Scared Chaste, Scared Straight: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education in U.S. Schools

About Sean Cahill

The welfare reform law of 1996, premised on the unproven claim that poor women’s failure to marry is the cause of high rates of family poverty in the United States, promoted an abstinence-only-until-marriage policy that teaches that sex outside the context of marriage is intrinsically dangerous, both physically and psychologically.1 Relying on scientifically inaccurate information and notions of shame, this policy poses a threat to all youth. But it poses a particular threat to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, who are already subject to widespread harassment and violence in the nation’s schools.

As of 1999 nearly one third of the nation’s high schools were promoting abstinence only, while excluding information about contraception and safer sex education.2 A study of 43 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia found that more than 10 percent of the abstinence- only funds had been granted to “faith-based entities” in 22 states.3 A further 40 percent of the funds were spent through other private, but nonreligious, entities.4 Twenty-eight of the 42 state and territorial jurisdictions sampled prohibited organizations providing abstinence-based education from providing information on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) if asked by a student or other client. A further five jurisdictions provided no guidance one-way or the other.5

Research has shown that sex education that promotes the delay of first intercourse but simultaneously teaches safer sex practices is more effective than abstinence-only education. A World Health Organization review of 35 sex education programs around the world documented the relative ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education in stemming the spread of STDs.6 Youth in the United States have higher rates of unwanted pregnancy and STDs than their counterparts in Europe, where comprehensive sex education is the norm.

A report released by U.S. Surgeon-General David Satcher in early 2001 also questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. Satcher noted that there has been little research to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular type of instruction.

A report released by U.S. Surgeon- General David Satcher in early 2001 also questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. Satcher noted that there has been little research to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular type of instruction. More comprehensive education programs that also provide information on condom use have proven effective in stemming disease transmission and pregnancy among already sexually active youth. Yet safer sex education has not been shown to increase or hasten sexual activity among youth. According to Satcher:

To date, there are only a few published evaluations of abstinence-only programs. Due to this limited number of studies it is too early to draw definite conclusions about this approach. Similarly, the value of these programs for adolescents who have initiated sexual activity is not yet understood. More research is clearly needed.

Programs that typically emphasize abstinence, but also cover condoms and other methods of contraception, have a larger body of evaluation evidence that indicates either no effect on initiation of sexual activity or, in some cases, a delay in the initiation of sexual activity. This evidence gives strong support to the conclusion that providing information about contraception does not increase adolescent sexual activity, either by hastening the onset of sexual intercourse, increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse, or increasing the number of sexual partners. In addition, some of these evaluated programs increased condom use or contraceptive use more generally for adolescents who were sexually active.7

Abstinence-Only and Prevention Efforts to Stop Sexual Diseases and Teen Pregnancy

Several states and municipalities have rejected or stopped applying for federal disease prevention funds out of a mistaken belief that accepting abstinence-only funds precludes them from accessing federal funds for sex education. Nebraska decided not to reapply for HIV prevention grants from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because HIV prevention has traditionally combined abstinence promotion with safer sex education. Since 1997 Nebraska has limited all state-sponsored sex education to an abstinence-only-until-marriage message. Following lobbying from the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, Nebraska’s Education Commissioner decided not to reapply for CDC funds.8

In 1998, Ohio state legislators passed a law preventing the state’s Department of Education from spending CDC funds awarded to it until it agreed they would only be used to teach abstinence. More than two years passed and an agreement between the department and the legislature was not worked out. Language that would have required programs to “emphasize” abstinence, but not limit their approach only to abstinence education, was rejected by hardliners. As a result, $1 million was forfeited, although only 10 percent of those CDC funds were earmarked for HIV prevention; the rest were for other health initiatives, including tobacco use prevention, diabetes, and cancer prevention.9

The Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department also voted in 2001 to limit sex education efforts paid for with state dollars to the abstinence-only-until- marriage approach.10 The New Jersey and Maine legislatures considered bills, which would mandate abstinence-only education in those states’ public schools.11 Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced in March 2001 that he wanted to take $1 million in state funds for family planning services at health clinics and redirect the funds into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Florida already has 35 abstinence- only education programs funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds and run by private organizations.12 While Arkansas has long limited state-funded “sex education” to an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, a bill that would further restrict sex education was introduced last year.13

