Teaching Teens About Sex: The Decades-Old Debate over Abstinence-Only | Retro Report on PBS
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Teaching Teens About Sex: The Decades-Old Debate over Abstinence-Only | Retro Report on PBS


♪♪ -Deep in southern Georgia, in a region
that has long grappled with the issue
of teenage pregnancy, sits the small town of Cairo. For the past few years,
Daphne Melissa McClendon has been teaching sex education
at the high school -We’re gonna talk
about contraception, okay? Ways to prevent pregnancy. Question: Why do men need
that information? At the beginning,
it was difficult for me. I did grapple with, you know, “I don’t know that this is
what I need to be doing,” because I did feel like,
“Hey, I’m a Christian. I don’t know that I believe in giving this
kind of information out.” And I also didn’t want them
to think that I was saying, “Hey, it’s okay to have sex.” -The question of what public
schools should teach teens about sex has roiled communities
around the country for decades, but the roots of today’s sex ed
conflicts lie in the 1990s, when the stakes of the debate
were brought into sharp relief after years of high
teen pregnancy rates and the spread of AIDS. -An emotional new battle
over sex education in public schools
in this country. -How much should children
be told about safe sex, and is this a case of “the more
you know, the more you do”? -Today the U.S. Surgeon General,
Joycelyn Elders, called for comprehensive health
and sex education from kindergarten
through 12th grade. -I think I tick
a lot of people off that refuse to deal openly
and honestly about the predicament
of our children today. I feel that if you
don’t understand and can’t control
your reproduction, you can’t control your life. -While working in Arkansas,
first as a doctor and then as the state
health director, Joycelyn Elders came to embrace
comprehensive sex education, age-appropriate,
fact-based instruction on topics as varied as anatomy,
relationships, and contraception. -I always tell young women,
you know, “Don’t ever go out on a date with anybody you like
without a condom in your purse.” -But backlash to Elders
and the approach to sex ed she advocated
for mounted quickly. -With evangelistic fury
she preaches that teenagers should have
a love affair with the condom. -They call them condoms
because it’s a con job and they’re dumb. And we feel like that’s
what we’re telling kids. They’re being conned
into believing that they can have safe sex. They can’t. -A growing number of people felt instruction
on birth control could prompt teens to have sex. Instead, they felt young people should only
be taught abstinence — no sex at all until marriage. -I think that abstinence
has been lacking in much of the education. -It was an idea first funded
under the Reagan administration and supported in the years
that followed by the increasingly
influential religious right. -The new curriculum says it emphasizes
Christian morality and chastity. -Teenagers are told there is
no safe sex outside of marriage. They are not taught
contraception. Instead, they are taught slogans like, “Control your urgin’
and be a virgin,” and “Pet your dog,
not your date.” -They certainly were not
the appropriate programs for the young people that I was
accustomed to dealing with. -It’s kind of like you
can think of it in terms of Russian Roulette. What is it — one in six
that you’re gonna die? When you use a condom, it’s like you’re playing
Russian Roulette. -What if I want to have sex
before I get married? -Well, I guess you just have
to be prepared to die. -Every mother I know,
every father I know, we all talk
and support abstinence, but also we need to make sure that we educate our young people on how to protect themselves. People will say,
“Well, condoms will break.” But always remember that the vows of abstinence break far more easily than does latex condoms. -This week, she went too far
even for the President. She said that children
should be taught in school about masturbation. -I think that,
that is something that’s a part
of human sexuality, and it is a part of something that perhaps should be taught. -President Clinton today fired his outspoken U.S.
Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders. Mr. Clinton demanded
and got her resignation… -If I had it all
to do over again, I’d do it exactly the same way. I did it right the first time. -The ousting of Elders provided
easy fodder for late-night television. -If mashterbation is not taught
in the ha-ome, then it must be taught
in the schools. -But it also signaled a shift
in the national mood as a Republican majority
took control of Congress in 1994 and abstinence-only
gained political ground. -The best thing of all
is for teens to avoid sex, and I was hoping it would be
possible to promote that by programs in the high schools. I thought we ought to try it. I thought it was
a worthy investment. -When President Clinton
signed the Welfare Reform Act, it included a provision
on abstinence, which Ron Haskins helped draft. It provided federal funds
for states to teach programs under a strict definition
of abstinence-only. -It’s a symbol of this
is something that the federal
government supports, and we should support it
among the states, and it could grow. And that was what the people who
supported this legislature had in mind — to start
a movement, so to speak. -I told Bill Clinton that of all the things
that he’d done, that was the one thing that
I would never forgive him for. I was very upset about that. I’m still upset about it. -What you saw was a lot
of local communities — that really wanted
this education — for the very first time
were able to implement it. -Mary Anne Mosack
ran an Ohio-based abstinence-only organization that received an injection
