Year after year, the United States maintains the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world. In 2006 — the most recent year for which data is available — the U.S. teen birth rate was 41.9 births per 1,000 teens aged 15-19. According to statistics gathered by the United Nations (.pdf), this was substantially higher than any other industrialized nation:
However, the overall U.S. teen birth rate obscures the fact that some individual states have substantially higher teen birth rates than others. For instance: In 2006, the Texas teen birth rate was 63.1 births per 1000 teens age 15-19 (.pdf p.1). This extraordinary rate made Texas third in the nation in teen births.
Clearly, the United States has a problem with teen births. But why is that? Over the years, an increasing body of evidence has suggested that a scarcity of comprehensive sex education for children and teenagers is in large part to blame for America’s unwanted leadership in sexual problems of all kinds — very much including teen births. Now a remarkable report has come out Texas that adds incredible weight to that hypothesis.
The 70 page report (.pdf), released last week by its sponsor, the Texas Freedom Network, is primarily the work of two courageous researchers: David Wiley and Kelly Wilson. Both are professors of health education at Texas State University. In the preface to the report, Wiley writes (.pdf p.vii):
“We knew we were entering uncharted waters. To our knowledge, a study of this magnitude had never been undertaken on this controversial topic. We also knew that such a study could possibly open us to criticism on both personal and professional levels. But two thoughts settled our resolve to proceed. First, Dr. Wilson and I are both the parents of daughters who have attended or will attend Texas public schools. And second, we live in a state with one of the nation’s highest teen birthrates and a population of young people who rate well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors. In the end, the stakes were just too high to remain on the sidelines.”
Wiley and Wilson used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the sex education curricula from 96% of Texas’s school districts. They then analyzed the curricula to reach the startling conclusion that an overwhelming majority of Texas schools are utterly failing to teach comprehensive sex education to their students and are instead substituting irrelevant, false or misleading information in place of medically accurate sex education. Or, put bluntly and without political correctness: All but a tiny minority (3.6%) of Texas schools are helping their teens get pregnant either by lying to them about sex or by teaching them irresponsible, proved-to-fail sexual practices.
What makes this news especially difficult to swallow is that “An August 2004 Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 90 percent of Texans support ‘teaching students with age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education that includes information on abstinence, birth control, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases'”(.pdf p.3). Thus, the Texas schools are going against the wishes of the vast majority of Texans in providing kids with irrelevant, false or misleading information on sex.
The report, which is titled, “Just Don’t Say Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools”, relates several specific findings, including the fact that “most Texas students receive no instruction about human sexuality apart from the promotion of sexual abstinence”. Abstinence only sex education has time and again been demonstrated to fail, yet it remains popular purely for political reasons. It consists of teaching children the only way to deal with their sexuality is to abstain altogether from having sex. Ninety-six percent of Texas schools teach abstinence only.
To make matters worse, “materials used in Texas schools regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs” (.pdf p.17). Many of the lies and distortions can be traced back to two specific organizations: The Heritage Foundation and The Medical Institute (formerly The Medical Institute for Sexual Health). Both are polically involved, socially conservative organizations (.pdf p.22) whose credibility outside of conservative circles is widely questioned.
The sort of lies being told Texas school children include (in varying school districts):
• “A young person who becomes sexually active at or before age 14 will contract an STD before graduating from high school. This is no longer the exception, but the rule.”
• “Out of 100 sexually active women, if a condom is used, 14 of the women will experience an unintended pregnancy during the course of one year.”
• “Although lab studies have demonstrated that latex condoms block the entry of the AIDS virus, there is no scientific evidence that they do so during intercourse.”
• “Ladies, you contract chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.”
• “The divorce rate for two virgins who get married is less than 3%.”
• “If a woman is dry, the sperm will die. If a woman is wet, a baby she may get!”
Wiley and Wilson found that over 40 percent of Texas school districts teach “factually incorrect” information (.pdf p.25).
As if it were not bad enough for Texas schools to teach abstinence only sex education and then, in many cases, proceed to substitute lies for truths, Wiley and Wilson also found that “Shaming and fear-based instruction are standard means of teaching students about sexuality” (.pdf p.27).
Notably, many of the curricula materials seek to link sex to death:
• “FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE TO ENGAGE IN SEX NOW IS LIKE PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH ALL BUT ONE CHAMBER FULL” (emphasis in original).
• “WARNING! Going on this ride could change your life forever, result in poverty, heartache, disease, and even DEATH” (emphasis in original).
• “You’ve found this girl you love, I mean this is it, all those other girls, they were just messing around. This is the real thing. Pull out that diamond, look her in the eyes, if you’re really cool guys you get on your knees, you say marry me, by the way I’ve got genital warts, you’ll get it too, and we’ll both be treated for the rest of our lives in fact you’ll probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death but marry me.”
When not equating sex with death, some of the materials used in Texas schools attempt to denigrate sexually active youth:
• “Destructive behaviors such as violence, dishonesty, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity arise from a common core—the absence of good character.”
• “‘No one wants food that has been passed around. Neither would you want your future husband or wife to have been passed around.'”
The poor quality of sex eduction in Texas comes with several price tags. Perhaps the most obvious is the economic cost of an exceptionally high teen birth rate. According to an analysis (.pdf) by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teen childbearing in Texas cost taxpayers at least $1 billion in 2004. Fifty-five percent — or at least 550 million dollars — of those costs were picked up by the Federal Government. That is, paid for by all American taxpayers. It seems ironic that a deeply conservative state is, in effect, on the public dole largely because of its irresponsible educational practices.
When all is said and done, Texas was not the worse state in the nation for teen births in 2006, but only the third worse. However, Wiley and Wilson’s extremely thorough study has put Texas in the spotlight. At the very least, Texas is now the textbook case for the failure of abstinence only sex education to prevent or even significantly reduce the teen birth rate. For no matter what else can be reasonably concluded from the Just Don’t Say Know study, it can be reasonably concluded that abstinence only sex education doesn’t work.