Alabama showcases the perils of abstinence-only sex education

In part 6 of ‘America left behind,’ Al Jazeera looks at why 37 states teach abstinence despite evidence it doesn’t work

The CDC issued a report last year criticizing middle school and high school sex education programs across the U.S. for not teaching all the recommended sexual health topics.
Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic / AP

At the end of this year, the targets set by the United Nations in 2000 for developing countries will expire. In this project, we take those Millennium Development Goals and examine how some communities in the United States measure up. We have applied each goal to the U.S. by looking at an indicator used to measure a country’s development success and interpreting it for a specific community in America. The eight goals are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development. An indicator for the sixth goal — to combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases — is access to comprehensive sex education. In this piece, we look at the ramifications of abstinence-only sex education.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Lacey Kennedy, who graduated from a high school in northern Alabama in 2010, remembered students being told to sign an abstinence pledge and to fold the pledge down to the size of a condom wrapper and keep it in their wallet.

“The idea was when you open your wallet to reach for a condom, instead you find this conveniently condom-wrapper-size abstinence pledge,” Kennedy said, “and that was supposed to be useful to us.”

According to the most recent National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50 percent of high school students in Alabama have had sex, and nearly half have had sex without condoms. Between 2004 and 2011, according to the Alabama Department of Health, people ages 13 to 24 were the only age group in the state to experience an increase in new HIV diagnoses. In 2013 they accounted for almost half of new HIV infections in the state.

Alabama has high rates of STD infections. Data from the CDC in 2013 show that the state capital, Montgomery, had the highest STD rate in the nation. That year the state ranked third in the U.S. in numbers of chlamydial and gonorrheal infections, and the infection rate skyrockets in young adults 15 to 24 years old.

The CDC issued a report in December of last year criticizing middle school and high school sex education programs across the U.S. for not teaching all the recommended sexual health topics. The least covered topic, the report noted, was how to get and use condoms.

When Ali Simpson attended Vestavia Hills High School, a public school in an affluent neighborhood outside Birmingham, sex education was “100 percent abstinence only.” She graduated in 2011, and the last time she remembered a discussion about sexual health was in middle school. Her class gathered in the wrestling room. She said a woman entered and told a story about how she remained a virgin until marriage. Her husband, however, had had sex with one other person. “He gave her an STD that made her infertile, and that was her story about why not to have sex until marriage,” Simpson recalled many years later.

Alabama’s teen birth rate has dramatically declined since, from 61.8 births per 1,000 people ages 15 to 19 in 1991 to 34.3 in 2013; however, it’s still higher than the national average of 26.5.

Derrick Harris, the principal of Bullock County High School, a public school in rural eastern Alabama, said that out of his 470 students in grades eight through 12, one or two are pregnant this semester. “One is too many for me,” he said in a phone interview. But, he said, teen pregnancy is a problem he’s not quite sure how to solve. He said the school “teaches abstinence” through a program called Abstinence in Motion, which he said “works for some.”

A 2007 study commissioned by the federal government showed that abstinence-only education does not keep teenagers from having sex or having sex with more partners. Nor does abstinence-only education increase or decrease the likelihood that teenagers will use a condom.

He said he would support a course in comprehensive sex education, a seminar or “something to wake them up” but worried that there would be pushback from parents.

In Alabama, public schools have to teach health — including topics like bullying, hygiene, substance abuse and HIV — but Alabama and 28 other states do not require schools to teach sexual education.

“School systems can decide how specific they want to get when it comes to a sensitive subject like sex ed,” said Michael Sibley, the director of communications for the Alabama Department of Education. “If a school system sees that there is a need, they have the sovereignty and the authority to make that choice. Those [school systems] that don’t feel that way, where it’s not as much of an issue for the children in that community and they take issue with that kind of curriculum, they don’t have to do that.”

“Some [school] systems are teaching what we would call abstinence-only until marriage programs, which from our perspective are not helpful,” said Jamie Keith, the executive director of the Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “And some [school] systems are doing evidence-based programs, that we have trained, and some [school] systems are doing nothing.”

