Teaching Fear

III. The Abstinence-Only Programs

Abstinence is an important part of all sexuality education curricula, which teach that it provides the only 100 percent guarantee against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Comprehensive programs, however, are designed to help young people become sexually healthy adults, and the curricula, therefore, include information on contraception and methods for preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence-only programs provide only the abstinence message, and censor out other vital, even life-saving information.

These fear-based curricula simply say to students "Say no or die." They condition students to associate sex with fear and death -- an association likely to color their feelings about sex into adulthood. Sexuality education was developed to aid students in developing healthy, mature, responsible attitudes about sex and all of its implications, including reproduction and disease prevention. The fear-based curricula promoted by Religious Right political leaders do exactly the opposite, by censoring many of the aspects of sex education curricula that are designed to promote those healthy and responsible attitudes, and by promulgating misleading and inaccurate information.

In addition to their shortcomings, these programs pose a potential constitutional issue for schools. Many of them use religious doctrine to promote the abstinence message -- a form of proselytizing that threatens to breach the separation of church and state.

The major abstinence-only programs are Sex Respect, Facing Reality and the Teen Aid programs. The story of their development, and the support they received from the Reagan administration, provides an excellent example of how determined the Religious Right can be when it is committed to a goal, and how influential it can be in shaping public education policy.

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