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Abstinence Curriculum: The Illegitimate Child of Politics and Religion

Brandy Workman, Ethan Smith, Samantha Soukup, Samantha Thomas, Ona Rush

Abstinence programs are a staple in most US public and private schools. Omaha is no exception, and can even be seen as a role model for abstaining. Though there are many different kinds of abstinence programs, their main goal is simple: not engaging in any sexual acts until marriage. This type of sexual education usually stems from communities with strong religious and conservative values, which explains the sort of heteronormative tone of a program that promotes not having sex before marriage in a system that only recently has allowed gay marriage in the US.

Methodology

As a group, we delved into the multi-faceted existence of the abstinence program, particularly in Omaha, Nebraska. We review local schools specific programs – compare them to other US abstinence programs and the effect they have on the children and their wellbeing, as well as dive into what creates a program like this taking into account politics and religion, both locally and nationally and even compare them to international statistics. We also analyze the kind of programs that Planned Parenthood, a not as well received organization in such communities as Omaha, have to offer. We also make the comparison between what parents want and what students want and how organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Douglas County Health Department work for and against each group.

Findings for Omaha Public School

Students in the Omaha Public School district are all taught off of the same standards regarding sexual education. Beginning in the seventh grade is when they start introducing the topic of sex as well as enforcing the benefits of being abstinent. Omaha Public Schools, being that they have no religious influences, aren’t strictly just about promoting abstinence. They inform the students on other effective forms of contraceptives. They start teaching it minimally in the fourth grade, mainly discussing puberty, personal confidence, and sexual orientation, then reintroduced in the seventh and eighth grade. Although, parents always have the option to opt their child out from taking these sexual education courses or even specific topics taught – it isn’t completely required. In middle school, they present more of the consequences of the decisions that these children make, in hopes of deterring them from these sexual activities. They don’t just preach about abstinence though because in reality teenagers are going to have sex eventually. They provide the students with knowledge on how to retain these contraceptives, by either seeing a medical physician and being prescribed medication or the easier to get over the counter contraceptives. So if none the less, these teens will have access and the information on how to have safe sex. They stress the difficulties and hardships that teen pregnancy creates as well as the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. What we also saw as very beneficial is they have a strong stress on teaching the Nebraska laws about sexual behavior and the strong importance on their being equal consent from each partner.
For Omaha Public Schools students, they then again reintroduce sexual education in the tenth grade, which again can be opted out of by parental decision. Once in the tenth grade, the teacher will go much more into detail about every aspect possible of sexual education, including STDs, sexual abuse, sex trafficking, the reproduction system, medical check-ups, abstinence, contraceptives, teen pregnancy, prenatal care, and the legal policies and issues within Nebraska. They very strongly put a stress on going and getting regular medical check-ups once an individual is sexually active. They make sure the students know that they can get tested confidentially without having any parental consent, as well as obtaining contraceptives. Students are also informed on the demographics of Douglas County and how we have one of the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the nation. The standard is that the course spends at least two weeks on the topic of sexually transmitted infections in order to go in full detail on every aspect and danger of them. The comparison of the length of teaching of abstinence compared to reproduction prevention is quite large, being that abstinence is only taught for three days and reproduction prevention is taught for at least two weeks. Although in Omaha Public Schools Human Growth and Development teach guidelines they do enforce that OPS does not encourage sexual activity, and they want that to be known. They encourage the teachers to have relationships with the parents, as well as making sure the students discuss all of this with their parents by sending them home with scenario worksheets as homework to go over with their parents getting their beliefs and values involved.

Consequences of Abstaining

It is appropriate to start the grander conversation on abstinence programs with the consequences: STDs, STIs, and unplanned pregnancy. Between June 2010 and April 2014, the Omaha Public Libraries set up an STI screening program for high-risk youth groups in the city. The study done in tandem with the programming evaluated the effectiveness of the program and identified factors predictive of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, the infections tested for. Since Nebraska has STI rates consistently above the US average, the Douglas County Health Department initiated the program. The library STI screening program effectively reached a younger and predominantly black population compared to a traditional health department clinic site. The data showed that traditional clinic participants unfortunately were much more likely to report any symptoms compared to the library program participants, which is understandable as the library program brought in people who normally would not seek out a traditional clinic. Representatives said the study proved the effectiveness of nontraditional clinic opportunities.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveillance data indicate that in 1996, there were more than three million STD cases among U.S. teenagers, and these cases accounted for one-quarter of all reported STD infections” (Upchurch). Compare this to Omaha’s relatively high STD rate, these are startling numbers. A growing literature shows that neighborhood conditions, such as access to teen centers and activities, influence adolescent sexual risk-taking behavior, including onset of sexual activity. Studies mapping the sexual networks of populations at high risk of STDs show that neighborhood and sexual network boundaries are correlated. Omaha has been notoriously poor in giving teens places to pass the time, and this is evident in the STD rate.

