As the Bush administration continues to fund only abstinence-only sex education, American youth are
taking comprehensive sex education into their
own hands, RAW STORY has learned.
Programs favored by the administration often censor information about birth control and abortion completely. A December 2004 report
commissioned by Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) found
11 out of 13 abstinence-only curricula examined to contain errors and
According to The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit
organization focused on sexual and reproductive health
research, policy analysis and public education, there are
currently three federal programs—Section 510 of the Social
Security Act, the Adolescent Family Life Act and the
Special Projects of Regional and National Significance
program—dedicated to funding abstinence-only sex education. None are dedicated to funding comprehensive sex education,
even though the latter has been shown more effective in
delaying sexual activity in teens and encouraging wiser and
safer choices when teens do engage in sexual activity.
With an administration nonetheless intent on abstinence-
only education, youth are opting to pick up the fight on
their own behalf.
Youth groups react
In response to federal budget requests which would increase
funding once again for abstinence-only sex education, Advocates for Youth has launched two new campaigns domestically and abroad—the Keep it REAL campaign and the Fix the Gap campaign, which seek to prioritize sex education programs that include information about contraception and the HIV prevention.
"We launched the campaigns for several reasons," Caeden
Dempsey, Advocates for Youth's Program Manager, said.
"First, to educate the public on the importance of
comprehensive sex education, which includes information
about both abstinence and contraception. Secondly, to
affect policy change; specifically, increase Senate support
for the REAL Act, and increase Senate and general House
support for global funding of comprehensive HIV prevention
education. And finally, to build capacity among young
organizers to advocate on their own behalf."
Advocates for Youth, which operates on a premise of Rights,
Respect and Responsibility, currently has 15,000 young
people nationwide as part of their Youth Activist Network.
"Advocates for Youth believes that all young people have
the right to balanced, accurate, and realistic
comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention education,"
Dempsey said. "Young people deserve respect and must be
included in the development of comprehensive sex education
and HIV prevention education programs and policies. Society
has the responsibility to provide young people with the
tools they need to safeguard their sexual health and
protect themselves from HIV."
Two campaigns for comprehensive sex education launched
from that point.
Keep it REAL
In February of 2005, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
introduced S.368, the Responsible Education About Life
(REAL) Act, "a bill to provide assistance to reduce teen
pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted
diseases and to support healthy adolescent development."
"Senator Lautenberg's bill takes a comprehensive view of
sex education to teach not only abstinence, but also the
importance of contraceptives, and provides grants to teach
both," Alex Formuzis, Communications Director for Senator
"The use of contraceptives is a real sticking point with
members of the far right," Formuzis explained. "They won't
even discuss teaching about contraceptives as part of sex
education, but it has to be a part of any comprehensive sex
education plan. Period."
In May of 2005, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) reintroduced HR 2553 in the 109th Congress under the REAL name, following her introduction of the Family Life Education Act in the 107th Congress and reintroduction in the 108th.
"Support for comprehensive sex education continues to grow
in Congress because people understand that it is effective
in preventing unwanted pregnancies and keeping kids safe,"
Rep. Lee said. "My bill has more supporters than in
previous Congresses and for the first time a Senate
The House bill currently has 131 co-sponsors, but the
Senate bill currently has only 8, with only one Republican,
Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), among its co-sponsors. The
Senate legislation, which has the support of nearly 100
organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics,
the Society of Adolescent Medicine, the American
Association for Health Education, Planned Parenthood, and
the ACLU—is currently stuck in the Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions Committee.
"The Keep it REAL campaign is about increasing necessary
Senate support for the REAL Act," Dempsey said. Advocates
for Youth seeks 25 additional Senate co-sponsors for the
bill, but they face challenges.
Rep. Lee explains: "It is a challenging environment to work
in, because so much of the opposition to comprehensive sex
education is driven by ideology and politics, not science."
Teens get involved
The Youth Activist Network utilizes five regional organizers, who coordinate primarily college students active in groups with a social
justice mission or a focus on women's or LGBT issues.
The Southern Regional Organizer, Jennifer Wellman, 23,
serves as the contact person for any organization or group
in her region who is interested in promoting the Keep it
REAL campaign. Her interest in promoting safer sex
practices began while she was a student at Virginia Tech,
working as a Wellness Peer Educator.
"The position allowed me to see how naïve the majority of
my college-aged peers are when it comes to issues such as
contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and safe sex
in general," Wellman said. "Ever since then, I have been
highly involved in advocating for comprehensive sexual
education at a younger age."
Advocates for Youth and the Keep it REAL campaign,
provided Wellman with an outlet through which to funnel her
"energy and activism."
"I would love to see an increase in federal funding for
comprehensive sexual education programs in both public and
private schools," she said. "Young people are not
appropriately aware of sexual health issues. If teens were
given the opportunity to sit down in a class that taught
them how to protect themselves when they decide they are
ready for sexual relations, the rate of unintended
pregnancies, STD infections, and the like would greatly
decline. The statistics show that in European countries
that do provide comprehensive sexual education from an
early age, this is exactly the case."
Wellman and the other young activists promoting the Keep it
REAL campaign petition for congressional support and
encourage other youths to do the same, by signing a
petition urging President Bush and Congress to stop
supporting abstinence-only programs and fund comprehensive
sex education, and sending emails to their Senators and
Representatives and the President.
Fix the Gap
Fix the Gap, the international complement to Keep it REAL, seeks to increase funding globally.
"The Fix the Gap campaign is beginning with an educational
focus," Dempsey said. "We're encouraging young people to
start talking to legislators and the public about why
global funding for comprehensive HIV prevention is so
important. In 2003, 50% of new HIV infections occurred in
young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Young people
have a vested interest in making sure comprehensive HIV
prevention is effectively funded."
With as many as 40 million people currently living with
HIV/AIDS around the world, and almost 95% of them living in
developing countries, the importance of exporting effective
prevention tools is seen by many to be imperative. Yet Congress has mandated that "at least" one-third of global funding provided by the
President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) be
directed toward flawed abstinence-only programs.
Though PEPFAR and the Global AIDS Bill (H.R. 1298) cite the
ABC model successfully used to reduce HIV transmission in
Uganda ("Abstinence, Be faithful, and use a Condom"), the
U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Randall Tobias,
issued a five-year implementation strategy that focuses on
abstinence and faithfulness to the almost total exclusion
of condom use, except for those considered high-risk by
virtue of vocation (e.g. sex workers).
Young activists promoting the Fix the Gap campaign are
encouraged to sign a petition urging the American government and governments worldwide to include them in leadership positions in the
battle against HIV/AIDS and fully fund comprehensive
prevention programs, and send emails to Ambassador Tobias, their Senators and Representatives.
The Future of Youth Activism
While young people are increasingly disillusioned with
the administration's focus on abstinence-only sex education
and HIV/AIDS prevention at home and abroad, their
frustration is fueling activism, and making them take
charge of finding their own solutions.
"I see a much larger number of young adults becoming
involved in this campaign," Wellman said. "Teens are
realizing that they have a right to information they need
to protect themselves. This realization and the failure of
abstinence-only education programs will, hopefully, lead to
a large-scale activist movement that will enable equal
federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs."
And they do have allies.
In a February 2005 press release
about the REAL legislation, Senator Lautenberg noted,
"Abstinence only education only tells young people half the
story, and they need the full picture. The abstinence-only
programs funded by the federal government are not getting
the job done."
Rep. Lee believes the battle may yet to be won. "I
think we are making progress on this issue. The incoherent
position of opposing abortion and sensible prevention
policies is being exposed and when the Democrats retake the
House, this bill will be in a strong position to move."