Shoot the Messenger

Why Hawaii should say “No, thanks” to federal funds for abstinence-only sex education.


Photo by Linny Morris

You may have heard the results of a national study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that nationally, at least one in four girls ages 14 to 19 have one—or more—sexually transmitted infections (STIs­). This means more than 3 million teenagers are affected, and you have to presume that if the young women have STIs, so do a whole bunch of young men. Picture this: One in four of those teenage girls you see sitting in church, chowing down on saimin at Zippy’s, or hanging out with your niece have an STI, most likely HPV, chlamydia, trichonomiasis or herpes.

Since these STIs can cause infertility and cervical cancer, the CDC has put out urgent calls for more screenings, vaccinations and other prevention methods. The new HPV vaccine, Gardasil, is available in the Islands. But there’s more Hawaii could do to help out in this epidemic: We could reject federal funding for abstinence-only education.

Most sexual-health programs use abstinence as groundwork for talking to teens about sex. Then they go into other information, such as birth control and disease-prevention options. In federally funded, abstinence-only education, federal law has a set of rules: Counselors are required to teach that sex outside of marriage is physically and psychologically damaging, no matter how old you are, and are prohibited from advocating for contraceptives. In fact, the only things they can reveal about contraceptives are their failure rates, which are often highly exaggerated. 

Photo by iStock

These programs have been denounced as medically inaccurate, misleading and inappropriately religious, yet the Bush administration throws $176 million a year toward them. A 10-year study of these programs, prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, showed they don’t work at all. The teens studied weren’t waiting any longer to try sex, even if they didn’t know a condom from a canary. To protest these restrictive education policies, the governors of 17 states, most recently Iowa, have now declined federal funding for abstinence-only education.

According to Barry Raff, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Hawaii, our state received $1.75 million for abstinence-only education in fiscal 2006. (Full disclosure: I am a longtime supporter of, and current volunteer for, Planned Parent-hood.) Much of that went to Catholic Charities for its “Try Wait” program. And $130,000 in state funds also went toward abstinence-only programs. Just under $400,000 was doled out for comprehensive sex education. So programs that can talk about condoms are out-spent, 4 to 1, by programs that can’t mention them, except to dismiss them.

According to a 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (grades 9 to 12), some of the riskiest things Island teens do involve sex. Thirty-six percent had already tried sex, 9 percent have had four or more sex partners, and 52 percent had not bothered with a condom during their last tryst. Other risky behaviors paled in comparison (35 percent had drunk alcohol, 7 percent had tried cocaine, 27 percent had been in a physical fight). We’re busy worrying about our kids trying drugs or driving too fast, all the while ignoring that they’re getting chlamydia. Our state rates sixth highest in the nation for that infection, by the way.

Our teens need us. They need our help to stay healthy. They need accurate information. They need the skills and the tools to make sane decisions. Most of all, they need the adults in charge of sex ed to stop deluding themselves.
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Honolulu Magazine April 2017
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