Scared Chaste: Abstinence- Only’s Reliance on Fear, Shame, and Misinformation

Abstinence-only-until-marriageapproaches to sex education are counterproductive, dangerous, and even harmful to the youth who are subject to their messages. Premarital sex is presented as intrinsically harmful. Relying on shame and fear, abstinence-only spreads inaccurate information about STDs and contraceptives; presents rarely occurring, worst-case scenarios as routine and common; stigmatizes and evokes hostility toward people with AIDS; and largely ignores homosexuality except as a context for HIV transmission.14 At least two curricula, however, are explicitly hostile toward lesbians and gay men.15

“[T]here is no such thing as ‘safe’ or ‘safer’ premarital sex,” warns FACTS, one such curriculum. “There are always risks associated with it, even dangerous, life-threatening ones.”16 Echoing Pat Buchanan’s claim that AIDS is “nature’s retribution” on “the poor homosexuals” who “have declared war on nature,”17 Sex Respect, another abstinence-only curriculum, teaches the following:

Is this [AIDS and other STDs] nature’s punishment for sex outside of marriage? No, not at all. These are natural consequences. For example, if you eat spoiled food, you will get sick. If you jump from a tall building, you will be hurt or killed…If you have sex outside of marriage, there are consequences for you, your partner, and society.18

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) documents numerous ways in which the incidence and effects of several STDs are misrepresented in abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.19 SIECUS warns that these scare tactics can discourage students from seeking treatment for STDs, such as chlamydia, which are easily curable if treated early on.20

Condoms are presented as a dangerous and ineffective form of birth control: “Relying on condoms is like playing Russian roulette,” declares Me, My World, My Future.21 Condom failure rates are overstated; and the failure of users to properly use condoms is inaccurately translated into an intrinsic defect in the product.22 FACTS warns that even if condoms are properly used, they may still allow “the transmission of HIV/AIDS.” This flies in the face of CDC and other scientific research, which finds condoms highly effective in stopping the spread of STDs when used properly.23

Skewed information about HIV/AIDS is common in abstinence- only-until-marriage curricula. Sex Respect devotes three paragraphs to the possibility of contracting HIV through “French kissing.” This is based on a single case investigated by the CDC in 1987, which may have involved transmission due to bleeding, open-mouth sores. However, kissing is generally not a risk factor for HIV transmission. People with AIDS are also stigmatized as dangerous bearers of death. Sex Respect warns, “How can you tell if someone has AIDS? There is no way for you to predict. Anyone can be carrying your death warrant.”24

Scared Straight: Heterosexism, Sexism, and Antigay Bias in Abstinence-Only Curricula

Heterosexist gender stereotypes about boys and girls are widespread in abstinence- only curricula. Boys are presented as sex-crazed, and girls as less interested in sex than they are in finding love. Girls are warned about “the way you dress sending messages.” Sex Respect warns, “Watch what you wear. If you don’t aim to please, don’t aim to tease.” Feminism is blamed for promiscuity: “the liberation movement has produced some aggressive girls today, and one of the tough challenges for guys who say no will be the questioning of their manliness.”25 Girls are portrayed as primarily responsible for rejecting the sexual advances of boys.26

In reaction to a growth in sex education and antihomophobia initiatives in the early 1990s, conservatives pushed “parents’ rights” laws and parental notification laws in states across the United States, requiring teachers to provide advance written warning to parents prior to addressing issues of homosexuality in class.

Programs that focus on abstinence-only-until-marriage are detrimental to LGBT youth, those youth questioning their sexual orientation, the children of LGBT parents, and LGBT teachers and administrators in the nation’s schools. Homosexuality is largely ignored except as a context for HIV transmission. But homosexuality is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, stigmatized. For example, Sex Respect teaches students that “[R]esearch and common sense tell us the best ways to avoid AIDS are: Remain a virgin until marriage…Avoid homosexual behavior.”27 When homosexual sexual practices are noted in this context, they are portrayed as “unnatural behavior.”28

