ArticlesVolume 15, Number 1 (2006)

The Failure of Abstinence-Only Education: Minors Have A Right to Honest Talk About Sex


The federal government spends over $170 million annually to subsidize states and community organizations that provide abstinence-only sex education to America’s youth. This type of sex education is limited to teaching that a monogamous, marital, heterosexual relationship is the “expected standard of human activity” and that sex outside such a relationship will be physically and psychologically harmful. Abstinence- only education also advocates only one method to prevent disease and pregnancy, abstinence, and it offers no information concerning contraception and disease prevention except that all methods other than abstinence fail. As a result of its singular focus, the curricula not only pose┬ásignificant problems with respect to ensuring minors’ sexual health, but also ignore the needs of sexual minority youth altogether.

The debate regarding what to teach minors about sex is a political battle over defining American values. While the nation engages in this debate, however, America’s youth are paying the price. Comprehensive reviews of abstinence-only curricula have consistently noted that they contain false or misleading public health information. Recently, United States Representative Henry A. Waxman released a report (“Waxman Report”) evaluating “the content of the most popular abstinence-only curricula used by grantees of the largest federal abstinence initiative.” It concluded that over eighty percent of federal grants go to providing abstinence-only curricula that “contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health,” including exaggerations about contraceptive failure rates, the physical and mental health risks of abortion, and the health susceptibilities of the gay population.