Storks don’t actually bring babies

girl-stork-largeIf you do a Google News search on the phrase “abstinence only,” you get hundreds of results and most of them are for one of two stories. There’s the media coverage of teen mother Bristol Palin and her promotion of abstinence as the only completely effective way to avoid teen pregnancy. And there’s the media coverage of the news that President Obama has removed hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for abstinence-focused programs.

What I find fascinating is the use of the term “abstinence only.” What is an “abstinence only” program? The term “abstinence only” is used by people who oppose abstinence education. It’s not used by people who support it. So how did it get to be so widely adopted by the mainstream media?

I knew very little about abstinence education prior to writing an article about it a few months ago. An editor asked me to look into the curriculum of abstinence education programs. I did and it was enlightening. I never found a curriculum that promoted abstinence only — although I’m honestly unsure what that would look like. Would it be stern teachers telling students to write “abstinence only” on the chalkboard thousands of times? I have no idea what that term means — although I of course understand why anti-abstinence education advocates use it polemically.

Anyway, I was surprised to find out that abstinence education programs have much less to do with sex than you might expect. They deal heavily in self-esteem training, goal setting and relationship advice. My research made me realize that there are many interesting angles for the mainstream media to explore about the differences in sex education. And my research made me sad that we tend only to see stories about sex ed that run about a quarter of an inch deep. Usually we see stories claiming that studies show abstinence education isn’t “effective.” What they rarely tell you is that these studies also show that other forms of sex education aren’t “effective” either. While there’s usually not much of a difference — overall — between different programs, the stories are not pitched as the failures of “explicit sex” education but of “abstinence only” programs. The best studies have a very narrow focus since there is no universal approach to sex education and there are humongous discrepancies even among programs that advocate explicit birth control training or any other form of sex education. But even those studies tend to get blown up and misreported.

Which brings me to the most recent coverage of the budget and Bristol Palin. I’m just going to use this ABC News report from Jake Tapper as an example although his report is really representative of what everyone else in the mainstream media is doing with these stories as well:

Unwed teenage mother Bristol Palin might be out there talking about abstinence, but President Obama isn’t buying abstinence-only education.

Two $100 million programs from his predecessor’s budget pushing abstinence only are casualties in President Obama’s $3.55 trillion budget proposal.

The President is replacing them with $110 million “for teenage pregnancy prevention programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation,” as spelled out on pages 490 to 495 of the budget appendix.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., applauded the move, saying “eliminating funding for ineffective abstinence-only programs is a win for science. The Obama budget proposal invests in programs that are effective and based on sound science, rather than wasting millions of dollars on efforts that have been proven to be ineffective at best.”

Palin, meanwhile, told GMA’s Chris Cuomo that “regardless of what I did personally, I just think that abstinence is the only way you can effectively, 100 percent foolproof way you can prevent pregnancy.”

She didn’t have an answer readily available when pressed on how her personal story squares with the abstinence only campaign she’s pushing.

Okay, let’s start at the end here. I hate to break it to all these reporters but Palin is correct — abstaining from sex is, you know, scientifically speaking, the only 100 percent foolproof way that you can prevent pregnancy. It’s true. I know we have stories about storks and tons of urban myths about toilet seats and what not . . . but abstaining from sex is actually the only way to avoid pregnancy.

It is, in fact, so obvious that I’m incredulous that the view is considered controversial. Palin’s personal story squares 100 percent with the abstinence campaign she’s pushing. She’s saying she did *not* abstain from sex and, as a result, now has her hands full raising a child.

She and her boyfriend were using birth control. They were using it, as studies show us, the way most everyone who uses birth control uses it — imperfectly. I mean, even if they did use it as directed and all the time, it’s not foolproof. Nothing is as effective as abstinence, of course. But more than that, it’s beyond a doubt that people who use birth control use it ineffectively or imperfectly. I can’t be the only person in the world who has dozens of smart and capable friends — married and not — who got pregnant or impregnated someone while using birth control. And studies show that pregnancy despite birth control use is pretty common.

Now, remember, back when we first learned of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, how the media was overloaded with stories about how she was proof that “abstinence-only” education didn’t work? Except for the fact that her own mother advocated sex education that encouraged abstinence but taught about birth control? Here, for instance is how the Los Angeles Times reported her views as being out-of-step with the Republican platform:

In a widely quoted 2006 survey she answered during her gubernatorial campaign, Palin said she supported abstinence-until-marriage programs. But weeks later, she proclaimed herself “pro-contraception” and said condoms ought to be discussed in schools alongside abstinence.

