquiry, giving an answer can require that the teacher have permission from both the principal and the parents. Wood said she is one of the few teachers that will answer all questions that do not require permission from a higher authority. She encourages students too embarrassed to ask a question to write it down anonymously so she can answer it the next day.

“A lot of teachers will respond with, ‘Here’s where you can go look that information up.’ But I don’t do that. I answer the question,” Wood explained. She added that she understands that not all students are as willing to ask the most intimate questions, so it is probably harder for other teachers to follow suit. “Our school has a much more different demographic than other schools,” Wood said. “These kids are not the least bit afraid to ask a question. I think the kids at other schools are not nearly as open as our kids are.”

Alabama’s view on what is deemed appropriate in a class setting differs greatly from other states where she has taught, Wood said. “When I worked in Texas middle schools we actually taught them how to put a condom on,” Wood explained. “I had speakers that came in, I didn’t do it myself, but that was a part of our sex and HIV education. And that was middle school!”

Student Perspective

Some students have also begun to question the value of the sex education they’re given in school. As one example, Gavin Berg, a junior at Vestavia Hills High School, took sex education as part of his semester-long health class this past spring. Berg said that the course was a week-long session where a speaker came in to talk to the students and teach them about various STDs. Berg described the information provided as “misleading.” He believes that his instructor was “selectively saying certain things and leaving out other stuff that would probably be important.”

Berg elaborated: “They said things like, ‘Condoms don’t always work so the only true way is to just not do it’… She didn’t even say the words ‘birth control’… Most of the time we spent there was her informing us on actually what diseases there are and what they do…. That part was actually informative.”

The student said the instructor should have taken more time and should have explained how to properly use contraceptives. That didn’t happen. Students were, however, asked to sign a pledge that they would refrain from sexual activity, he said. “At the end of the course they got us to get out a piece of paper and copy this stuff down,” Berg said. “They said, ‘Even if you don’t agree with it, please write this down.’ They had us write: ‘I will not do stuff in the dark with other people.’ They had us write it down like when you have people write things over and over again on the chalkboard on this paper as a kind of oath. I didn’t even write it all down,” Berg laughed.

A recent graduate from the same school, Lorin McCracken, recalls her sex education class as bordering on, as she put it, “slut-shaming.”

“Me and my friend were thinking of writing to her [the sex ed instructor] about how degraded we felt after hearing her speech,” McCracken said. “Saying used women were like tape losing their ‘stick.’ Disgusting.”

A representative of Vestavia Hills High declined to directly address such complaints about sex education classes. However, Whit McGhee, the communications and media specialist for the school stated that Vestavia, like all schools in the state, adheres to the Alabama Course of Study. That course of study, which was last updated in 2009, gives limited guidance on the details of sexual education. Under that guide teachers are told to “explain prevention methods for communicable diseases and infections… using standard precautions, practicing abstinence, and scheduling immunizations.”

There are students who don’t object to the way sex education is taught in Vestavia Hills, just as there are those who embrace the abstinence only approach. The examples of McCracken and Berg, however, demonstrate that Alabama’s mandated curriculum leaves some wanting more or different information.

Photo by Michelle Love.

The Pro-Abstinence Party

Many students who have taken sex education in the greater Birmingham area have been introduced to Williams, who travels across school systems (Vestavia, Mountain Brook High and Minor High, among others) speaking to students of various ages about abstinence.

Williams said her goal is not to talk down to the students or scare them about sex, but to explain why she feels abstinence is the best choice. “I want them to understand that sex in a committed marriage relationship is the safest physically, emotionally and socially… It’s the best place for sex,” she said. “I want them to understand that and I want them to understand why.

“I tell them upfront, the desire for sex is not a bad thing. If human beings did not desire sex, the human race would go extinct. But the desire for sex is not the problem; it’s what you do with that desire that gets you into trouble.”

Williams said that she stresses both the negatives of premarital sex ( pregnancy, STDs, “losing your reputation and the trust of your parents” and the statistics on teen pregnancy and STDs), as well as the positives of waiting for marriage (not having to care what your parents think or what other people say, decreased risk of diseases and having a partner to help if pregnancy occurs). Williams teaches students that they can avoid sexual situations by dressing a certain way, moving physically away from someone who indicates an interest in sex, by establishing a reputation as someone who is unwilling to engage in sexual behavior and just by saying “no.”

The majority of Williams’ educational sessions consists of teaching students how to resist desire and temptation. “You can’t have sex with everyone you want whenever you want if you desire to be healthy physically, emotionally and socially,” she said. “If you intend to be healthy you have to learn to control desire.”

