To you and me, an ATM is a cash machine. To America’s religious conservatives, ATM stands for the “Abstinence ‘Til Marriage” pledge — and it, too, is a cash machine.
The federal government funds abstinence-only programs in public schools to the tune of $165 million annually. If the Bush administration has its way on a pending budget proposal, the figure may go as high as $204 million.
You want to abstain? Fine. You want to teach your children to abstain? Also fine. You want to try to persuade your neighbors to teach their children to abstain? Go ahead. But that’s not what ATM — nor the federal government’s abstinence-only programming policy — is about.
For the past 20 years, public schools and community programs have gotten federal money to teach homophobic and antiscientific nonsense. If you take the money, you must use it to teach, among other things, that faithful monogamous relationships in the context of marriage are the expected standard of human sexual activity, and that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. This is not Sex Ed 101 as we knew it — this is Basic Hokum.
In case you missed it, the anti-abortion campaign morphed into the anti-contraception campaign and we have now arrived at, or more accurately descended to, the next level. The anti-sex campaign has begun, as has its sometime-corollary, the pro-Jesus campaign.
Take the “Silver Ring Thing,” the recipient of more than $1 million dollars in federal funds until a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union stopped it early this year. The Silver Ring Thing included a three-hour program in which young people “testified” that accepting Jesus Christ improved their lives, quoted Bible passages and urged audience members to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come into their lives.
ATM pledgers actually got a silver ring — paid for by you and me — inscribed with a reference to the biblical verse Thessalonians 4:3-4, which reads: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor.”
It is the religion thing that has allowed the ACLU to successfully challenge the Silver Ring Thing and other abstinence-only programs on constitutional grounds, but it is much harder to stop pseudo-science and pseudo-sociology with a lawsuit.
For example, virginity-pledge guru Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, claims that virginity pledges ‘’have substantially improved life outcomes,’’ and that ‘’sexually active teenagers are more likely to be depressed and to attempt suicide.’’ A study commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, shows that 80% of abstinence-only curricula are based on such false, misleading and distorted information. But this administration is on Rector’s side, and so the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services has now proposed a new list of scary messages — if you have premarital sex you will live a failed life — to be included in future abstinence-only programming.
The abstinence-only programs even ridicule the effectiveness of condoms; one curriculum teaches that a condom is largely ineffective against HIV because the virus passes through its tiny holes. The science is the opposite — the New England Journal of Medicine reported no HIV transmission in 15,000 acts of condom-protected intercourse — but the false claims remain in the curriculum. So the kids in these programs, who are far less likely to use condoms when they do have sex, take real risks rather than fake ones.
It is a sadly familiar story: This administration distorts or ignores science and instead bases policies on empty ideology — empty and harmful ideology. Abstinence-only programs are today’s equivalent of the failed “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the Reagan years.
Is there anything good about these abstinence-only programs? Not really. They don’t even effectively promote abstinence.
Those who take the ATM pledge are more likely, not less, to engage in alternative sexual behaviors in order to preserve their virginity. Among virgins, defined as those who have not had vaginal intercourse, male pledgers are four times more likely to have anal sex and male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have oral sex than non-pledgers. And most of them do not keep the pledge: One study shows that 88% of kids who participate in abstinence-only programs still have intercourse before marriage.
Do not make the mistake of assuming that the abstinence-only virginity-pledge movement is quaint. If it had not become an acceptable point of view, then why would The New York Times, arguably America’s paper of record, have printed last month an op-ed on virginity pledges titled “Saving Grace” — in which the writer advocated “beseeching God for the grace to receive” the “gift of chastity” and advocated “actively conforming our bodies to the arc of the Gospel and receiving the Holy Spirit right now”?
And do not make the mistake of thinking that just because the schools your kids attend don’t take this nonsense seriously it doesn’t really affect you, or them. This sort of pseudo-science promotes hypocrisy and thereby cynicism, and it distorts serious discussion and debate of such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and a host of other issues that continue to vex and divide Americans.
Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.