“I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues,” she said during a debate in Juneau.

But it’s still, somehow, “abstinence-only” education’s fault that Bristol Palin became pregnant. And never mind that the principal of Bristol Palin’s high school said that the sex ed curriculum there was “middle of the road” — we still blame abstinence “only” education for some reason.

Back to the excerpt above — we get a quote from my hometown member of Congress (who is notorious for her support of embryonic-destroying stem cell research, abortion rights and comprehensive sex education) without rebuttal. Perhaps someone could be brought in to tell readers that advocates on both sides of the debate appeal to science. Or we could even just include a note that children who receive abstinence education delay the onset of sexual activity by years. Instead, Tapper links to a study (that was interpreted wrongly by most mainstream outlets as) showing that virginity pledges don’t work. The study compared teens who take virginity pledges with those who are extremely similar in a sociological sense (same religious views, same economic background, etc.) and found very little difference in whether they eventually had sex before marriage. But that study — which had nothing to do with formal abstinence education in public schools (we don’t even know to whom they pledged or under what circumstances) — actually showed that both of these religiously/economically similar groups were extremely different from their peers in that they delayed sexual interaction for years beyond the average. Either way, though, that study did not measure “abstinence-only” programs. We know nothing from that study about what sex education the students in question received.

One of the reasons why studies about the effectiveness of different sex ed programs are all over the map appears to be because some approaches work better on some types of girls than others. In other words, if you’re seeking to get pregnant or indifferent to it, learning how to use birth control might not help you as much as a course in how to build your self esteem and set reasonable goals for your future. But if you’re seeking a high-profile career and an active sex life outside of marriage, you may be more inclined to learn about how to properly use birth control.

What I learned when studying this topic is that a lot of studies on this issue are flawed, biased or blown way out of proportion. This is a problem for people on both sides of the issue. But for some reason the mainstream media are deeply invested in advocating for one side. Whether or not encouraging children to abstain from sex is effective or a wise policy approach is up for debate. Whether or not abstaining from sex before marriage is the most effective way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not up for debate. When teenage mother Bristol Palin understands this better than the newsrooms in the country who spend their free time mocking her, you know you’ve got a reporting problem.

Perhaps it’s time for reporters to admit that how humans approach sexuality is a deeply important topic with many passionate advocates on all sides. And perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that it’s only Christians or social conservatives who are engaged in advocacy and begin approaching the issue a bit more cautiously.

My husband and I are expecting a visit from the stork some time on Tuesday. Image via LawnStorkSigns.

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  • Stoo

    “Whether or not abstaining from sex before marriage is the most effective way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not up for debate.”

    And I don’t think it is being debated? It’s the question of whether or not teaching kids to do that, or expecting human beings in general to keep to it, will be effective. Which, er, you said yourself. Okay i’m a bit lost as to why you keep repeating that first point when we’re all agreed.

    Ok sorry to sound grumpy. Hope your own event goes ok! :D

  • FrGregACCA

    Congratulations on the expected arrival of another (potential) Lutheran.

  • Dave

    Mollie, here’s wishing you a safe, easy delivery.

    The kids enrolled in sex-education programs are not just kids. They are future adults. Their classes in geography and algebra are not just preparing them to be clever kids; they are preparing them to be informed adults. Sex education class should be judged by the same standard. Abstinence eduation prepares them, if at all, for life before marriage; sex ed that includes contraception education prepares them for life as sexually active adults. An unstated understanding of this disctinction may underly the MSM preference for the latter.

  • Dan Berger

    Congratulations in advance, Mollie.

    Stoo & Dave, you haven’t addressed Mollie’s primary point: there is no such thing as “abstinence only” sex ed, and hardly anyone is defending it. Not even Sarah Palin.

    So why does the MSM constantly harp on that phrase?

    On the other hand, I don’t know that there’s any such thing as “birth control only” sex ed, though I have to say that the rumor mill here does seem to have more documentation than “abstinence only.” PP’s Teenwire site comes pretty close to this model, even though they will occasionally pay lip service by using the phrase “when you are ready.”

