Alice Dreger, professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, has been banned from her freshman son’s high school after she sat in on his abstinence-only “education.” During the class, conducted by a visitor from Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens (SMART), she sent the following tweets:
- They’re teaching “abstinence stories” that worked and non-abstinence” stories that “led to consequences.”
- The visitor-teacher is telling my kid abstinence education reduces premarital sex. My kid is trying to show her studies that dispute that.
- She’s being completely condescending. “You can look up anything on the internet” Then refers him to site on abstinence education!
- The regular health teacher in trying to shut my kid up referred to “LGBYT.”
- The whole lesson here is “sex is part of a terrible lifestyle. Drugs, unemployment, failure to finish school — sex is part of the disaster.”
- Now a story about a friend who OD’ed and “was a vegetable 11 years. Tore their family apart.” FFS. Welcome to sex ed.
- “I finally met a great girl who was brought up in abstinence, and her life was so much better. I put her on a pedestal above everyone else.” (from the visitor leading the class)
- “You’ll find a good girl. If you find one that says ‘no,’ that’s the one you want.” (also from the leader)
- She’s now telling story of condom box in which EVERY SINGLE CONDOM HAD A HOLE.
- “We are going to roll this dice 8 times. Every time your number comes up, in pretend your condom failed and you get a paper baby.” (activity from leader)
- Paper babies are being handed out to EVERYONE. They have ALL HAD CONDOM FAILURE AND THE WHOLE CLASS IS PREGNANT.
- “I’m going to collect the babies that you don’t want. We recycle them.” (leader)
As these tweets demonstrate, the goal of “abstinence-only” is to frighten students, shame anyone who has sex, put down females, and lie to the audience. East Lansing High School Principal Coby Fletcher’s statement to the Lansing State Journal defended his school’s lesson plan because it teaches contraception with its emphasis on abstinence. Dreger pointed out that high school teachers are not necessarily responsible for the horrifying lesson plans in sex ed because lawmakers mandate abstinence-only lesson plans, and schools hire abstinence-only “mercenaries who travel from district to district peddling their bogus (often times overtly religious) agendas.” Dreger is an authority on sex education, but she was banned from school property for saying “fuck” within earshot of students. The class leader also accused Dreger’s son of “ambushing” him for bringing a copy of an article giving factual information about abstinence-only sex education programs.
Dreger’s 45 tweets went viral, partly through the efforts of Salon and Vox. In the Lansing State Journal, Judy Putnam accused Dreger of having “a mission to criticize from the outset.” Putnam also wrote, “Personally, I don’t have a problem with abstinence education.” The columnist defended the teacher’s claim that condoms have an 18-percent failure rate. According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, “With consistent and correct use, condoms have a failure rate of 2 percent. The typical use effectiveness rate is about 18 percent.” That rate comes from the lack of understanding in how to use condoms, and students aren’t receiving this information.
The federal government spent $1.3 billion on abstinence-only sex education between 1996 and 2009 although a federally funded study in 2007 found the approach had no effect on when students started having sex, whether they had safe sex, or how many partners they had. That was the year that funding for abstinence education tripled to $176 million over the year 2000. Congress has just voted to extend funding for the abstinence education through 2017.
Eighty-six percent of schools still teach abstinence as the best method of avoiding pregnancy and STD prevention. Three states—Alabama, South Carolina, and Utah—require that teachers tell students about the health hazards of homosexuality, and Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas mandate that schools emphasize homosexuality as an unacceptable lifestyle. Students receiving comprehensive sex education are more likely to be white, urban, and higher-income whereas black, rural, low-income, and single-parent students are least likely to have any sex education. States that emphasize abstinence have higher teen pregnancy rates. Other statistics are available here.
After Dreger’s tweets went viral, Michigan state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. took notice of Dreger’s tweets. State law does not mandate any sex ed in public schools, but those that are offered require stress on the false idea that “abstinence from sex is a responsible and effective method of preventing unplanned or out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and is a positive lifestyle for unmarried young people.” Hertel, who serves on the Health Policy Committee, had already met with a student group at East Lansing High School to talk about the problem. After Dreger tweeted her frustrations, Hertel said that he’s especially concerned that the group hired to provide the abstinence presentation that Dreger attended because of its ties to an anti-abortion group. SMART is connected to the Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a right-wing “crisis pregnancy center” that attempts to dissuade pregnant women from choosing an abortion.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have a well-documented history of misleading patients about sexual health issues. While receiving state funding and teaching abstinence-only sex ed, they downplay the effectiveness of birth control, exaggerate the risks of having an abortion, and tell women that they shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage. Hertel said, “I think that those groups don’t have a great record when it comes to the truth, and I think that using them as a paid expert in our classrooms is a bad situation.”
A year-long investigation of California CPCs discovered that they provide no option except to stay pregnant. In 91 percent of the centers, investigators were told—wrongly—that abortions led to increased chance of breast cancer, fertility, miscarriage, of “post-abortion depression” resulting in suicide. Others were told that they didn’t need abortions because the chance of a “spontaneous abortion” or miscarriage is 30-50 percent—another lie. Information about different kinds of birth control gave no benefits, instead listing only risks, negative side effects, and resulting “medical abortions.” As in the class that Dreger viewed, investigators were told that the way to not get pregnant was to “stop whoring around” because birth control is not healthy.
CPC workers used gruesome and graphic language to frighten women, claiming “they might puncture your uterus and vacuum your fallopian tubes shut” during abortions. One investigator was told that some women are dilated too fast and might continually miscarry because the cervix wouldn’t close. In one case, the CPC required an ultrasound, and the subject was told that her IUD was a fetus. The same situations are prevalent throughout the United States.
Students at East Lansing High School plan to pursue the issue too, joining other students in the country who are beginning to demand medically accurate sex education. In 2013, Katelyn Campbell, a West Virginia high school student, made national headlines in 2013 after protesting a “slut-shaming” abstinence education course, and last year, a Canadian school dropped its course on sexual purity after a teen filed a complaint after it.