Shelby Knox grew up as a conservative Southern Baptist in Texas turned progressive activist and documentary film subject. She recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Political Science. Throughout her college career, Shelby traveled across the nation as a reproductive rights activists to speak to young people about the importance of comprehensive sex education and the power of youth activism, using the film that carries her name, The Education of Shelby Knox, as a vehicle for discussion. She currently lives in New York City and is a full-time speaker and organizer working with progressive organizations to promote sex education, women’s rights, and youth empowerment.
Yesterday the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by the Honorable Henry Waxman, held the first ever oversight hearing on the effectiveness of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs – programs that have been around for 25 years and have received over a billion dollars in federal funding in the past ten years alone. (For the Committee’s website, which includes Waxman’s opening statement and the testimony of all of the expert witnesses.)
Although long overdue, the hearing couldn’t be timelier. Teen birth rates are on the rise, one in four teen girls have a sexually transmitted infection, and Congress will decide this spring whether the widely criticized abstinence-only-until-marriage programs deserve another 176 million dollar chance, despite mounting evidence of their ineffectiveness and growing public opinion in favor of comprehensive sexual education.
I got a front row seat to watch the action since I was the youngest member to testify before the panel. I applaud Chairman Waxman and his staff for inviting not just one but two young people to appear on the panel: our voices are far too often left out conversations about our education and sexual health, even though we are the ones who must suffer the consequences of the omissions and misinformation characteristic of abstinence-only programs like the one taught in my high school in Lubbock, Texas.
What did the secularized abstinence-only program for students in my school district look like? Well, it was taught by the same pastor who officiated at my religious purity pledge ceremony. Many of the students were already having sex and needed the information to protect their health. But our teacher only mentioned condoms to talk lengthily, and inaccurately, about their alleged “ineffectiveness,” explaining in graphic detail, and with even more graphic pictures, the sexually transmitted diseases students could get if we trusted our health to a “flimsy piece of latex.”
It was only later in my life that I learned that latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing pregnancy, HIV transmission, and several STDs. Research by Dr. John Sanitelli, who also testified before the panel yesterday, and has a great blog up, suggests that 86 percent of the decline in teen pregnancy rates among 15-19-year-olds between 1995 and 2002 was the result of improved contraceptive use.
But back in my high school class, where we were all too intimidated or embarrassed to ask for clarification, it seemed as if sex with a condom was equivalent to sex without one. Our teacher also touched on the ills of masturbation and warned against the dangers of homosexual sex.
One demonstration our teacher used left little doubt as to our worth as a future spouse or partner if we were to engage in sex before marriage. He would routinely pull an often squirming and reluctant, and always female, volunteer onto the stage, take out a toothbrush that looked like it had been used to scrub toilets and ask if she would brush her teeth with it. When she predictably refused, he pulled out another toothbrush, this one pristine in its original box, and asked her if she would brush her teeth with that one. When she answered in the affirmative, he turned to the assembly and said, “If you have sex before marriage, you are a dirty toothbrush.”
Max Siegel, a Policy Associate for the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth, and Families, and the other youth member of the panel shared a far more tragic story about the effects of abstinence-only-until-marriage programming with the committee. As a gay teen who knew he could not legally marry, he never really connected to the abstinence-is-forever message that seemed to be the only alternative for gay youth. Still, he knew enough to bring a condom when he had sex with a man six years older. But when his partner refused, Max lacked the skills to negotiate for condom use or walk away. They had sex without any protection, and Max contracted HIV.
Stories like mine, and stories like Max’s, are repeated across the country, over and over again. They represent the faces and lives, not the numbers, behind abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Young people deserve more: a more comprehensive approach that gives them the tools to make responsible decisions about their sexual health.
Congress, we now know for sure, has heard loud and clear that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not only ineffective and bad public health but can also be life-threatening. Now, the question is what, if anything, will they do about it?