Just Say No, Abstinence Education and the Problems with Zero-Tolerance Policies


For my senior thesis at Hampshire College, I focused on prohibitionist drug policies in the United States and problems associated with such an atmosphere. In short, my conclusions were that our nation’s drug policies have actually increased use of ‘hard’ drugs (namely heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines), are responsible for unprecedented rates of incarceration and drug overdoses, and have significantly contributed to the decay of civil liberties. The zero-tolerance atmosphere for drugs also accounts for a significant portion of new cases of HIV and hepatitis transmission. With the possible exception of incarceration, similar conclusions can be drawn with regards to abstinence education and our society’s views on sexuality.

As a policy that is philosophically identical to Mrs. Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ program, abstinence-only education practices are impractical and fail to address social issues like the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs, used interchangeably with STIs), potentially dangerous sexual behavior, and alternative sexual lifestyles. Abstinence-only education demands unrealistic expectations of adolescents because it ignores their own biological drives to have sex. These policies are purist in nature, and are frequently based in the context of fulfilling Judeo-Christian values. Moreover, abstinence-only programs frequently teach misguided information, exaggerate the dangers of responsible sexual behavior, and purposely ignore safe sex practices like proper condom use and so forth. In other words, ‘Just Say No’ policies, whether they are in the context of drugs, sexuality or any other issue, do little to address the concerns of the millions of people who may say ‘yes.’

What is abstinence and what are the problems associated with abstinence-only education?

Abstinence is defined differently by different organizations. Obviously, abstinence promotes the idea of abstaining from sexual activity until one is ready to engage in such activity. However, there are differences among various groups as to what classifies as sexual activity and how one defines the word ‘ready.’ In a pamphlet from Planned Parenthood called “Abstinence Facts,”# abstinence is defined as follows:

Abstinence may mean:
– kissing and hugging only
– some sexual touching
– everything but sexual intercourse

These are fairly liberal standards. By this definition, President Clinton really did not “have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” The federal government, however, has much more limited standards for abstinence-only education. According to a 2004 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, in order to receive federal funds, “grantees must offer curricula that have as their ‘exclusive purpose’ teaching the benefits of abstinence.”# This means that abstinence-only funds may not teach contraceptive methods “except to emphasize their failure rates.” The ACLU report continues to discuss the federal funds:

Thus, recipients of abstinence-only funds operate under a gag order that censors the transmission of vitally needed information. Grantees are forced either to omit any mention of topics such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and AIDS or to present these subjects in an incomplete and thus inaccurate fashion.

In other words, in an abstinence-only society, the aforementioned subjects are ignored. After all, the federal funds have taught adolescents to ‘Just Say No’ to sex, what more can be done? The above subjects, like homosexuality and contraception, are deemed irrelevant because, theoretically, the kids are not going to be having sex anyway. This worldview is rather naive, and as we have been discovering, dangerous in terms of the inefficacy of abstinence-only education. The report continues to define abstinence-only education more clearly:

The federal guidelines governing these programs state that [recipients of funds] teach that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.

Not only is this statement uncompassionate towards anyone who is not in this type of relationship, but it is a bizarre overextension of the federal government’s place in our society. Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States does it say that marriage is an ideal form of romantic relationships, nor does it give authority to the federal government to decide what that ideal should be. Yet, the federal government has indeed done just that, with a $206 million budget for FY 2006. Funding for abstinence-only education began in 1981 under President Reagan. At the time it was called “chastity education” and it received only about $11 million per year. In 1996, President Clinton allotted $50 million per year for five years to states which offer abstinence-only education .# President George W. Bush increased this funding to $206 million per year.

Even if one were to put ideals aside, like those inherent in the Constitution, one must look at what has been achieved by these federal funds. After all, the funds keep increasing, so they must work, right? Well, reliable research has shown that abstinence-only programs have dismal results, and one needs only to look at the general patterns of STD transmission and teenage pregnancy over the past twenty-five years to understand that these programs do not work. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote an opinion piece on this subject in which he cites a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a leading research organization on sexual education.# Kristof claims that according to AGI, teenagers in the United States have about as much sexual activity as teenagers in Canada or Europe. Clearly, that means there is no reduction in actual numbers of teenagers abstaining from sex. Despite the similar figures, American girls are “four times as likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as French girls…and more than seven times as likely as Dutch girls to have an abortion.” Kristof’s findings continue: “Young Americans are five times as likely to have HIV as young Germans, and teenager’s gonorrhea rate is 70 times as high in the U.S. than in the Netherlands and France.”

According to a 2001 report compiled by the American Academy on Pediatrics, entitled “Condom Use by Adolescents,” about 51% of teenagers report being sexually active. Furthermore, the report claims that “the United States continues to have the highest adolescent birth rate among all developed countries, even compared to countries with similar or higher rates of sexual activity.” The same report also states that about “two-thirds of all individuals who acquire STDs are younger than 25 years.” Since condoms are not 100% effective in preventing the transmission of STDs, the American Academy of Pediatrics still believes that abstinence is a good idea and should be taught to adolescents along with “secondary prevention” measures, namely proper use of contraceptives and so forth.