of federal funds as the political climate
grew even friendlier. -Abstinence for young people
is the only certain way to avoid sexually
transmitted diseases. -That was a very good time
for us in terms of expanding
our message and our programming. -But over the years, researchers had been
evaluating abstinence-only. One multiyear study released
in 2007 compared students
who had gone through federally-funded
abstinence-only programs with their classmates
who had not. -When I first saw the report,
I was amazed. They would show the score
for the experimental group and a score
for the control group, and those bar graphs were
just exactly the same height. -The study found that students
who took part in the programs became sexually active
at the same age as those who didn’t
and had about the same number of sexual partners. -I would describe myself as discouraged
about abstinence-only. Most of the evidence shows that the more comprehensive
programs are more effective. -There is a lot of evidence about what kinds
of programs work. The scientific consensus
is really there. -Leslie Kantor, a sexual health
researcher and longtime advocate of sex education
points to findings that have repeatedly shown
that comprehensive sex ed has significant effects
on delaying teen sex, reducing sexually transmitted
infections and teen pregnancies, and increasing
the use of contraception. -It turns out that when you
give young people information as well as the skills
that they’re going to need to navigate in relationships,
those are the young people who are actually able
to wait longer to have sex. -Governors began rejecting some
of the federal abstinence money. -Congress spent more than
$1.5 billion on abstinence-only
sex education, an approach many now
call a failure. -And with the Obama
administration came a large-scale effort
to fund the programs with the most
scientific evidence behind them. -It really was the first time,
in this area at least, when the government was actually starting to bring
science to bear. -But sex ed is ultimately
a state and local issue, and there are
striking differences in what’s taught in schools
around the country and whether certain topics
are covered at all. -What you actually end up
seeing is that we are teaching less
about birth control as a country than we did before all of this
abstinence-only money came into play. If we have increasing evidence of a body of programs
that works, then why wouldn’t we get behind
those evidence-based programs? -The Trump administration has
prioritized abstinence-only, now being referred to
as sexual risk avoidance, and while some of these programs
now include some information on contraception, their underlying message
remains essentially the same — Teens should avoid sex,
hopefully until marriage. -We’re guiding you toward
risk elimination, risk avoidance
to eliminate risk. So when I’m talking about
about contraception, I’m giving you
all the information, but I’m also putting
into context that the only 100%
safe way to avoid pregnancy or STD is sexual risk avoidance. It’s interesting because
sometimes students don’t ever hear that message that they don’t have
to have sex. -The idea that abstinence-only
is a fabulous idea is an ideology. It’s not supported by good data. I’m concerned that if we have
public debates that are based on ideology, that we’re not gonna make
public decisions based on evidence
and experience. That’s what we should try to do. -Cairo, Georgia, is trying
to do just that. A group of women
had begun meeting regularly to discuss the issues
they faced locally. -We had religious people, non-religious people, very liberal, very conservative all come together to say, “What can we do as women to make a difference
in Grady County?” -One night, the subject
of teen pregnancy came up. -One of us arrived late. She goes, “It’s been a day. In a community
I was in just northwest of here, there are three 10-year-olds
pregnant. What can we do?” As we got to talking,
everybody knew a story. Everybody
knew somebody affected. -Nationally since the 1990s, teen pregnancy rates
have declined dramatically. Teens are having less sex today
than in the past, and more are using
contraception when they do. But some communities,
like Grady County, are still challenged by
the problems of teen pregnancy and sexually
transmitted infections, and the Cairo women
viewed comprehensive sex ed as part of the solution. -When you put the data
on the table about what’s happening
to our kids, political barriers go away. -Teresa Gee Hardy,
a school board member long involved with the church,
helped get pastors and faith-based organizations
on board with the idea. -There’s a scripture that talks
about “my people perish because a lack of knowledge.” Teens suffer because
of lack of knowledge. Teen pregnancy rate is high
because of lack of knowledge. -Grady County is now
in the fifth year of its comprehensive
sex ed program, and according to
the district superintendent, feedback from teachers
and students has been positive. -Let’s look at what we talked
about yesterday — relationships, healthy and
unhealthy relationship tests. I think my role is to give them
the information to make sure
that they understand that I’m not judging them, but I want them to be informed, and I want them to be empowered. -I think our community
can be a model in the sense that, yes,
this is scary. Yes, we’re very conservative. Yes, we’re very Christian. But yes, we’re looking out for what’s best for our kids. ♪♪

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28 thoughts on “Teaching Teens About Sex: The Decades-Old Debate over Abstinence-Only | Retro Report on PBS

  1. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing, I’d do it exactly the same”

    What a badass, this lady fought for sex Ed in America and got fired for it.

