Abstaining from Lying is Also Important

Even a biased congressional committee can turn up legitimate ammunition against their sworn enemies, and this appears to be what Rep. Henry Waxman’s committee has done by reviewing materials used to teach students in federally funded abstinence-only programs. Waxman, whose views on sex-education in the schools are consistent with his Hollywood, California constituency’s views on sex generally (more, earlier, better), set out to show that the conservative alternative was a crock, and hit pay dirt.

Eleven of the thirteen curricula examined, those used by 69 organizations in 25 states under the federally-funded abstinence program, contain unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health and related issues.

Among the “facts” included in the course materials:

  • Abortion can lead to sterility and suicide
  • Half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus
  • Touching a person’s genitals “can result in pregnancy”
  • A 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person.”
  • HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears.
  • Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.

“Now wait just a minute,” abstinence advocates might well say. “All those statements aren’t false, exactly, and besides, our point is to convince kids that having sex at their age is wrong and harmful.” They might say it, and they would be mistaken. Their objective is a good one, but using deceit and outright misrepresentation to pursue it is wrong, not to mention counterproductive.

After all, the issue ultimately is trust. Children and teenagers have to trust teachers and schools to tell them the truth, and if that trust is destroyed by the discovery that information taught as “fact” was really spin, distortion or propaganda designed to deceive or frighten them, rebellion and contempt is certain to follow. This sense of betrayal and loss of trust fueled the emergence of the drug culture in the Sixties, as the “Reefer Madness” approach to anti-drug programs earlier in the decade was exposed as hysterical nonsense. The assertions uncovered by Waxman’s committee are equally dishonest. Sure, abortion can lead to sterility and suicide…just like eating ice cream can lead to obesity and heart attacks. Yeah, touching someone’s genitals “can result in pregnancy,” just as touching someone’s genitals can result in a broken nose…but something else has to happen first. This is “Reefer Madness” all over again.

Lying to teenagers “for their own good” is disrespectful and lazy, a rationalization for unethical behavior because dealing with facts in matters of sexuality and sexual conduct requires nuance and skill. The lies these programs use to sell abstinence are no different ethically than telling students that a shadowy Sex Avenger invades the houses of sexually active teens and carries them of to Slutland, where they must watch Pamela Anderson perform Medea and listen to Howard Stern interview strippers 24 hours a day. The only difference is that the real lies are more believable.

The natural presumption when people resort to lies to win an argument is that they can’t win with the real facts. And this is what teenagers will conclude; they’re horny, not stupid.

“Wait another minute, now,” the defenders of the ignorance-as-prevention approach will say. “Look at the statistics! Teen pregnancies are down, and abstinence is up! If the program works, so what if we stretch the truth a little?”

“So what?” Using lies as a means of social control has a history as long as that of human civilization. Sometimes it works for a while; sometimes it works for generations. But eventually the truth wins out, and those who aligned themselves with the truth are the victors. That’s not why dishonesty is wrong, but it’s how human beings (or a lot of them, anyway) figured out it was wrong: sooner or later, it just doesn’t work. We’re going to have to figure out a way to make teens partners in our society’s efforts to prevent the consequences of irresponsible sex, and that means respecting them enough to use the truth rather than lies.

Does that mean Henry Waxman’s supporters, who advocate distributing condoms in the schools and adopting the famed Jocelyn Elders rationale of “If they’re going to do it anyway, why keep telling them it’s wrong?” have all the right answers? No. But it does mean that until a controversial policy can justify itself without resorting to deception and lies, it does not deserve praise, funding, or replication. Use the truth, test your theories, and may the better program win. But when a program is built on fear mongering and lies, calling it “better” is a travesty.


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