Sex education programs that focused only on abstinence consistently failed to have any significant effect on sexual behavior. However, programs that encouraged both abstinence and contraceptive use two-thirds of them had a positive impact on delaying sex, reducing the frequency of sex or number of partners, or increasing contraceptive use. “More than 30% of girls in the United States become pregnant one or more times before they reach 20 years of age” (Kirby). When young girls become pregnant, they are less likely to finish school, attend college, and are more likely to be single parents. Nearly four million cases of STD occur annually among teens. Little evidence exists that any particular abstinence program delays the initiation of sex.

To understand the Omaha Public School district and surrounding region’s need to instill abstinence programs within their schools when statistics say to otherwise, you have to look at both the politics and religion of the area as well as the leverage of the people of power with those ideals. Any time Omaha tries to reform the sexual education program, there is a large number of staunch conservatives with strong Christian values there to shut it down. Nebraska consists of a 75% Christian population along with a 78% Republican/conservative political ideology. It is important to note though that Omaha stands alone in Nebraska at being the only Democratic majority at 52%. Though Omaha has many teaching outside of abstinence including STD and sometimes contraceptive use, they continue to try to increase information on organizations like Planned Parenthood and family planning which continues to be shot down. Smaller area schools often even lack the kind of programming OPS currently has due to the same kinds of opinions amplified in a small town.

Local Politics

These people stress that abstinence is the only program to not fail. Such an education not only stresses that abstinence until marriage is to be practiced but that any sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage is not only morally wrong but is the only way to prevent unplanned pregnancy or avoid developing a sexually transmitted disease. Yet to the previous understanding noted earlier, abstinence programming is clearly not the answer to these consequences.

The leverage of the folks who attend the Omaha meetings is their power. One of their claims is that parents want abstinence programs. Parents felt that it wasn’t enough, they believed that education should start in elementary school. It is said that “Most Americans want far more than abstinence-only in schools. Only 15 percent of American adults believe that schools should teach abstinence from sexual intercourse and should not provide information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception” (Diamond & Beh). Those voices are a minority, and they are still overturning reformations. Most Americans want a broad sex education curriculum that teaches the basics, from how babies are made to how to put on a condom and how to get tested for STIs and STDs. Omaha is on their way to having a broader sex education program, but that minority keeps them from doing so.

Another claim is that abstinence is responsible for a decrease in STIs and STDs and teen pregnancy, while a study showed that “…improved contraceptive use is responsible for 86 percent of the decline in the U.S. adolescent pregnancy rate between 1995 and 2002” (Diamond & Beh). Yet, even though the United States has seen an all time low in teen pregnancy in the last 65 years, it is still has the highest teen birth rate of any developed country: nearly three in ten US teenage women will experience pregnancy. It can also be noted that the sometimes aggressiveness of abstinence programming meant to scare children away from sex does not often work.

Religion

One of the main issues on this idea of conservatism in the schools is secularism, or the separation of church and state. One could argue that a sexual education program should be based in science and education, but the politics of religion seem to burst the seams in a supposedly separated nation. Sex education in the schools across the country is not understood as a specifically scientific or biological idea but as a field of knowledge that engages the values, cultural and religious diversity, and sexual differences of the United States. While the agenda of the Christian populus is certainly contested, they have the vocal strength to make strides, especially in a political arena.

Religion can often come out with confusing numbers statistically in terms of the introduction of education and politics, but without doubt there seems to be some correlation between conservative politics and Christian values. Many of the platforms for the Republican or otherwise conservative parties hold the same key points. These include abstinence programs, anti-abortion (or pro-life), anti-gay marriage (or for “traditional marriage”), and others. While these feel like Christianity influencing politics, there are cases of politics influencing the religious, with stances including gun rights (which is actually a liberal stance by definition) and being for the death penalty. Omaha is typically a Republican state with a high rate of Christianity as religious preference.