She offers suggestions to avoid temptation, such as avoiding drugs and alcohol because they lower inhibitions, make sexual assault easier and make individuals less likely to remain abstinent. She recommends that students should pick friends carefully and only hang out with or date others close to the same age. She also tells students to stay in sight and out of the dark, because, in her words, “there is no reason to hide in the dark if you aren’t doing anything wrong.”

Williams said she tells students that the choice to stay abstinent is in their hands and that it’s never too late to “start over” if an individual has already had sex. “I ask,” she said, “‘Who decides whether or not you are going to have sex?’ And they go, ‘I decide.’ And I tell them there’s only three exceptions to that: rape, being molested or being sexually assaulted. Every [other] time they are in control.

“I tell them upfront, ‘You can’t undo anything you’ve ever done. None of us can.’ You know, we can’t go back and undo what we’ve done but what we can do is learn from what we have done and decide to do things differently if we choose to.”

Despite her determination to teach abstinence-only, Williams said she knows that her approach is not popular with most experts. She offered her perspective: “I don’t say [sex is] a bad thing. I don’t say that it’s wrong. I’ve never said that sex is wrong. Never, ever, ever. Because I don’t think it is. Sex is not a bad thing. I tell them upfront sex is not bad or dirty or gross… There is a better time and place for it though.”

Yay or Nay?

The controversy over abstinence-only sex education is not expected to go away soon. Teachers like Wood are speaking out, acknowledging that she has never believed in an abstinence-only curriculum. “I never have because I teach in the real world,” she said.

Katie Adams, the Planned Parenthood health educator for the Birmingham area, believes that while the abstinence method is a great tool for people genuinely interested in abstaining from sexual intercourse, abstinence-only is the wrong method to teach.

“It’s not giving them the whole picture,” she said. “How can they make fully formed choices about their future when they don’t know what their choices are — they don’t know what their options are? I don’t believe in denying people the information that they need,”Adams said.

In the absence of proper information, students will be left to make decisions based on pop culture, she said. “I would say the abstinence-only approach only leaves a vacuum of information that teens are going to find,” Adams began. “But they’re going to find it through porn which is not going to give them the proper information either…or they’re going to look to movies where they don’t see people looking for affirmative consent…and so teens are not seeing that modeled through popular culture so they need to see it in school.”

Some see room for compromise. Marissa McIntyre, a mother of two and a registered nurse at the Center for Advanced GYN Surgery, believes that abstinence should be taught as the 100 percent foolproof way to avoid STDs and pregnancy but not in a vacuum. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “They should be given information that is useful to them.”

McIntyre added: “I believe that abstinence should be encouraged but I believe they should teach about condoms and the proper way to put them on. I think they should teach about birth control along with the different diseases and the symptoms and the treatments. I think that they should learn all that as well.”

Abstinence advocate Williams said she, like Wood, will answer any questions students may have honestly. But she personally feels giving information like how to properly put on a condom is giving students permission to go have premarital sex. “I tell them, ‘If you want that information, it’s available to you.’ I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to encourage you. I don’t believe in encouraging them in any way form or fashion. I’m not going to give them permission to have sex… Condoms come with instructions. If they choose not to read them that’s their thing… If you want that information, go get it.”

To do otherwise, she said, suggests a double standard. “Abstinence is taught in a way that says it’s the healthiest and safest for you and that’s what’s best for you,” she said.  “If you say to a child, ‘Abstinence is the only way… but if you choose not to, here’s how to use a condom.’ What is a child taking away from that? Or if you say to a child, ‘Look I don’t want you to use drugs because they can ruin your health and they can ruin your future, but let me show you how to use a needle [because] just in case you decide to shoot up I want you to be safe doing it.’ It really is the same thing. Let’s be honest.”

Different approach, similar goals?

While most state middle and high schools push abstinence, there are some who choose to hire speakers to give a more comprehensive view of sex education. As the Planned Parenthood health educator for the Birmingham area, Adams’ job entails working with local community organizations that are interested in hosting educational sessions on sex education free of charge. “We adapt our programs to be age appropriate, setting appropriate, and appropriate for the topic they are interested in,” she said.

Planned Parenthood includes abstinence, as well as all the other aspects of sex education that school teachers may not discuss in detail, if at all, in class, including contraceptive choices, sexually transmitted diseases, healthy relationships, negotiating skills, hygiene, media literacy, full anatomy and physiology, honest communications between partners, puberty, “good touch/bad touch,” parent-and-child communication and sex education for adults.

But Adams said her services are not as popular with area school systems as she would hope.

“There aren’t that many schools locally that are currently open to me coming in and doing this work and I think it’s largely because they don’t have that guidance on a state level to say that it’s okay,” Adams said. “Our law doesn’t require that you teach sex ed and I think a lot of schools don’t want to get in trouble. And they don’t realize that actually a lot of parents do want their kids to receive sex ed.”

