Teaching Fear

The Religious Right's Campaign Against Sexuality Education

A report by People For the American Way Foundation


Sexuality education has been one of the primary sources of controversy in the public schools for almost thirty years. The debate over this issue is particularly heated now, in a time when teen pregnancy rates are persistently high and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is having a devastating impact on young people. This debate centers on one crucial question: whether providing young people with full and accurate information makes them more or less likely to engage in sexual activity.

For decades, national Religious Right political groups have fanned the flames of this debate by urging opposition to comprehensive sexuality education. Thwarted in that approach, these groups have developed a new strategy: developing and marketing curricula that promote sectarian beliefs, censor information on contraception and disease prevention, and limit options to one: abstaining from all sexual activity until marriage.

Sexuality education controversies have torn communities apart, as activists working with Religious Right political organizations have pressured school boards to adopt these fear-based curricula, and have polarized parents, teachers, students and other community members. In some communities, the controversy has landed in the courts; in others it has continued for months and sometimes years, played out in angry, chaotic school board meetings in rooms filled with hundreds of people, and in letters-to-the-editor filled with angry invective. The victims in these battles are inevitably students caught in the crossfire, prevented from getting the information they need to save their lives.

Religious Right political groups have been remarkably successful at promoting a pernicious myth: that comprehensive sexuality education programs do not discuss abstinence, but simply disseminate information on how to have sex. The truth is that abstinence is taught -- is, in fact, emphasized -- in comprehensive sexuality education curricula. These programs stress abstinence and make clear to students that it is the only way to guarantee that they will not contract a sexually transmitted disease or become pregnant. However, the goal of comprehensive sexuality education is to prepare students to be sexually healthy adults, so the programs also include instruction on contraception and disease prevention, as well as material on decision-making, interpersonal skills, and responsible sexual behavior. The authors of comprehensive programs, as well as sexuality educators, know that it would be irresponsible to omit such instruction.

Studies of the effects of sexuality education curricula support that viewpoint. As outlined in detail in Section VI below, data show that comprehensive programs increase use of contraception and delay the age at which first intercourse occurs. Conversely, the data hailed by the Right to promote their fear-based programs are flawed by suspect methodology and do not support the claims made by proponents that they are effective in changing behavior. Many physicians and other authorities, including the Surgeon General, have been critical of the abstinence-only curricula and strongly supportive of comprehensive sexuality education.

So, the controversy continues. In response to political pressures, many communities have adopted fear-based, abstinence-only programs. Many more are now being subjected to such pressure tactics. To an alarming extent, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education have succeeded in distorting the facts and playing on parents' fears and anxieties about their children's sexuality.

School boards, their sexuality education review committees, teachers, administrators and parents are all struggling to make the right decisions on this life-and-death education issue. This report tells the story of how scare tactics used by some Religious Right political organizations have made those important decisions much more difficult.

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