At least two abstinence-only curricula are overtly hostile toward lesbians and gay men. Clue 2000 engages in the standard right-wing tactic of conflating homosexuality with pedophilia and incest when it notes that “[a]mong Kinsey’s most outrageous and damaging claims are the beliefs that pedophilia, homosexuality, incest, and adult-child sex are normal.”29 Facing Reality assures teachers and parents that presenting homosexuality as intrinsically dangerous is actually in the best interests of students, and is not homophobic. It also repeats the outdated notion of AIDS as a gay disease:

Many homosexual activists are frustrated and desperate over their own situation and those of loved ones. Many are dying, in part, due to ignorance. Educators who struggle to overcome ignorance and instill self-mastery in their students will inevitably lead them to recognize that some people with AIDS are now suffering because of the choices they made…Teachers, in order to preserve an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, should feel confident that when examining health issues and moral implications of homosexual behaviors, they are not engaging in an assault on a particular person or group.30

The irony of that last sentence is particularly rich: Abstinence-only-until-marriage education is by definition a suppression of alternative points of view, and involves the supplanting of a method scientifically proven to be effective in decreasing the spread of STDs with another, unproven method. Yet this approach is constructed as “preserv[ing] an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.”

Studies have shown that LGBT youth who receive gay-sensitive HIV instruction in school tend to engage in risky sexual behavior less frequently than similar youth that do not receive such instruction. In a random sample of high school students and HIV education instructors in Massachusetts, among sexually active heterosexual and homosexual youth, gay youth reported more sexual partners, more frequent use of substances before engaging in sex, and higher rates of pregnancy. However, those gay youth that received gay-sensitive HIV instruction reported fewer sexual partners and less frequent substance use before sex.31

Impact of Abstinence-Only and “Parent’s Rights Laws” on Safe Schools Initiatives

The often explicitly antigay and stigmatizing language of abstinence curricula can have a chilling effect on discussion of homosexuality in the schools, including attempts to deal with incidents of antigay harassment of LGBT students and the children of LGBT parents. In reaction to a growth in sex education and anti-homophobia initiatives in the early 1990s, conservatives pushed “parents’ rights” laws and parental notification laws in states across the United States, requiring teachers to provide advance written warning to parents prior to addressing issues of homosexuality in class. It also followed by a few years the “no promo homo” laws enacted by many states in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which restrict any neutral or positive mention of homosexuality.32 When taken together, these policies create a context that may have a chilling effect on open conversations about issues facing LGBT students and the children of LGBT parents, including issues of verbal and physical harassment.

People continue to get infected with HIV unnecessarily because some public health professionals and many elected officials have abdicated their responsibility to deal with HIV/AIDS as a public health issue. Instead, too many impose their narrow vision of morality on the rest of the population and promote policies which have failed to prevent the continued spread of this disease. Thus abstinence-onlyuntil- marriage education may in fact contribute to the transmission of HIV and other STDs.

The link between sex education, abstinence promotion, and LGBT youth was vividly displayed in recent comments by Boston University president John Silber, who called for the disbanding of a gay-straight alliance at a university-run high school. Boston’s gay newspaper Bay Windows reported September 12, 2002:

Silber ordered academy headmaster James Tracy to disband the school’s two-year old GSA last week, saying it didn’t belong there because it encouraged teen sex. “We’re not running a program in sex education,” Silber told the Sept. 7 Boston Globe. “If they want that kind of program, they can go to Newton High School. They can go to public school and learn how to put a condom over a banana.” According to a Sept. 6 Globe story, Silber threatened to cut funding to the school if the GSA wasn’t shut down.

Efforts to silence and stigmatize homosexuality can have devastating effects on LGBT youth. A recent NIH-funded study of Latino gay and bisexual men found a correlation between experiences of homophobia and increased likelihood to engage in HIV risk behaviors. It also found that family acceptance and the presence of an openly gay role model while growing up correlated with lower incidence of HIV risk behaviors.33 The promotion of homophobia and ignorance about AIDS and other STDs hurts all students, but especially those who are gay or from gay families.

