May 15, Baton Rouge–a bill requiring teaching sex education in Louisiana public schools failed, and Dr. Mark Alain Déry was crushingly disappointed, as he revealed in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A couple of months later, he and two colleagues released a study that ties abstinence-only state legislature to the rising HIV rates of young African-Americans in Louisiana.
The study, using numbers from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, shows “that in 2011, 73 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases and 76 percent of newly diagnosed AIDS cases in Louisiana were among African-Americans, and that the disease is starting to affect younger and more vulnerable populations within the black community.” That’s part of the Times-Picayune’s article. It goes on in more detail, saying;
Although their findings are correlational, lead researcher Liana Elliot said they still demonstrate a strong association between public education, race, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy rates. Variables that did not have an effect were the number of families living in poverty, the amount of sex education grants and the state birth rate, researchers said.
To address the growing HIV epidemic among young people, the researchers propose a comprehensive sexual education model in public schools based on the Clean Water Act. Analogous to a water pump, the model features a closed-loop funding structure, where public schools have to buy a permit in order to use abstinence-only education, so that the money ultimately returns to medical facilities providing care and treatment for HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.
Although their study focuses on the effect of sex education, the researchers recognize that other factors that can also help lower teenage HIV and pregnancy rates include improving access to contraceptives and pregnancy kits, ensuring the availability of after-school activities, and reducing overall exposure to drugs and alcohol.
But most importantly, Elliot emphasizes the need to “recontextualize” sex as something natural that poses no danger to society. “The conversation around it needs to change,” she says.
Abstinence-only programs (I am not going to say “abstinence-only educational programs; gives too much credit) are a relic of conservative presidencies motivated by the religious right. The Adolescent Family Life Act, passed in 1981 under the Reagan administration, was a program that gave cash incentive and funding to social programs aimed at promoting abstinence-only curriculum, especially in public schools. The bill was controversial due to religious undertones, especially funding from Catholic organizations.
Funding for those programs actually increased from 1996 to 2006. It is notable that during six of those ten years, President Bush was in office. Dr. Mark Alain Déry, also a staff member of The New Orleans Society For Infectious Disease Awareness (NOSIDA) and a co-author on the study, believes that the funding increases were politically motivated. In an telephone interview with Addicting Info this morning, Dr. Déry was very open about what he thinks of abstinence-only programs:
Addicting Info: Would you say that the data that was collected in the studies in New Orleans (regarding the higher risk of HIV when adolescents are given abstinence-only education) could probably be extrapolated to any part of the country?
Dr. Mark Alain Déry: Without question. The data has not been peer reviewed as of yet, and I’m saying that because of ethical and scientific considerations, but I have complete confidence in it. These are country-wide numbers.
AI: What age demographic would you say is the most at risk for infectious diseases because of a lack of proper sexual education?
Dr. Déry: I would say whenever young people start experimenting with sex, or sexual behaviors. Whatever school age children are taught abstinence-only education are at risk as soon as they start participating in these behaviors.
AI: In your opinion, does abstinence-only education represent a relatively pointless danger with regard to infectious diseases? That is, an entirely preventable one?
Dr. Déry: I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. Abstinence-only sexual education is, you know, just a relic of the Reagan and Bush administrations, because they had these three policies in place that gave monetary incentive for states, counties, and here in Louisiana, parishes, to put in place abstinence-only legislation that is, in the end, based on “morality.” And I use morality in an air-quoted sense. It’s not morality. It’s religious morality.
AI: And that’s a violation of the separation of church and state.
Dr. Déry: Yes. But in 2010 Obama got rid of those three policies, and so now our goal is to show that not only is this type of education not based on anything solid in a legal or scientific sense, but that the numbers actually show that it increases the risk of HIV, other infectious diseases, and teenage pregnancy.
The Times-Picayune also had a statement from someone supporting abstinence-only programs: “Rev. Gene Mills, executive director of the pro-abstinence Louisiana Family Forum, said there are two ‘irreconcilable’ world views at play: one where teenage sex is inevitable, and the other where it is avoidable.”
The reverend is right. Those two world views are irreconcilable, and it has been shown in multiple studies that teenage sex is inevitable and abstinence programs fail. In fact, a Congress-sponsored study in 2007 showed absolutely no difference between abstinence programs and no sexual education at all.
Religious freedom is well and good. I remember that when I was in school, sexual education was optional. We had a full program, but you had to get your parents to sign a permission slip first in order to participate. If you feel that your child shouldn’t know how things work, and should simply be told not to do it, don’t allow them to go to school that day. That is your right as a parent. However, legislation preventing that education is stupidity incarnate. Stupidity, when it starts hurting people, is criminal. And abstinence-only sexual education programs are hurting people in twenty-six states.
For information on your particular state’s laws regarding contraception, sexual education legislature, and reproductive health and rights policies, go here. If you live in a state that stresses abstinence, I suggest you write a letter or two.
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