The Content of Abstinence-Only Federally Funded Education Programs

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The Content of Abstinence-Only Federally Funded Education Programs

Government report

By: Henry Waxman

Date: December 2004

Source: United States. "The Content of Abstinence-Only Federally Funded Education Programs." United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, December 2004.

About the Author: This report was prepared by the Special Investigations Division for the House of Representatives, at the request of Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat serving California's 30th district.


The National Education Association, in 1912, discussed the need for sexuality education programs in United States schools. At the time, the Comstock Law, which prohibited the dissemination of information on contraception and certain sexual acts, was still in place; this law constrained teachers and in effect made sexuality education illegal. The Comstock Law was repealed in 1936, and in 1940 the United States Public Health Service considered sexuality education an "urgent need" in public schools in the United States.

In 1953, the American Social Health Association developed and implemented a sexuality education curriculum for schools titled "Family Life Education." Two years later, the American Medical Association created a pamphlet series on sexuality education as well. These topics, taught in health and physical education classes or as pull-out seminars for sex-segregated learning, were designed to familiarize teens with basic reproductive biology.

Firmly in place by the 1960s, the issue of sexuality education in public schools has been a source of debate in the United States. Many sexuality education programs involved little more than a short movie about menstruation for young women and a pamphlet; young men watched a film on controlling sexual urges. As these programs evolved in the 1970s and early 1980s, the curriculum shifted to younger ages, such as fifth and sixth grade, and included discussions on emotions, self-esteem, sexually-transmitted diseases, and disease prevention.

For some parents, sex-ed programs go too far, teaching explicit details concerning anatomy and sexuality that parents do not feel to be age-appropriate or believe are private concerns for parents to teach. For other parents, religion plays a greater role; some religious conservatives who do not believe that premarital sex is moral condemn sexuality education that promotes condom use, for instance.

In 1986, the Surgeon General under President Ronald Reagan, General C. Everett Koop, called for expanding sexuality education to students in the third grade; the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic was considered a public health crisis, and Koop noted that disease prevention would be best initiated for children through a comprehensive sexuality education program. Koop advocated condom use as the primary means of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. At the time, eighty-six percent of Americans believed that sexuality education should be part of the public school curriculum.

By the 1990s, teenage pregnancy was at its peak in modern U.S. history; with a birth rate of 64.2 births per 1,000 females aged fifteen to nineteen in 1991, a twenty-year high, policymakers, educators, and public health specialists were concerned about the teen pregnancy increase. At the same time, HIV/AIDS infections among the heterosexual population were on the rise, with teen infection rates higher than average as well. Religious conservatives argued that the only way to prevent pregnancy and disease is to teach abstinence, which is one-hundred-percent effective against both.

Abstinence-only education programs teach abstinence as the only option; information on contraception and reducing or eliminating disease transmission is not available. In this excerpt below, taken from California Representative Henry Waxman's requested report on federally funded abstinence-only programs, the report discusses some of the messages taught to young men and women as part of the most popular abstinence-only curriculum packages.



E. Abstinence-Only Curricula Treat Stereotypes about Girls and Boys as Scientific Fact

Many abstinence-only curricula begin with a detailed discussion of differences between boys and girls. Some of the differences presented are simply biological. Several of the curricula, however, present stereotypes as scientific fact.

1. Stereotypes that Undermine Girls' Achievement

Several curricula teach that girls care less about achievement and their futures than do boys. One curriculum instructs: "Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments." This curriculum also teaches:

Men tend to be more tuned in to what is happening today and what needs to be done for a secure future. When women began to enter the work force at an equal pace with men, companies noticed that women were not as concerned about preparing for retirement. This stems from the priority men and women place on the past, present, and future.

Another curriculum lists "Financial Support" as one of the "5 Major Needs of Women," and "Domestic Support" as one of the "5 Major Needs of Men." The curriculum states:

Just as a woman needs to feel a man's devotion to her, a man has a primary need to feel a woman's admiration. To admire a man is to regard him with wonder, delight, and approval. A man feels admired when his unique characteristics and talents happily amaze her.

A third curriculum depicts emotions as limiting girls' ability to focus. It states:

"Generally, guys are able to focus better on one activity at a time and may not connect feelings with actions. Girls access both sides of the brain at once, so they often experience feelings and emotions as part of every situation."

2. Stereotypes that Girls Are Weak and Need Protection

Some of the curricula describe girls as helpless or dependent upon men. In a discussion of wedding traditions, one curriculum writes: "Tell the class that the Bride price is actually an honor to the bride. It says she is valuable to the groom and he is willing to give something valuable for her."

