Hiding the Truth Behind Statistics
by Dave Wilson
“CDC: 1 in 4 teenage girls in America has an STD.”
That was the headline on most every newspaper, radio and television newscast in America in March 2008. The AP quoted a doctor that blamed the dismal statistic on abstinence education – but failed to mention that most schools don’t have abstinence education programs. Rather, it is “comprehensive sex education” that is taught in the majority – 68% – of America’s schools.
It also seemed strange that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) was releasing statistics in 2008 that had been published five years back. Then the timing and strategy for the media blitz became evident. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, needed a hard-hitting bombshell to fall just prior to his Congressional hearings on federal abstinence education funding.
Why? To deliver a mortal blow to the only conservative prevention program in the entire federal budget.
Other abstinence critics quickly piled on in a media frenzy designed to discredit all federally –funded abstinence education programs. Never mind that in South Carolina, a year after students were in such a class, they were initiating sex at half the rate of similar non-program students. But, how could that be newsworthy?
Rather, the AP quoted this doctor as saying, “the numbers might be a reflection of … the failure of abstinence-only sex education…”
It was abstinence education advocates that had been warning students about the 1-in-4 STD epidemic since 2003, when the report first came out, and begging health officials to warn the public.
In Charleston, SC, when abstinence advocates challenged public health officials to tell teens about the STD epidemic, they were told two things: 1) there is no epidemic, and 2) “What do you want us to tell them [teens]? To wear a garbage bag [when they have sex]?”
Well, no, they were thinking more along the lines of suggesting sex control and boundaries.
In Waxman’s hearings, “expert witnesses” testified on the effectiveness of abstinence education. Included among the “experts” were two teens who testified that the abstinence programs they had attended did not work. They failed to mention that those programs were provided by local volunteers rather than the closely monitored federally funded programs that were the subject of the hearings.
The panelists’ lack of research experience was obfuscated. As it turned out, the only member of the panel with a research background was psychologist Stan Weed, PhD, of the Institute for Research and Evaluation.
Weed, having surveyed hundreds of thousands of teens over a period of more than 20 years, told the committee about four federally funded abstinence education programs that had decreased sexual initiation by half.
Waxman was anything but interested.
As the hearing drew to a close, the panel was finally forced to reveal their true purpose for being there. When asked whether they would support federal funding for abstinence education if there was irrefutable evidence that such programs did work, almost every panel member said, “No. ”
Despite overwhelming evidence of its successful results, abstinence education met its ideological foe head-on in Waxman… and lost. The Congressman quickly moved to strike abstinence funding from the federal budget.
For years now, there’s been an ideological split in the world of sex education – between risk reduction (condom education) and risk avoidance (abstinence education). With Waxman’s move, condom advocates – under the guise of “comprehensive sex education” – wielded their political might to marginalize their only competition.
Our cultural acceptance of teen sex has been proliferated by a vocal minority who’ve kept secret many of the fallacies their ideology hides.
Is it any wonder that STD rates skyrocketed in the 80s and early 90s, during the HIV-scare era when the dominant message in public schools and from the federal government was for teens to put their faith in condoms?
Yet, research from the past 20 years shows that of 115 condom-based programs that have been evaluated, the outcomes are dismal with no school-based CSE programs resulting in a decrease in teen pregnancy or STD rates for any period of time.
The reason is simple. Condom-based education focuses on teaching teens to reduce the risks associated with sex outside of marriage, rather than to avoid those risks altogether. And yet, Waxman wants to close down abstinence education in favor of condom-based programs, a decision based more on a social agenda than on facts.
Condom-promotion programs, which are federally-funded 2-to-1 compared to abstinence education, don’t necessarily tell teens the whole story, including one fact that many people don’t realize – you can still get STDs, even if you use “protection.”
Most people don’t know, for example, that condom protection for HIV, as well as other STDs, is limited. The slogan “safe sex” has led young people to believe that sex outside of marriage can be made “safe,” but this slogan ignores the reality that, even after training, many teens do not use condoms correctly and consistently – for a variety of reasons.
Yet, the CDC warns:
“Consistent and correct use of male latex condoms can reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of STD transmission. To achieve the maximum protective effect, condoms must be used both consistently and correctly…. The most reliable ways to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are to abstain from sexual activity or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.”
In light of the current STD epidemic among teens, it would be difficult to find a better argument for teaching the benefits of abstaining from sex until marriage than that.
Public health officials have been less than forthcoming about the fact that the virus that causes cervical cancer is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex, or that it can infect areas that are not covered by a condom. Yet, at a Centers for Disease conference back in 1999, public health experts said,
“HPV-related mortality [death] is at least twice that of HIV for women in the US.
‘On the one hand,’ they said, ‘a policy of consistently informing the public about strongly documented scientific findings is likely to be the most ethical and effective policy in the long run…On the other hand, promotion of greater awareness that cervical cancer is linked to an STD could conceivably undermine general support for Pap smear screening programs…’
A behavior change approach, such as advising people to decrease their number of partners, was dismissed because that had the ‘potential to undermine condom use…’”
And, the journal Pediatrics draws an unmistakable link between earlier sexual activity in teens and a dramatic increase in the rate of HPV (human papilloma virus) infection.
The question arises – don’t teens have a right to know about the serious consequences they may face if they choose to have early sex and if they go from partner to partner during their teen and young adult years?
Yet, critics of abstinence education have gained great traction labeling programs that provide such warnings as “fear and shame based.” Would they also label those who gave early warning about the connection between smoking and lung cancer?
The shame is that the current administration and Congress are threatening to silence the very voices that are sounding the alarm.
Abstinence education was given a boost when, in 1999, Congress attached abstinence education funding to Welfare Reform. Condom advocates objected to the abstinence education guidelines and the culture wars escalated.
Fearing a decrease in the use of condoms among sexually active teens, public health officials disparaged abstinence education funding, predicting dire consequences. Yet, the opposite happened and decreases in teen pregnancy continued, dropping by 38% nationwide.
When it was found that the majority of teens were abstaining from sex, a trend public health experts considered impossible only a decade ago, there was no media blitz recognizing the positive effect of abstinence education programs. Neither did critics make known that abstinence programs that are found to delay the onset of sex are effective without decreasing condom usage among the teens that do choose to have sex.
Chris Trenholm, PhD, who conducted research on elected burgeoning abstinence education programs right after Welfare Reform passed, says that prior to Welfare Reform funding, abstinence was not even a part of the sex education conversation.
“It would be interesting to document the evolution of health and sex education program curricula – from 1985 to 1995 to 2005. My guess is that if you looked at curricula from those earlier times [before federal abstinence funding], few would have contained much information on abstinence. Now, many curricula seem to speak to the benefits of abstinence from sex. I suspect the two [changes in these curricula and federal abstinence funding] are related.”
Welfare Reform states the basic truth: “…abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and associated health problems.”
In a culture saturated with sexual messages, it is clear that developing the internal character that enables teens to withstand the pressure to get involved in sex outside of the commitment of marriage is essential to their future well-being. It is exactly what is needed, and if such programs are obliterated by condom advocates, stories of rising disease rates will be repeated again and again and again.