The Connection with State “No Promo Homo” Laws

South Carolina bans discussion of “alternative sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted disease.”34 Arizona law prohibits “instruction which: 1) Promotes a homosexual life-style. 2) Portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style. 3) Suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”35 Alabama requires that any mention of homosexuality stress “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”36 And Texas law is almost identical to Alabama’s statute.37

How do these restrictions play out? Kay Coburn, an administrator with the Temple, Texas Independent School District, told Human Rights Watch that there is “no discussion of homosexuality,” nor “any message in the curriculum about how homosexuals might protect themselves from HIV. Abstinence is the only message. The traditional family is where you have sex. The curriculum doesn’t address sex outside this structure.”38

Cheryl Cox, a health teacher and member of her Robinson (TX) High School health education advisory council, noted that coverage of homosexuality and other “lifestyle options” was “not needed or necessary… I can’t see it ever being acceptable to discuss homosexuality, as it’s a very conservative community. It’s a topic that I’m not supposed to be talking about because of the standards set forth by the community and by the health advisory board.”39

Terry Cruz, an abstinence educator in Laredo, TX, told Human Rights Watch that “probably the only time I touch on the subject [of homosexuality] is with HIV, referring to how HIV originally started.”40

Abstinence Efforts Likely to Dominate in Near Future

People continue to get infected with HIV unnecessarily because some public health professionals and many elected officials have abdicated their responsibility to deal with HIV/AIDS as a public health issue. Instead, too many impose their narrow vision of morality on the rest of the population and promote policies which have failed to prevent the continued spread of this disease. Thus abstinence-only-until-marriage education may in fact contribute to the transmission of HIV and other STDs.

Although HIV and AIDS has disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men, increasingly those living with HIV or AIDS are heterosexual, female, and African American and Latina/o women and children. Within the gay and bisexual male community, men of color, particularly younger men of color, are at greater risk for HIV/AIDS. For example, in New York City one recent study found that four percent of White homosexually active 15- to 22- year-old men are HIV-positive, while 10 percent of Latino men and 22 percent of African American men in this age bracket are HIV-positive.41 From 1999 to 2000, 69 percent of new HIV infections were among Black and Latino individuals, most of them men who have sex with men.42

Federal incentives favoring abstinence-only education are likely to become more entrenched under President George W. Bush. As governor, Bush opposed sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Bush told the Washington Times in July 1999 that he supports abstinence-only education, arguing that teaching safer sex and abstinence together “sends a contradictory message that tends to undermine the message of abstinence.”43 Bush told young people that they should avoid sex until they are in “a biblical marriage relationship.”44 Bush also supports educational grants for churches and faith-based groups to promote abstinence-until-marriage.45

Abstinence-only sex education, while strongly supported by President Bush and a conservative Congress, does not enjoy widespread support among the U.S. public. According to a national study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, there exists a strong disparity between what is actually taught in sex education programs and what parents actually want.46 One of the strongest disparities exists for homosexuality. Seventy-six percent of parents of 7-12th graders felt that sex education should cover homosexuality, while only 41 percent of students reported the topic was actually covered.

Policy Recommendations

Age-appropriate, publicly funded sex education programs should be offered nation-wide which provide comprehensive, factual information about sexuality. These can promote abstinence but must also provide information on safer-sex techniques that significantly reduce the risk for transmission of STDs and pregnancy. They should avoid gender stereotypes and the stigmatization of homosexuality. They should not be allowed to contribute to the widespread harassment and violence against LGBT youth in the nation’s schools.


