Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Is Rebranding Its Message

If you’re wondering who thought it was a good idea for Bristol Palin, pregnant at 17, to warn America’s teens not to have sex until they’re married, you’re not alone.

But it’s hard to figure out what, exactly, the well-meaning adults who preach “no sex until marriage” to teenagers are thinking, considering a 2007 study confirmed abstinence-only education does not work.

Jessica Valenti, editor of Feminsting.com and author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, has written a piece for The Nation about how the groups that comprise what Valenti calls “the virginity movement” have finally realized they need new PR.

Unfortunately, the abstinence preachers’ ideas for discouraging teens from having sex still don’t make any sense.Even Bristol admitted abstinence until marriage is “not realistic.” Fortunately, the Obama administration knows that, too. It wants to cut most abstinence-only funding from the 2010 budget to redirect it elsewhere.

But as Valenti explained, the abstinence-only movement is responding by organizing itself and fine-tuning its message a different, but no less ineffectual, way.

One major change will be the National Abstinence Education Association (the NAEA) changing its focus of “abstinence-only” sex ed, which doesn’t discuss condoms and contraceptives at all, to “abstinence-focused” sex ed, which promotes waiting until marriage as the best possible option.

“Abstinence-focused” sex ed might sound better, because its offering more information, but Valenti warns that we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Instead of arming young adults with the facts, the virginity movement will talk about contraception but only to scare teenagers from having sex. “The only time abstinence-only classes will talk about contraception is when they discuss failure rates — often exaggerating those rates or spreading misinformation about the dangers of contraception,” Valenti wrote.

Why don’t these people understand that teenagers are human beings who should be educated to make fully-informed decisions?