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Julie F. Kay

The politics of sex

New York
AH, THE politics of sex in Washington. Recent scandals of madams, masseuses, and family-values politicians pale in comparison with the politico-sexual revelations by former surgeons general last week.

Former surgeon general Richard Carmona revealed that federal policies concerning abstinence-only programs, stem-cell research, emergency contraception, and abortion are founded on dogma, not science. According to the good doctor's testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, politics, ideology, and theology take priority over women's health in this administration.

While the fact that the administration views public health policy through conservative blinders is not altogether unexpected, the funding scheme for abstinence-only programs provides a particularly deplorable example. Despite years of evidence clearly showing that these extreme programs are ineffective and harmful, federal funding continues at over $200 million a year and growing. Under the Bush administration, abstinence-only subsidies have gushed forth -- creating a deluge of funding for far-right religious groups, amidst a dearth of federal oversight.

Carmona's testimony confirms that the enormous funding for strict abstinence-only policies is politically motivated, and comes at the expense of women's and girls' health. Spending policies are dictated by "preconceived political agendas," he testified, which "fly in the face of good science." Yet naysayers with their do-good science were ignored, says Carmona, because the administration "did not want to hear the science but wanted to, if you will, 'preach abstinence,' which I felt was scientifically incorrect."

Former surgeon general David Satcher testified about a similar trend during his tenure in the sex-plagued Clinton administration. As far back as 2001 he found no scientific evidence that abstinence-only education is effective, and recommended that children be given age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education. However, his report was released only later during the Bush administration, and without the administration's support. "You know the politics of sex in Washington," Satcher said that then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson commented to him.

Now is the time to put abstinence-only education to bed. These federally funded programs do not reduce teen sexual activity, and do impede efforts to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. The most recent and in-depth abstinence study, conducted by the non partisan Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., at the behest of Congress, confirmed that students who participate in these programs are as likely to have sex by age 16 as their peers who did not participate, and they are likely to have had as many partners as those who did not take abstinence-only classes. Students who are exposed to abstinence-only programs become less informed about the use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. These programs are effective only at teaching ignorance.

Worse than simply being wasteful, these programs actually cause harm to women and girls, because they are the ones who get pregnant and who are more biologically vulnerable to the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Right now young women of color are the group with the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection.

Yet federal guidelines prohibit abstinence-only programs from providing any instruction in contraceptive or condom use. Programs instead must promote only abstinence until marriage as the way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease. Furthermore, the majority of abstinence-only curricula are riddled with sexual stereotypes, homophobia, and misinformation about disease intended to scare girls away from sex.

In reality 95 percent of Americans do have sex before marriage, most before they reach age 19. We must stop funding harmful and ineffective abstinence-only programs and instead support a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education and reproductive health. Young people should be taught abstinence where appropriate but also must learn the complex skills needed to make healthy and informed life and relationship choices. And we must enable young men and women to access reproductive healthcare in order to remain safe regardless of their decisions.

The timing is perfect for Congress to take action to reverse the health policy disaster that abstinence-only programs promote. First, the reauthorization of Title V -- the Social Security Act whose provisions define abstinence-only programs -- provides an ideal opportunity for Congress to reverse course. Moreover, the political underpinnings for the abstinence behemoth the Community Based Abstinence Education have now been laid bare. It has funded extreme and inaccurate abstinence-only programs and should be ended.

Reforming the Office of Surgeon General is just one important step in the battle to prioritize science. As several surgeons generals' testimony exposed, the public health cost of federal programs that fund sexual ignorance is too high. It's time to start funding policies that promote comprehensive reproductive education essential to protecting girls and women's health. It's about sex, not politics.

Julie F. Kay is a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum -- Advancing Women's Rights.

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