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Teen groups push Congress for comprehensive sex ed.

Melissa McEwan
Published: February 23, 2006

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As the Bush administration continues to fund only abstinence-only sex education, American youth are taking comprehensive sex education into their own hands, RAW STORY has learned.

Programs favored by the administration often censor information about birth control and abortion completely. A December 2004 report commissioned by Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) found 11 out of 13 abstinence-only curricula examined to contain errors and distortions.

According to The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, there are currently three federal programs—Section 510 of the Social Security Act, the Adolescent Family Life Act and the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance program—dedicated to funding abstinence-only sex education. None are dedicated to funding comprehensive sex education, even though the latter has been shown more effective in delaying sexual activity in teens and encouraging wiser and safer choices when teens do engage in sexual activity.


With an administration nonetheless intent on abstinence- only education, youth are opting to pick up the fight on their own behalf.

Youth groups react

In response to federal budget requests which would increase funding once again for abstinence-only sex education, Advocates for Youth has launched two new campaigns domestically and abroad—the Keep it REAL campaign and the Fix the Gap campaign, which seek to prioritize sex education programs that include information about contraception and the HIV prevention.

"We launched the campaigns for several reasons," Caeden Dempsey, Advocates for Youth's Program Manager, said. "First, to educate the public on the importance of comprehensive sex education, which includes information about both abstinence and contraception. Secondly, to affect policy change; specifically, increase Senate support for the REAL Act, and increase Senate and general House support for global funding of comprehensive HIV prevention education. And finally, to build capacity among young organizers to advocate on their own behalf."

Advocates for Youth, which operates on a premise of Rights, Respect and Responsibility, currently has 15,000 young people nationwide as part of their Youth Activist Network.

"Advocates for Youth believes that all young people have the right to balanced, accurate, and realistic comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention education," Dempsey said. "Young people deserve respect and must be included in the development of comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention education programs and policies. Society has the responsibility to provide young people with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual health and protect themselves from HIV."

Two campaigns for comprehensive sex education launched from that point.

Keep it REAL

In February of 2005, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced S.368, the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, "a bill to provide assistance to reduce teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases and to support healthy adolescent development."

"Senator Lautenberg's bill takes a comprehensive view of sex education to teach not only abstinence, but also the importance of contraceptives, and provides grants to teach both," Alex Formuzis, Communications Director for Senator Lautenberg said.

"The use of contraceptives is a real sticking point with members of the far right," Formuzis explained. "They won't even discuss teaching about contraceptives as part of sex education, but it has to be a part of any comprehensive sex education plan. Period."

In May of 2005, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) reintroduced HR 2553 in the 109th Congress under the REAL name, following her introduction of the Family Life Education Act in the 107th Congress and reintroduction in the 108th.

"Support for comprehensive sex education continues to grow in Congress because people understand that it is effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and keeping kids safe," Rep. Lee said. "My bill has more supporters than in previous Congresses and for the first time a Senate counterpart."

The House bill currently has 131 co-sponsors, but the Senate bill currently has only 8, with only one Republican, Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), among its co-sponsors. The Senate legislation, which has the support of nearly 100 organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society of Adolescent Medicine, the American Association for Health Education, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU—is currently stuck in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"The Keep it REAL campaign is about increasing necessary Senate support for the REAL Act," Dempsey said. Advocates for Youth seeks 25 additional Senate co-sponsors for the bill, but they face challenges.

Rep. Lee explains: "It is a challenging environment to work in, because so much of the opposition to comprehensive sex education is driven by ideology and politics, not science."

Teens get involved

The Youth Activist Network utilizes five regional organizers, who coordinate primarily college students active in groups with a social justice mission or a focus on women's or LGBT issues.

The Southern Regional Organizer, Jennifer Wellman, 23, serves as the contact person for any organization or group in her region who is interested in promoting the Keep it REAL campaign. Her interest in promoting safer sex practices began while she was a student at Virginia Tech, working as a Wellness Peer Educator.

"The position allowed me to see how naïve the majority of my college-aged peers are when it comes to issues such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and safe sex in general," Wellman said. "Ever since then, I have been highly involved in advocating for comprehensive sexual education at a younger age."

Advocates for Youth and the Keep it REAL campaign, provided Wellman with an outlet through which to funnel her "energy and activism."

"I would love to see an increase in federal funding for comprehensive sexual education programs in both public and private schools," she said. "Young people are not appropriately aware of sexual health issues. If teens were given the opportunity to sit down in a class that taught them how to protect themselves when they decide they are ready for sexual relations, the rate of unintended pregnancies, STD infections, and the like would greatly decline. The statistics show that in European countries that do provide comprehensive sexual education from an early age, this is exactly the case."

Wellman and the other young activists promoting the Keep it REAL campaign petition for congressional support and encourage other youths to do the same, by signing a petition urging President Bush and Congress to stop supporting abstinence-only programs and fund comprehensive sex education, and sending emails to their Senators and Representatives and the President.

Fix the Gap

Fix the Gap, the international complement to Keep it REAL, seeks to increase funding globally.

"The Fix the Gap campaign is beginning with an educational focus," Dempsey said. "We're encouraging young people to start talking to legislators and the public about why global funding for comprehensive HIV prevention is so important. In 2003, 50% of new HIV infections occurred in young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Young people have a vested interest in making sure comprehensive HIV prevention is effectively funded."

With as many as 40 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS around the world, and almost 95% of them living in developing countries, the importance of exporting effective prevention tools is seen by many to be imperative. Yet Congress has mandated that "at least" one-third of global funding provided by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) be directed toward flawed abstinence-only programs.

Though PEPFAR and the Global AIDS Bill (H.R. 1298) cite the ABC model successfully used to reduce HIV transmission in Uganda ("Abstinence, Be faithful, and use a Condom"), the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Randall Tobias, issued a five-year implementation strategy that focuses on abstinence and faithfulness to the almost total exclusion of condom use, except for those considered high-risk by virtue of vocation (e.g. sex workers).

Young activists promoting the Fix the Gap campaign are encouraged to sign a petition urging the American government and governments worldwide to include them in leadership positions in the battle against HIV/AIDS and fully fund comprehensive prevention programs, and send emails to Ambassador Tobias, their Senators and Representatives.

The Future of Youth Activism

While young people are increasingly disillusioned with the administration's focus on abstinence-only sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention at home and abroad, their frustration is fueling activism, and making them take charge of finding their own solutions.

"I see a much larger number of young adults becoming involved in this campaign," Wellman said. "Teens are realizing that they have a right to information they need to protect themselves. This realization and the failure of abstinence-only education programs will, hopefully, lead to a large-scale activist movement that will enable equal federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs."

And they do have allies.

In a February 2005 press release about the REAL legislation, Senator Lautenberg noted, "Abstinence only education only tells young people half the story, and they need the full picture. The abstinence-only programs funded by the federal government are not getting the job done."

Rep. Lee believes the battle may yet to be won. "I think we are making progress on this issue. The incoherent position of opposing abortion and sensible prevention policies is being exposed and when the Democrats retake the House, this bill will be in a strong position to move."


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