Just Watch the Livestock

Texas schools' sex ed favors 'don't ask, don't tell ... and keep 'em ignorant'

Just Watch the Livestock
Illustration by Doug Potter

By 5pm on Oct. 31, 2007, Sid Pruitt, superintendent of the small Evant Independent School District (about 60 miles west of Waco) was a tad frustrated. Since 1pm that day, he and a member of his staff had been working "continuously" on an open records request submitted the previous month by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, seeking documents and information related to the district's sexuality-education program, Pruitt wrote in an e-mail. The project, it seems, was taking up too much of his time.

The records request Pruitt was grappling with, received under provisions of the Texas Public Information Act, was mailed a month earlier to each of the state's 1,031 public school districts. Of each district, TFN requested a range of information, including: sex-education curricula; copies of the agenda, minutes, and recommendations for sex ed given to district officials by the school health advisory council; and a copy of each district's current sex-ed policy.

"All told we have expended about ten work hours doing your research," Pruitt wrote. "I don't mind doing this but I can't understand how you are going to use my findings. Sex education is a community issue and I don't think a public policy is required." In closing, Pruitt wrote: "Evant is a small school with 301 total students in grades [prekindergarten] to 12. Most of these kids live on a farm or have animals they feed and care for. They get a pretty good sex education from their animals."

Abstinence ... If Only


In the general scheme of things, a focus on animal husbandry may not be the best way to teach sexuality education to young people – for instance, few pigs and cows bother to use condoms. But as it turns out, neither do Texas teens. That is a situation with broad and troubling implications: Texas teens are more likely to have had sex at least once (nearly 53%) compared to U.S. teens as a whole (nearly 48%) yet are less likely to use a condom when they do. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 44% of sexually active teens in Texas did not use a condom during their last instance of sexual intercourse. As a result, it's not surprising that the state has a sky-high teen-pregnancy rate – at 63.1 live births per 1,000, Texas ranks third in the nation for underage moms. (Interestingly, although Texas dropped in 2006 to third from first place, the state's pregnancy rate actually increased over the previous year. It isn't that we're doing any better; it's just that Mississippi and New Mexico are doing worse.)

The disturbing numbers shouldn't be much of a surprise. According to a new report from TFN based on the responses of 990 school districts to the 2007 records request, just 4% of Texas districts "teach any information about responsible pregnancy and STD prevention, including various contraceptive methods." (Report: "Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools," by David Wiley, a professor of health education, and assistant professor Kelly Wilson, both of Texas State University.) Instead, fully 94% of Texas schools teach abstinence-only until marriage, which replaced a more comprehensive sex education as the curriculum of choice in the mid-1990s, when federal lawmakers authorized millions in taxpayer funds to be spent to support abstinence-only education. The change was embraced by former Gov. George W. Bush, who led Texas through a change in state law that in turn made abstinence-only the foundation of sex ed here.

In 2000, Bush ran for president on a platform that included a pledge to expand abstinence-only sex-ed funding, and once elected, he did just that. In just more than a decade, says William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, nearly $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds have gone to support abstinence-only sex ed. Texas has been the largest recipient of those funds; in 2007 alone, Texas received more than $18 million in federal funds for abstinence-only education.

But, say Wiley and Wilson, the dirty little secret is this: Abstinence-only education is failing Texas students. "It's a conspiracy of silence," Wiley said. "We [public officials and public school educators] think it's just going to take care of itself." In their report, Wiley and Wilson found that abstinence-only curricula in Texas schools are rife with gender and sexuality stereotypes, include unconstitutional religious materials; use fear and shame to teach about sex; and use materials that "regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs."

Unblissful Ignorance

Just Watch the Livestock
Illustration by Doug Potter

Consider this fun fact: More than 2% of Texas school districts ignore sex ed altogether – including the rural Zephyr Independent School District, east of Brown­wood. A Zephyr school official told TFN that his small district does not "adhere to laws they don't agree with." So they don't teach sex ed. "Drug problems arose only when we started teaching about drugs, and similarly if you teach about sex, kids will start having sex," the official said. In fact, he said Zephyr doesn't have any teen pregnancy problems because kids "get smacked if they don't behave." He said he'd be surprised if there were even a sixth-grader in his district "who had been kissed." Surprise, surprise: According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 29 teen mothers gave birth in Brown County in 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

"The level of ignorance around this topic is breathtaking," says Wiley. While Zephyr ISD administrators might think kids won't have sex if no one ever talks to them about it, experience proves otherwise. Most people become sexually active at some time during their lives – whether anyone's openly raised the subject with them or not. While it may be advantageous for teens to abstain for as long as possible, say Wiley and Wilson, most will inevitably become sexually active adults – and will therefore need accurate information about human sexuality.

"It may be that you're 25 when you need this information," says Wiley, but eventually it will become important. "For example, we teach kids accounting principles in math class. We teach them about accounting and spreadsheets, and most of them are not running their own businesses. This is information they'll use later," he continues. "So we have all kinds of life skills we teach kids in other subject areas, because we know they're going to need the information some day. But around sexuality ... we're just not going to talk to them. So my question is: Even if they do remain abstinent, where are they going to learn this?"

