Gail Collins on Texas’s Abstinence Sex Education Problems

The state pushes abstinence sex education yet it has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy. So why is the rest of the country paying half a billion dollars a year to support their teen mothers? An excerpt from Gail Collins’s new book, As Texas Goes…

Harry Cabluck / AP Photo

Fact: Texas refuses to accept federal funding for sex education programs that teach kids how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases with tactics other than celibacy. The reason, according to a spokeswoman for State Health Services, is that its “first choice is that teens chose not to have sex.”

Texas subscribes to the creed of America’s empty places. (Even though parts of it are actually getting quite crowded.) It’s an ethos that celebrates everyone’s right to be left alone, with no government telling you what to do. It’s an intense, deep-felt creed of personal freedom which for some reason does not apply at all when it comes to sex. Long after the Supreme Court struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law as unconstitutional, the legislature still refused to take it off the books. Texas regulations on abortion are among the most draconian in the country, and it pushes abstinence-only sex education in its public schools.

The state does not actually dictate what kind of sex education public schools should offer, beyond requiring that abstinence must always be presented as the best choice, and until recently, no one had any real notion of what was going on in all these classes. Then in 2009, the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal nonprofit, funded a herculean effort to come up with some answers. David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, two professors of health education at Texas State University, contacted every district and requested information on their sex instruction programs. Wiley said he was drawn to the subject since his undergraduate students regularly told him that they got little or no sex education in school. Also, he said, “Last year a sincere male student asked aloud, ‘What is my risk for cervical cancer?’”

The professors concluded that “abstinence-only programs have a stranglehold on sexuality education in Texas public schools.” More than 94 percent gave that instruction exclusively, while a small percentage completely ignored the rule that said they had to have something.

Most districts got their sex-education materials—and sometimes their speakers— from private vendors marketing programs like “Worth the Wait,” “Aim for Success,” or “W.A.I.T. Training.” If non-abstinence methods of preventing pregnancy came up in the class material at all, the researchers found, it was almost invariably in terms of condom failure rates. “Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be,” one abstinence speaker warned her classes. Students in another program were told to pass around a leaky balloon to illustrate the danger of using condoms. The teacher was instructed to tell the student left holding the deflated balloon at the end that “if he had been the one to get a leaky condom it could have meant he was at high risk or even death.” Another curriculum, “Why kNOw?” has the poor teacher construct an 18-foot-long model known as “Speedy the Sperm” to demonstrate condoms’ alleged failure to guard against STDs.

“There’s this huge myth that if you promote condoms it gives kids a false sense of protection,” said Dr. Susan Tortolero, an expert in pregnancy prevention issues. “Seat belts have a higher failure rate.” The only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy is, of course, not to have sex. But once that horse is out of the barn, there doesn’t seem to be any effective way to get kids to refrain from having it again. That’s the point at which it becomes important that they understand the dangers of unprotected sex, and that sex with a condom is far, far safer than sex with nothing at all.

Almost 30 percent of Texas school districts simply relied on one of the four state-approved health textbooks, whose publishers generally opted for self-censorship and obfuscation. Three of the four never mentioned the word “condom.” (The other brought it up exactly one time.) The most widely used book, the imaginatively named Health, warned that “barrier protection is not 100 percent effective in preventing the transmission of STDs,” but never explained what “barrier protection” was. Another, Lifetime Health, listed “8 Steps to Protect Yourself from STDs,” none of which involved using condoms. One of the steps was “get plenty of rest,” which the book suggested would lead to better decision-making.

Quite a bit of the information Texas students are getting seems to have arrived from another era. An abstinence-only program used in three districts assures them that “if a woman is dry, the sperm will die”—which harks back to Colonial-era theories that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant unless she enjoyed the sex. There are repeated suggestions that premarital sex could have fatal consequences—reminiscent of the 1950s’ legends about couples who had illicit sex in the backseat of a car and then were murdered by the Lovers' Lane Maniac. (A video used in three Texas districts has a boy asking an evangelical educator what will happen if he has sex before marriage. “Well, I guess you’ll have to be prepared to die,” is the response.)

The biggest problem with trying to frighten kids, or shame them, into not having sex is that it doesn’t work. The schools may assure students, as one program does, that “divorce rate for two virgins who get married is less than 3 percent.” But most Texas high-schoolers are not virgins. Slightly more than half of 9th- to 12th-graders reported having had sex in 2009—higher than the national figure of 46 percent. By the time they’re seniors, 69 percent of Texas students are sexually active, and they indulge in risky behavior like sex with a large number of partners at rates higher than the national average.

The state has the third highest rate of teenage births in the country, and the second highest rate of repeat births to teenage girls. Sixty-three out of every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years old becomes a mother. That compares to 5 out of 1,000 in the Netherlands, and 42 in the United States as a whole. Texas is also well ahead of Rwanda (44), Micronesia (51), and Egypt (50).

It doesn’t have to be that way. Back in 1992, California’s teen birth rate was about the same as that of Texas—74 births for every 1,000 women between 15 and 19, while Texas had 79. Then California committed to do something about the situation. California refused to take any money for abstinence-only education. It requires all of its public middle and high schools to teach HIV/AIDS prevention, in a way that stresses the superiority of the abstinence option while also giving kids all the facts about the importance of using condoms if one decides to be sexually active.

We know the consequences of a large number of teenage births. The young mother is more likely to drop out of school, live in poverty, and remain a single parent. The children themselves are more likely to experience abuse or neglect, end up in foster care, and, if they’re male, end up in prison.

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Still, if you didn’t know better, you’d think there was a concerted effort going on in Texas to increase the number of children being born to teen parents. The state is also one of the most restrictive in the country when it comes to teen access to birth control. Even if a teenage girl has already given birth, she can’t get state-funded contraception services without a parent’s consent. In 2012, family-planning providers in Texas—a state with nearly five and a half million women of reproductive age—were receiving less than $13 million in government aid. One inevitable result is a huge number of poor women giving birth. Texas has the second-highest birth rate in the country after Utah, and nearly 60 percent of the women giving birth are low-income enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Now we’re getting into the national impact of the way Texas handles sex ed. Medicaid is a federal program, and more than half of that billion-dollar bill is paid by federal taxpayers. Happy to be of help—but don’t the rest of us have a right to demand that Texas at least make sure poor women who don’t want to be pregnant have easy access to federally funded contraception?

There’s also the matter of our shared future. Texas has had an 800,000 increase in the number of schoolchildren in the last decade, and all those youngsters aren’t going to be spending their lives within the state’s borders. Eventually, more than a tenth of the national workforce will be Texas-born.

When Texas decisions stay in Texas, the rest of us might be willing to let the state do what its elected officials like, even if that means educating its children that condoms kill and frigid women can’t get pregnant. But the decisions made about Texas sex education have echoes. They reverberate through the educational system, and then into the national workforce and the national economy a couple of decades down the line.