1 Each year since 1996, nearly $100 million in government funds have been spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage education, ostensibly aimed at preventing teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births. The Bush Administration has sought a substantial increase in abstinence-only-until- marriage funds during the welfare reauthorization of 2002.
2 Sharon Lerner, “An Orgy of Abstinence: Federal Funding Pushes No-Sex Education Into the Mainstream,” Village Voice, August 1-7, 2001. Available at Abstinence activists are so extreme that they advocate against masturbation, a nearly universal human activity. The National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s “Abstinence Survival Kit” warns that “sexual self-stimulation” may “eventually leave the person unable to respond sexually to a real person.” “It’s the first sign of sexual addiction,” warns Leslee Unruh, the Clearinghouse’s president.
3 Adam Sonfield and Rachel B. Gold, “States’ Implementation of the Section 510 Abstinence Education Program, FY 1999,”Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 33, no. 4 (July/August 2001), pp. 166-172. Available at
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, pp. 168-169.
6 Mariella Baldo, et al., “Does Sex Education Lead to Earlier or Increased Sexual Activity in Youth?” Paper presented at the IXth Annual International Conference on AIDS Berlin, (Geneva: World Health Organization), June 6-10, 1993.
7 David Satcher, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Behavior (Washington, DC: Office of the United States Surgeon General, 2001), p. 11. Available at
8 Martha Kempner, “Controversy Over CDC’s Research to Classroom Project,” SIECUS Report, vol. 29, no. 6 (2001), pp. 4-5.
9 Ibid., p. 9.
10 Ibid., p. 5.
11 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
12 Martha Kempner, “State-Level Debates Over Abstinence- Only-Until-Marriage,” SIECUS Report, vol. 29, no. 6 (2001), p. 7.
13 Kemper, “Controversy,” p. 13.
14 Ibid., preface.
15 Ibid, pp. 46-47.
16 Ibid., p. 19.
17 Patrick Buchanan, Syndicated column, June 23, 1983, Cited in Sean Cahill and Erik Ludwig, Courting the Vote: The 2000 Presidential Candidates’ Positions on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 1999), p. 21.
18 Kempner, “State-level,” p. 18.
19 Ibid., pp. 25-28.
20 Ibid., p. 26.
21 Ibid., p. 33.
22 Ibid., p. 32.
23 See Questions and Answers on Condom Effectiveness, CDC Update (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control, 1997), and Philip Kestelman, and James Trussell, “Efficacy of the Simultaneous Use of Condoms and Spermicide,” Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 5 (1991), p. 227, both cited in Kempler, “State-level,” pp. 34-35.
24 Kempler, “State-level,” p. 31.
25 Sex Respect, cited in Kempler, “State-level,” p. 44.
26 Kempler, “State-level,” p. 54.
27 Ibid.
28 Sex Respect describes anal intercourse as “unnatural behavior.” Of course, anal intercourse is a behavior practiced by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Ibid., p. 29.
29 Ibid., pp. 46-47.
30 Ibid., p. 47.
31 Susan M. Blake, et al., “Preventing Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Gay, Lesbian, And Bisexual Adolescents: The Benefits of Gay-Sensitive HIV Instruction in Schools,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 91, no. 6 (2001), pp. 940-946.
32 As a result of such a law, teachers in Merrimack, NH, declined to teach Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because a female character disguises herself as a man, and declined to show a video about Walt Whitman that mentioned that he loved men. See Mary Bonauto, Background Information on “No Promo Homo” Policies (Washington, DC: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators’ Network, September 16, 2002). Available at
33 Rafael Diaz and George Ayala, Social Discrimination and Health: The Case of Latino Gay Men and HIV Risk (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2001). Available at
34 See South Carolina Code Ann. 59-32-30(A)(5). Cited in Human Rights Watch, Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States; Texas: A Case Study, vol. 14, no. 5 (September 2002), p. 35.
35 See Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. 15-1716. Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
36 See Ala. Code 16-40A-2. Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
37 See Texas Health and Safety Code 163.002(8). Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
38 Interview cited in Ibid., p. 36.
39 Interview cited in Ibid., pp. 36-37.
40 Interview cited in Ibid., p. 37.
41 Richard Elovich, “Beyond Condoms…How to Create a Gay Men’s Culture of Sexual Health,” POZ (June 1999).
42 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “With CDC HIV Infection Rates on the Rise, New NGLTF Report Examines Direct Impact of Discrimination on Latino Gay Men,” (Washington, DC: NGLTF, July 12, 2001). Available at
43 AIDS Action Council, “Election 2000 Presidential Candidate Report,” (August 1999). Available at; Cynthia Dailard, “Fueled by Campaign Promises, Drive Intensifies to Boost Abstinence-Only Education Funds,” The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2000). Available at
44 David Broder, “Bush Defends Gun Record, Pushes Teen Abstinence,” Washington Post, June 22, 1999, p. A4.
45 “Bush Promotes Abstinence for Teenagers,” Associated Press, June 22, 1999.
46 Tina Hoff and Liberty Greene, Sex Education in America: A Series of National Surveys of Students, Parents, Teachers, and Principals (Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000). Available at

Sean Cahill is director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.