Adams also runs a program called TASH (Teen Advocates for Sexual Health) which is open to teens anywhere in the Birmingham area who are interested in discussing sex and learning about things they may not be learning in school. “It gives the teens the information they need but also gives them the ability to be peer educators so their peers know that they have a resource,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Adams said that while the internet can be a danger zone with misinformation, there are several online forums that are of significant use to students not getting enough information at school. Sexetc.org is a website about sex education made for teens by teens with several topics that teens can find useful. Scarleteen.com is another online forum that uses the tag of “Sex ed for the real world.” Not surprisingly, she also noted that the Planned Parenthood website contains information about STIs and consent.

Adams knows that pro-abstinence parents may question the motives of Planned Parenthood. “We don’t want to encourage teens to go have sex with everybody. That’s not what we promote,” she said. Adams added that educators and parents alike should keep in mind that evidence based programs have been rigorously tested and show positive results. “They give teens all the information about contraceptives and STDs and how to use condoms and it shows that they delay first encounters with sexual intercourse and that students are more likely to protect themselves and students are more likely to say that they had a positive experience. We’re not trying to promote promiscuity, but we do want people to have positive experiences when they decide that engaging in sexual activity is right for them.”

Williams, too,  said she wants students to get the right information in order to make fully formed decisions. “I want them to all have that confidence that, ‘It’s my choice and I can make it…And I have the information I need so that I can make a decision I can live with.’”

Williams continued: “I started doing this because I started years ago volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. And I got really tired of sitting in a room with a teenage girl crying and saying, ‘Oh, Miss Renee, we didn’t mean for this to happen. Miss Renee what am I going to do? How am I going to tell my mother?’ And I realized, you know, somebody needs to give them information. Because with good information some of them are going to make really good decisions. All of them are capable of making good decisions, but some of them are going to make really good decisions when they have the information they need to make that decision.”

Opinions On Change

Wood has a strong opinion on what needs to change in order to make sex education more informative: “We need younger legislators, people who are a little more in touch with what’s actually going on in teenagers’ lives. I think they need to listen to the health educators who are out here teaching this.

“You know, I have always told my kids, ‘If you have a question, please ask me and I will answer it.’ And I know by their questions that they are experienced. So I think that the legislators have got to start listening to us. I cannot think of a single educator that doesn’t agree the law is extremely outdated.”

Adams believes that schools need to start taking more initiative in taking the time to talk to students about sex education. “There are schools that are bringing in people that have the training and have the experience to bring all of the information,” Adams said.  “It’s a lot of information and I don’t think that it’s fair to expect a teacher who already has so many other things to do to go and investigate it on their own and figure it out. I think that schools should be able to offer curriculum and offer resources and training to teachers or bring in people who are already trained and already have the experience to come and talk to students.”

Adams also said that schools should start talking to students as early as kindergarten about the ideas of boundaries. “We’re not going to talk to them about STDs or about pregnancy because that’s not what you talk to kindergarteners about,” she said. “But we are going to teach them the proper names of their body parts because we know that helps eliminate shame about body parts.”

She recommends teaching young kids about “healthy relationships and not hugging your friends unless they want you to and communicating with your friends,” she said. “Those things are what is appropriate for younger students and it’s later when we start adding in the other layers.”

McIntyre agrees that the sex education law should not only be changed but that the new version should be written by medical professionals instead of average lawmakers. “I just think they have more information and they are on the front lines so to speak,”  she said, adding that the classes also need medical intervention. “I think they should have an actual nurse go in and talk to the health classes,” she said. “I don’t really think it’s fair for teachers to be put in that kind of position.”

Williams said that she is well aware not all students are going to follow the abstinence-only program. But she will continue to teach it because she believes it will help make a difference.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘It’s stupid and it’s a waste of time,’” she said, “But if one child in every school that I teach in — not every class, but just every school that I teach said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do this,’ and that student ends up without disease, without an unplanned pregnancy, without the depression and the anxiety that comes from having their heart broken, if just one kid in every school — and I’ve been teaching for 23 years! Then just think of what impact that makes. And that’s the point. Not all of them are going to get it. … But that’s okay. It’s worth the effort to work toward.”

To learn more about sex education in Alabama, contact schools in your area. If you are interested in finding out more information on Alabama law regarding sex education, please visit codes.lp.findlaw.com/alcode/16/40A/16-40A-2. For more information on Planned Parenthood, visit plannedparenthood.org. For more information about  SAFE or Renee Williams visit their website sexandfamilyeducation.org.

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