With regards to education in schools, the American Academy of Pediatrics believes that the most effective efforts aimed at increasing proper contraceptive use take place in school settings, mostly because schools have a captive audience of young people. When abstinence-only programs are used without secondary education, the programs “fail to show a delay in the initiation of intercourse, a decrease in frequency of intercourse, or a decrease in the number of sexual partners.”

Even more telling of the inefficacy of abstinence-only education programs is that adolescents who engage in such programs, particularly those who make “virginity pledges,” are much less likely to use a condom when they stray away from their pledges. In a joint Yale and Columbia University research study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, it was found that the majority of those who took “virginity pledges” eventually had sex before marriage. Furthermore, the study found that the pledgers “were less likely to use a condom than their non-pledging counterparts, and those who remained virgins were more likely to substitute oral and/or anal sex for vaginal sex.”# In summation, the federal government is spending over $200 million next year on programs which vicariously increase oral and anal sex.

Religious Connotation of Abstinence Programs

Another problem with abstinence-only education is that the programs frequently carry thinly-veiled to not-so-thinly-veiled religious connotations, and in this country, that means Judeo-Christian connotations. President Bush is famous for supporting “faith-based initiatives” and funds for abstinence-only education are frequently given to inherently religious institutions. In Connecticut, one of the largest appropriations of federal funds has been a $2 million grant to an organization called Catholic Charities. This organization received this money over a three-year period in order to teach abstinence-only dogma in both parochial and public schools. In other words, this Catholic group has received federal money to teach in public schools. This seems like an irresponsible and unconstitutional conflict between church and state. One can imagine that if the Church of Satan received federal funds for teaching their beliefs on sexual education, it would cause at least a minor ruckus. Why, then, is that any less valid than the Catholic church’s views on sexuality? Well, obviously one system of beliefs carries much more weight in our society than the other.

One example of religious overtones in sexual education was found in Louisiana and it was challenged by the ACLU in 2002. A federal court found that the Louisiana Governor’s Program on Abstinence (GPA) was centered around Christian ideals. The program presented “Christ-centered” skits, held a “religious youth revival,” and promoted abstinence “as part of the gospel message.”# The program’s website, www.AbsinencEdu.com, claimed that, “Abstaining from sex until entering a loving marriage will [make you] really, truly ‘cool’ in God’s eyes.” Apparently God deciphers individuals as ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’ now. The website also promises that, “God is standing beside you the whole way,” presumably if you are ‘cool.’ Thus, the federal court in this case correctly asserted that this program crossed the religion/state line, and the program was completely overhauled.

Philosophically, the entire idea of waiting until marriage to have sex is completely a religious ideal. Marriage, in itself, is a religious institution. Granted, the state has a roll in marriage nowadays, but in its essence, it is a religious institution. If it were truly a state institution as opposed to a religious one, then homosexuals would be allowed to marry because the state must adhere to standards of equality. Religion does not adhere to the same standards. Abstinence-only education reeks of religious overtones: the obsession with virginity, the emphasis on punishment for detractors and redemption for followers, the rejection of biological order, and so forth. One analogy that can be drawn to abstinence education is the current movement of ‘Intelligent Design’ which is basically a watered-down version of Creationism mixed with pseudo-scientific language in order to make the concept seem less religious and more like a practical alternative to scientific findings. Abstinence education helps promote the idea that marriage is a bedrock of our society, thus, placing religion at the epicenter of our moral founding.

To simply say that the only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy is through abstinence is juvenile. Obviously, one cannot contract a sexually transmitted disease if one does not have sex. What about all the variables, though? What if one does not subscribe to the religious aspects of abstinence? What do we do with teenagers who have decided to have sex? What if a sixteen year-old is exceedingly mature and ready for sex? From my understanding of teenagers, a lot of sixteen year-olds have sex (gasp!). Abstinence education does not take any of those questions into consideration. Clearly, supplemental education is needed and it is most effective in school settings.


Abstinence-only education is by definition an incomplete message to adolescents. As a zero-tolerance policy, it only conveys one part of the story, one which ignores safety measures for individuals who do not remain abstinent. Perhaps it is a good idea to promote the concept of abstinence for various reasons, but only teaching abstinence as a complete form of sexual education is like having driver’s education classes that only discuss car accidents. Moreover, the whole idea of abstinence is really a thinly-veiled religious concept and it is rather purist in nature. Why not discuss maintaining long-term relationships with adolescents? This seems like it would promote safe sexual behavior and give adolescents life-long skills for marriage or unions. Sexual education programs work best when they mix some form of abstinence education with proper contraceptive use, and an emphasis on relationship-skills. With regards to the religious contexts of various abstinence-only programs, there are numerous legal precedents which prevent mandatory religious participation in public schools. The schools are public and so are the federal funds that go to the programs. Therefore, abstinence-only programs centered around faith should not be allowed in public settings and they should not receive public money. Point being, the $206 million spent on abstinence-only education this year could have been spent in much better ways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five − 1 =