She said the lack of a state-mandated sex education program complicates efforts to help decrease the teen pregnancy rate. “The most logical place for this type of education to occur would be inside the health curriculum at a school, so we are trying to move schools in a direction where they do that, but without a requirement that [schools] do it, it is challenging,” she said.

Additionally, the guidelines, passed in 1992, require that schools place “an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

Sibley acknowledged that the language is “outdated” and “could be seen as offensive” but said he has never “heard of anyone trying to enforce that. It’s just an old law that had not technically been updated.” However, since sex education is not tracked across the state, it’s nearly impossible to know for sure.

For four years, the Alabama Alliance for Healthy Youth, a part of AIDS Alabama, has been campaigning for the homophobic language to be removed. Al Jazeera contacted three legislators on the Education Policy Committee to ask why the language has not been removed. They did not return requests for comment.

Kennedy now works with Lisa Moyer for the Alabama Alliance for Healthy Youth, an advocacy group based in Birmingham. They said they regularly speak with public school students who complain that their sex education classes were useless.

“I think [school administrators] don’t realize how shaming it is and how damaging,” Moyer said. “In our media campaign Sex Ed Nightmares, there was so much conversation of crying, like the students going to the bathroom to cry because they felt like they were bad or dirty or had done things wrong. Education should not make young people cry.”

In the spring of 2011, a rumor circulated through Vestavia Hills High School that a group of freshman girls got a sexual transmitted disease after attending a party with some seniors. It's unclear how many students were affected. Some students said they heard it was herpes or chlamydia, while the sex ed teacher said it was syphilis.

According to four students, the school quickly called an assembly. Students were segregated by gender. “The school called all the guys in to talk to us,” said a male student, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic. He was in ninth grade at the time and remembered being told about statutory rape and not to “hook up with a girl who’s passed out or asleep.”

“I can just remember that the school as a whole just avoided talking about condoms and sex in general,” said Lisa Shi, also a senior at the time. “So the easy way out was ‘don’t do anything.’” None of the girls remembered what was said in the assembly, though one said that she thought it was a joke.

The school did not respond to requests to comment on the rumor, the assembly or what sort of sex education was taught at the time. It currently employs the Sex and Family Education program, which advocates “abstinence as the accepted norm for unmarried persons.”

Many public high schools in Alabama hire outside organizations to teach sex education. Moyer and Kennedy said administrators say they are reluctant to adopt more comprehensive sexual health programs because they fear pushback from parents. So this year Moyer and Kennedy hired a polling company to survey 501 public school parents in two counties in Alabama.

Sixty-six percent of the respondents said they believe sex ed should be taught in school. Eighty-two percent said that students should be taught abstinence until marriage, but 79 percent said they want their child to be taught how to use a condom, and 84 percent said they want students to be instructed on birth control methods.

Ten years ago, when Dr. Keith Abrams’ eldest son first enrolled in the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a public 7–12 school in downtown Birmingham, Abrams approached the administration with an offer: He wanted to volunteer to teach sexual health. The school agreed.

His class there is taught for two days in eighth, 10th and 12th grades for 90 minutes each. The first day is mostly instruction, and he devotes the second day to student questions.

He believes that the Deep South’s high rates of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, divorce and sexual abuse can be directly linked to the lack of sexual education.

“It's causality, not a correlation,” Abrams said. ”It is traceable to education. No one wants to get an STD.”

In the decade that he has been teaching sexual health, only two parents have requested that their kids be pulled out of his class.

“You hear so much about how so many college kids can’t write essays. They don’t have good study habits. They are so behind in math. Well, why not extend that to [sex education]?” said Brad Hill, the director of curriculum and instruction at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Citing the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses across the country, he said, “Apparently high schools are not preparing them to be healthy sexually either.”

He and Will Marble, the health and wellness coordinator at the school, stress that their sexual health program should not be an outlier in Alabama. Marble said he has three young daughters and worries about their growing up in a world where sexual health education is uneven or nonexistent.

“Maybe we can do it because it’s right. You have to meet the students where they are,” he said.

Ali Simpson is in her first year of medical school and credits her high school education with setting her up for academic success.

“The education I had in middle school and high school, I honestly believe, prepared me for the real world,” she said. “I think if the school had taught me sex ed, that would have stuck with me too.”

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