Enter (if you're lucky) Nancy Daley, an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Texas' College of Education. For a decade Daley has taught human sexuality, mostly to upper-level UT undergrads. Each year about 1,200 students pass through her classroom, she says, and far too many of them are completely ignorant about human sexuality – even the basics of human anatomy. "I've had students say that women urinate through their clitoris," she said during an interview this month. The students in her class are "very straightforward about their curiosity and their ignorance." Daley admits that she has a "skewed sample" from which to judge – that is, undergrads who sign up for human sexuality class. Nonetheless, their experiences are revealing. Some 20% of them, she says, were coerced into having sex the first time; some were told that a stork brings babies; others aren't sure what ovulation is.

Their ignorance has had real consequences. In essays written for her class, students have recounted events that left them "traumatized: unintended pregnancies, STIs [sexually transmitted infections]," she said. "All out of sheer ignorance. It's really sad." And most, of course, graduated from Texas public schools. One student from North Texas told her that in middle school his class wasn't allowed even to look at the chapter in the health textbook that discussed human sexuality; to ensure the kids wouldn't peek, some school official had gone through each book and taped the chapter closed. The result, she said, is that many of her students have simply been left to "discover" the realities of sexuality on their own.

No News Is Bad News

Once upon a time, Wiley thought that teaching kids only abstinence was a really bad thing. But in recent years, and especially over the two years that it took to complete the TFN report, he's had to revise that notion: Teaching kids just abstinence, and stopping there, isn't nearly as harmful as what many school districts across the state are actually doing. "For the longest time I was really upset that we don't talk to kids about anything else but abstinence. But then I realized, that's probably the least harm we're doing," he said recently. "In some way, if all these students are getting is abstinence education, at least they might be motivated on their own to go [do further] research. But if they're told condoms don't work, that condoms fail 50 percent of the time, that's what I worry about. If we give them no information, that's bad. But when we give them bad information or misleading information, that's even more discouraging."

Wiley and Wilson were very discouraged by the information Texas school districts provided in response to the TFN records request. The curricular materials they reviewed are rife with errors and misleading stereotypes. Indeed, Wiley and Wilson found factual errors in curricula taught by 41% of Texas districts – the most common errors concern condoms and their efficacy, representing errors found in 40% of the materials. Students are taught that condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of disease – and in at least 41 districts, students are taught the false information that the HIV virus is so small it can pass through the latex of a condom. The materials regularly rely on fear or shame to promote abstinence – as in the Austin LifeGuard Character and Sexuality Education, which is used in 10 districts, including Austin's (see "Austin ISD").

The LifeGuard curriculum tells students that there is "virtually no evidence" that condoms reduce the risk of human papillomavirus infection and goes on to explain that "about a third" of all in vitro fertilization can be linked to infertility caused by STD infections, "usually chlamydia or gonorrhea." (According to the CDC, condoms do help prevent the spread of HPV; according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the causes of infertility are many.) To make matters worse, at least one curriculum, the Wonderful Days abstinence-only program used in three districts, actually teaches the preposterous notion that "natural fertility regulation" – aka the rhythm method – has the "highest ... user effectiveness rate" compared to other contraceptive methods. Indeed, to help girls remember when and when not to have sex using the rhythm method, the Wonderful Days material provides a little rhyme, the content of which is both bizarre and an utter falsehood: "If a woman is dry, the sperm will die. If a woman is wet, a baby she may get!"

Other findings in the report caused more distress for Wilson, who (like Wiley) is a former public school teacher. "There were definitely some shocking materials that were coming in," she said recently. These include blatant gender stereotypes – in fact, Wiley and Wilson contend that many of these materials explicitly blame women for aggressive sexual behavior by men. The Just Say Yes curriculum, used by 12 districts – including Dallas' elite Highland Park Independent School District – tells teens that at the core, abstinence means "you make a conscious decision to avoid turning others on" and goes on to explain that "if a guy is breathing, then he's probably turned on." Hence, the text advises girls "to think long and hard about the way you dress and the way you come on to guys." A girl that "shows a lot of skin" is either "ignorant when it comes to guys," is "teasing" her boyfriend ("which is extremely cruel to the poor guy!"), or is simply "giving her boyfriend an open invitation" to sex.

Just Watch the Livestock
Illustration by Doug Potter

A Focus on the Family program, produced by the conservative Christian group of the same name, is used by five districts. It goes further, reminiscing about chaste days past. Girls used to be modest, the "No Apologies" curriculum notes, and were given written instructions on what "a lady should do if she had bad breath, bad teeth or an offensive laugh." Ah, the good old days.

To make matters even worse, Texas sex-ed curricula virtually ignore – or are actively hostile to – gay youth. District policy in San Antonio's Northside Independent School District mandates that teachers "not represent homosexuality as a normal or acceptable lifestyle." In Edinburg, the district goes so far as to say, "Students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas" and are "highly correlated" with the spread of AIDS.