The curriculum also teaches: "The father gives the bride to the groom because he is the one man who has had the responsibility of protecting her throughout her life. He is now giving his daughter to the only other man who will take over this protective role."

One book in the "Choosing the Best" series presents a story about a knight who saves a princess from a dragon. The next time the dragon arrives, the princess advises the knight to kill the dragon with a noose, and the following time with poison, both of which work but leave the knight feeling "ashamed." The knight eventually decides to marry a village maiden, but did so "only after making sure she knew nothing about nooses or poison." The curriculum concludes:

Moral of the story: Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess.

3. Stereotypes that Reinforce Male Sexual Aggressiveness

One curriculum teaches that men are sexually aggressive and lack deep emotions. In a chart of the top five women's and men's basic needs, the curriculum lists "sexual fulfillment" and "physical attractiveness" as two of the top five "needs" in the men's section. "Affection," "Conversation," "Honesty and Openness," and "Family Commitment" are listed only as women's needs. The curriculum teaches: "A male is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is sexually attracted … Women usually have greater intuitive awareness of how to develop a loving relationship."

The same curriculum tells participants: "While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation."

F. Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain False and Misleading Information about the Risks of Sexual Activity

Many of the curricula distort information about the risks of sexual activity. In the case of cervical cancer, the risk of disease is stressed, but simple prevention measures often go unmentioned. HIV exposure risks are discussed in confusing terms, and risks of substances and activities are exaggerated. Several curricula also present misleading information about the relationship between sexual activity and mental health, inaccurately suggesting that abstinence can solve all psychological problems.


The first wave of abstinence-only sexuality education courses came in the early 1980s, when the U.S. Office of Population Affairs implemented standards from the Adolescent Family Life Act, which received $9 million in federal funds to promote sexuality education that focused on abstinence. The programs often included religious lessons; in 1983 the American Civil Liberties union sued to have religious references removed. By 1993, when the suit was settled, the courts determined that abstinence-only programs must not have religious references, must teach medically correct information, and must conform to a variety of rules that separate church and state.

In August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 104-193, part of a large welfare reform law. This law included a $350 million allocation for states that adopted abstinence-only curricula in sexuality education courses. The law stipulated that abstinence-only courses must meet eight criteria: "(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; (B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children; (C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems; (D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity; (E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; (F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society; (G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; (H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity."

Representative Waxman's requested report systematically detailed violations of these eight criteria in sexuality education curricula across the board. In addition, a large-scale review of abstinence-only education by researchers at Columbia university found that while those who take an abstinence-only pledge tend to delay intercourse longer than those who do not pledge, when "pledgers" break their vow of abstinence, they are one-third less likely to use contraception, are equally likely to contract a sexually-transmitted disease, but are less likely to seek proper medical treatment for STDs.

Waxman's report notes that some curricula call a forty-three-day-old fetus a "thinking person," teach students that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through sweat and tears, and that a fertilized egg receives twenty-four chromosomes from the mother and twenty-four chromosomes from the father. These inaccuracies constitute a serious problem in the quality of the information provided, according to Wax-man; the Congressman points to inaccuracy of fact while questioning the abstinence-only approach.

Critics of Waxman's requested report accuse the Democratic Congressman of playing politics, and that many of the manuals reviewed by the report's investigators were outdated. Supporters of more comprehensive sexuality education claim that the $900 million spent on abstinence-only programs between 1996 and 2004 had not been justified.

Abstinence-only education is not federally mandated; state boards of education control curricula in public schools. Twenty-two states currently require some form of sexuality education programs in schools, and federal dollars for abstinence-only programs have grown at a far greater rate than allocations for comprehensive sexuality education programs since 1996.



Luker, Kristin. When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—And Sex Education—Since the Sixties. W.W. Norton, 2006.


Beh, Hazel Glenn, and Milton Diamond. "The Failure of Abstinence-only Education: Minors Have a Right to Honest Talk About Sex." Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 15, 1 (January 1, 2006).

Sanitelli, John, and Mary Ott. "Abstinence and Abstinence-only Programs: A Review of U.S Policies and Programs." Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (2006).

Wilson, Kelly L. "A Review of 21 Curricula for Abstinence-only-until-marriage Programs." Journal of School Health 75, 3 (March 1, 2005).

Web Sites

Justice Talking. "Abstinence-only Education." lt;〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).

United States Department of Labor. "Public Law 104-193." 〈〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).

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The Content of Abstinence-Only Federally Funded Education Programs

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The Content of Abstinence-Only Federally Funded Education Programs