A new data set on religion states “…over 71% of the respondents in 2006 reported that religion is either very or rather important in their life, and as many as 51% ranked the importance of God in their life at level ten—the maximum rank allowed in that question” (Maoz & Henderson). Americans are 83% Christian and, as previously stated, has the highest teen pregnancy rate in developed countries. While a country like Japan who has a high non-religious population of anywhere between 30-39%, they also hold the place for the lowest teen pregnancy in the world at a rate of 4%. One cannot jump to conclusions as correlation does not equal causation, but taking a look at the World Religion dataset and comparing teen pregnancy and STD rates can be informative.

Abstinence Alternatives

Students in the past have often sided with non-abstinence programs. They felt as though the sexual educational system lacked structure and should have a nationwide agenda to follow. Students at high schools have requested to have on site condom availability, and even protested for wanting more access. Schools have ended up putting task forces together to help provide support for students who wanted to learn more about sexual education. Many task forces were successful in letting the schools prove condoms and better education.

Planned Parenthood is a great resource to children and teens. We went and talked to two different people at a local Planned Parenthood. The first person we talked to was a counselor there. We sat and talked about what exactly she does there at Planned Parenthood. Basically what was described to us was that she is there for emotional support after abortions, STD results, and helping out women weigh out options when it comes to pregnancy. She told us that in the state of Nebraska they have to be trained a certain way when comes it comes to dealing with abortion, noting the sensitivity present in Omaha on the subject of abortion. The second woman we talked to was a nurse there. She was able to give more information about sexual behavior here in Omaha. One of things that she told us that stood out was that a lot of the times people won’t get checked for sexually transmitted diseases. Since it’s such a small number of people who come in, it’s a big issue that our STD rates are this high. She also told us that the most common STI here in Omaha was syphilis. Even though it is treatable, most people go long periods of time with it and for women it can affect the chances of getting pregnant and make the risk higher for ovarian cancer.

The main issue with Planned Parenthood is the huge target on its back. Most people who are for abstinence programs are also extremely against the organization for its support for contraceptives and abortions. Politically, they are seen by conservatives as a caricature of what is wrong with the education system and the youth. Though Planned Parenthood has many other programs to offer other than abortions, including STD tests and pregnancy planning, they are still widely hated by said people of religious and conservative backgrounds. This information sort of poses a vicious cycle of sexually transmitted health issues. As abstinence programs fail and teens still have sex, they are taught more on that STDs are bad and less on what to do when one contracts one as it is expected that they will not have sex. And since such a program actively speaks out against organizations like Planned Parenthood, teens are also less likely to get tested for STDs even if they suspect they may have one therefore are then more likely to spread it to other teens in the same abstinence driven boat. Same goes with teen pregnancies: where abstinence fails, a teen is less likely to receive help which increases the rate of teen pregnancy and possible pregnancy related issues.

Conclusions

According to secondary data, Omaha has been found to be surprisingly democratic in a highly republican state, but with a high correlating Christian population. Omaha Public Schools have a base level sexual education program with information on STDs and contraceptives, but with emphasis on feelings and abstinence. Private school typically were religious based and emphasized highly on abstinence since it is within their religious practice to teach abstaining, while small town schools seemed to lie somewhere between public and private schools with a further distance from Omaha showing a higher emphasis on abstinence. Planned Parenthood proves to be a valuable resource for students, but the political strife against the organization leaves many students on guard when it comes to using their services. Most of the issues come from their abortion services, but they offer many other services including important STD screenings that could lower Omaha’s high sexually transmitted disease and infection rates.

After faced with all of this information, it makes sense that Omaha would continue an abstinence program even with all the data that states that abstinence programs typically do not work. Sex, particularly in the US – Omaha included, is more political than it is biological. Certain people in a city like Omaha are more concerned with the teachings of sex to children on what it means politically and within their religion rather than with science and informing in mind. While it is understandable to want to teach your values to your children and their classmates, it takes a serious toll on the large number of students who decide to engage in sex anyway. STD and STI rates are significantly high for students who are taught abstinence only, and Omaha has one of the highest rates in the country for STD contraction. Even with attempts to change the curriculum to include more information on contraceptives and alternatives which is favored by students and parents and many other members in the community, there is still that incredible backlash from those select few who resist. It seems it will take some time before Omaha decides to incorporate more into their sexual education programming, but with new generations of conscious children becoming adults, there is still hope for more inclusive and preventative sex education programming for the children and teens of Omaha.

 

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