Even more surprising to Wilson were materials provided to TFN that were explicitly religious in nature – and clearly out of place in public school. A class outline titled "Things to Look for in a Mate" (Perrin-Whitt Consolidat­ed Independent School District, northwest of Fort Worth) tells students the No. 1 question to consider about a potential mate is "Is Jesus their first love?" The document suggests that in considering the "attitude" of a potential mate, it should be considered whether the person is "willing to obey God, or hesitates to obey," and whether the person is "willing to accept correction."

"Being a former public school teacher," said Wilson, "I never would have thought that material would be used in the classroom." Considering the potential legal implications for the district, Wilson said, she and Wiley were also "shocked that it was [released]."

A Shift in the Wind

Although the information offered in many of the curricula is inaccurate – and in some cases possibly illegal – there's nothing to stop the schools from continuing to teach it, in part because there is no state-level monitoring of the sex-ed lessons being taught. As long as the materials meet the general requirements of state law – which in four different ways explains that sex ed must stress abstinence as the "preferred choice of behavior" – there is no other legal or academic review. The rest is left to local control – and, as it turns out, 25% of Texas school districts have no formal policy at all governing sex education.

Although under state law each district is required to have a school health advisory coun­cil, charged with making recommendations about sex-ed curriculum to the school district, the TFN report reveals that 81% of school districts "could not produce any formal ... recommendation on sexuality education instruction." In short, says Wiley, the health advisory councils aren't doing their jobs. "I think the SHAC should be doing what it's supposed to be doing: having a review of materials, a review of speakers," in order to weed out the irresponsible and medically inaccurate. "In no other area [of instruction] do we allow motivational speakers with no science background" to "teach" students. "I mean, you wouldn't invite somebody in from the Flat Earth Society to teach geography. There's just no science. So districts need to figure out: Are they in the business of providing information to students or ... doing motivational pep talks for abstinence?"

The educational landscape painted by the TFN report is bleak, but there is a streak of hope on the horizon. In itself, the report is groundbreaking – it's the first time that any group has reviewed the content of sex-education curricula for an entire state. Combined with other recent studies of the effects of abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction, the TFN report may help pound a few more nails into the abstinence-only coffin. A federally contracted study, by New Jersey-based Mathe­mat­ica Policy Research, of the impact of abstinence-only education on youth found that kids who'd had abstinence-only instruction were no more likely to abstain from sex than were students who didn't have that education; moreover, the researchers found that both groups of youth became sexually active at the same average age and reported having similar numbers of sexual partners. (Inter­est­ing­ly, slightly more of the students who'd had abstinence-only education reported having more than six sex partners than did their non-abstinence-only-educated peers.) A study conducted by researchers (including Wilson) at Texas A&M found that Texas abstinence-only education had no effect on teens' intention to remain abstinent until marriage. In short, says Wilson, "They were not intending to remain abstinent."

It appears that many states are catching on: To date, 25 states have declined to accept federal money for abstinence-only ed. (Only California refused the funds from the start. The state tried abstinence-only education in the early Nineties, found it didn't work, and declined to go down that road again, even though the state would have been eligible for the biggest slice of the federal abstinence-only pie.) Interestingly, well-known players in the abstinence-only movement – Leslee Unruh of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, for example, and the Austin-based Medical Institute (formerly known as the Medical Institute for Sexual Health) started by Dr. Joe McIlhaney, former George W. Bush appointee to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS – have been peculiarly quiet in recent months. (The Clearinghouse did not respond to requests for comment, and the Medical Institute could not be reached prior to press time.)

Perhaps they see the writing on the wall. Last week, President Barack Obama made the first cut to federal funding for abstinence-only education in a decade, eliminating $14 million in grant funding. Unless renewed, $50 million more in funding will dry up in June, says William Smith of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. "It is abundantly clear where the president is" on this issue, adds Smith. Obama supports comprehensive sex education and in 2007, as a senator, signed on to the Real Education About Life Act, still pending in Congress. In Texas, lawmakers have filed a bevy of bills that would weaken the grip of abstinence-only education – bills requiring more abstinence-plus education, for example, and requiring that the content of sex education be "medically accurate." (See "Sex Ed at the 81st Lege.")

In the meantime, Wiley says the most important thing is that parents get directly involved. "It is important for one or two parents at every school [to] go ask what's going on. ... These programs got in [to schools] because of one or two interested people who got on the abstinence bandwagon," he said. "The power of one or two people is unbelievable. And you don't have to be some leftist liberal, just an average everyday parent who is concerned about scientific integrity," he continued. "Because school boards aren't going to do anything about this until they get pressure from parents."

The full Texas Freedom Network report, "Just Say Don't Know," is available at www.tfn.org.

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  • More of the Story

  • Austin ISD

    What are AISD students learning in sex ed? Gee, that's a hard one.
  • Sex Ed at the 81st Lege

    A handful of bills have been filed on sex education

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