  2. I really dont believe what was said about teens these days having less sex than our peers did 20+ years ago. "When in doubt, pull out" still rings true to this day.

  3. Abstinence Only sex Ed needs to go the way of the dinosaurs and, with the rise of the Internet and people marrying later, it might in the next 5-10 years. Everyone knows the programs are bull and my being told just not to do it only led me to sneak out a sex Ed health book while working a shift at my college library.

    What we NEED to teach kids first is consent, finding your own beliefs on how far they want to go/what they like and don’t like and to dispel myths about sex and, more importantly, porn. Communication and comprehensive sex Ed go hand in hand and empower so many young people.

  4. I'm sorry if you want abstinence only or no sex Ed you are a child who shouldn't be making these decisions. I don't give a shit if you made a person literally any two idiots can get that done

  5. Thank god for the UK approach. After the end of section 28, we had LGBT safe sex as well in my school. My parents aren't actively religious, and with my new medication, it's necessary as it causes horrible birth defects and is dangerous for the mother.

  6. Ah yes inserting fear into teens. Teach your children about safe sex. I was lucky to have parents who cared about that. However, I see like so so so many teens/ adults today who were never taught important information about safe sex.

  7. I grew up in central Georgia, and our county closed the free health center the same year the same county had the highest teen pregnancy rate among girls aged 11-19. I honestly don't know how I managed to leave the state without kids or a criminal record.

    One gal got pregnant in 7th grade, and if she had stayed in school, she would have dropped her kid off at elementary school on her way to high school.

    Georgia has 159 counties. I think the numbers speak volumes. And many folks I went to school with have kids old enough to graduate from high school or uni.

  8. Statistically, the teen birth rate was much higher in the 1960’s than they are today. The numbers have steadily declined with a few upticks in 1988 and 2009. I have to believe education has been a factor in those declines. We know that abstinence, although a worthy cause, just doesn’t happen as seen by these statistics. Additionally, certain clergy who are supposed to be abstinent, have failed to do so.

  9. Smart of republicans to assume that every "teen" is going to get married the second they reach adulthood, or ever for that matter. I'd love to know what magic takes place in marriage that makes sex any less of a pregnancy/std risk thereafter.

  10. The only way you can guarantee to never get in a car accident is to never drive in a car. While that statement is true, refusing to ever travel in a motor vehicle is lunacy.

    Give young people complete, well-founded information and allow them make their own educated decisions.

  11. I feel like I need to point out the irony of both Clinton and Trump advocating for abstinence-only education. Given both their histories of having affairs while married, I think there is an exactly 0% chance they "waited until marriage" themselves.

  12. I'm going to say something what may be hard for some people to hear but I think people need to hear as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I firmly believe that contraception needs to be taught in schools. The reason why I say that is because before I left my ex-husband I found out after the divorce that he had been having sex with men and because of that I ended up getting human papillomavirus. I was lucky enough to have a strain that did not cause cancer but it was still a very painful process. I truly want anyone who thinks that just because they stay true to their Church they're going to be protected that they need to truly know to protect themselves in case your partner decides to cheat on you or you're choosing to be sexually active with that person for the first time. I'm sorry if this offends anyone I just want to help people be safe.

  13. More great lies from the failing and falling ideologies from the perverted liberal left. The left and all of its spindly filthy fingers reaching out and being broken one by one from anarchism to atheism to socialism to fascism to marxism to communism to globalism to climate worship all being slowly overwhelmed by the rise of the proud unique traditional cultures of each nation and their individual unique religious beliefs and their individual unique languages and their sovereign borders and their people's who belong each and identify with their own land and proud patriotic nationalist heritage !!! It's over for the left. Billions and billions won't be ruled by the globalist leftist communist self anointed elite. We are going to skin you alive along with your son's and daughter's and grandchildren and feed your flesh and blood to the beasts and take your filthy bones and grind them into dust. God Himself will cast your soul and spirits into Hell !!!

  14. Yeah go ahead tell me not to have sex and all but don't tell me what sex what what STI's are or how you get them and I'm sure I'll avoid it.

  15. cause parents can't talk to their stupid kids. Not that they can because their parents didn't talk to them about it and where taught by this stupid system.

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