  • LeAnn Lewis

    Your comment- that the ‘only” part of ‘abstinence only’ is added by the left- is not more, or less, true that my observation that the “mainstream” part is added to the ” mainstream media” by the right…’s a way to obsfucate the issue.

    I think you focus only on what you want to see in this blog; having worked with teenage girls on reproductive issues, I can assure you that self-esteem and adult communication is the focus in MOST sex-ed programs. Abstinence vows have been proven to not be effective; kids who make them often still have sex but they have been statistically proven to use birth control less when they do, thats all. Teenage pregnancy for Bristol Palin, elite and wealthy ( her parents have a million plus in assets according to their own disclosure) is much easier than it is for a young minority woman. When she is chosen as this spokesperson it gives her the finances to raise her child at the expense of a more “reality based” spokeswoman being offered.

  • dalea

    If you Google ‘sex ed abstinence’ you get a great many links that connect to people who do favor abstinence only:

    The abstinance only approach is more wholistic in that it deals with sex in the setting of life choices and long term goals. It does, however, treat the subject as if no one ever just happens to have sex; instead it assumes that people plan sex for a long period of time. Which does not seem realistic.

    It would help if the media would treat this as both a sex education discussion and a political battle between two sides. The coverage keeps tangling up the two.

  • Jerry

    effectiveness of different sex ed programs are all over the map appears to be because some approaches work better on some types of girls than others.

    What kinds of sex ed programs work better on various kinds of boys?

    On the other hand, the state of the current culture is illustrated by the story in this week’s Religion & Ethics newsweekly program. One quote that caught my eye:

    (reading from letter): An often-occurring event, at least to me, is a drunk girl throwing herself all over me and frequently asking me to take her home, or similar. But I have found that girls are offended if I do not sleep with them, which is usually the first night I meet them.

    PS: Congratulations on successfully signalling the stork.

  • Martha

    The point about the abstinence programmes emphasising “self-esteem training, goal setting and relationship advice” is that, if you look at the teenagers who get pregnant, they are usually predominantly the disadvantaged.

    These are girls from either families where the parents are separated, never married, or single-parent families; where they may have siblings with different fathers; where there is a greater likelihood of school drop-out; where there are higher rates of unemployment; where no-one in the family has gone on to higher education and this is seen as an unattainable goal; where there is a likelihood of underage drinking/substance abuse; where in the families there are often mental, emotional, and psychological difficulties – everything from learning disorders to clinical depression and beyond. Very often you are dealing with their social workers instead of their parents/guardians.

    These girls get very little support from their home life, and they see the only options ahead for them as being perhaps getting a low-wage job, or living on social welfare. Education is right at the very bottom of their priorities. Getting them to stay in school is a struggle. Going on to further or higher education is a fairy story as far as they’re concerned.

    A boyfriend is the only means of status they can see in their reach, and they almost expect either to get pregnant. They don’t expect the boyfriend to stick around when that happens, either. A baby is seen as a rite of passage, a means of independence, a method of having worth and value.

    Before you can tell them to start using birth control, you have to tell them “Hey, you have choices. You can say ‘no’ because, believe it or not, you don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to. You have worth as an individual outside of being somebody’s girlfriend. You can exercise control over your life.”

    (Excuse the rant mode, but I work in a clerical capacity with a local education authority, in a school where we have a lot of pupils with learning difficulties, a lot of pupils with disturbed family backgrounds, and in an early school leavers’ programme where I see a lot of the kids who dropped out of the school turning up, and believe me, an abstinence programme would be a step up for these kids. I’ve seen one death from substance abuse, and two sisters who have attempted suicide several times, and I’ll save the rant about social workers for another day.)

  • Nancy Reyes

    When we were in medical school, we were given a course like this: often girls have sex because of their boyfriend’s pressure but no one tells them to say no. The PC claim it is their hormones, but most don’t get that much sexual pleasure from the experience: they go along with the sex to get attention from their boyfriend, and often plan a pregnancy to get a baby to love.

    As for Palin: what she did is have sex with her fiance. Fifty years ago, he’d have a good job and they’d be married…with both families trying to help them along.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Having taught history and English to high school students for almost 40 years I find it laughable that anyone thinks they can perfectly follow on a regular basis the instructions for using any kind of birth control. They can’t perfectly learn the rules of English grammar. They can’t perfectly learn history time lines. They can’t perfectly learn science formulas. They can’t perfectly-you fill in the blank.
    Yet school bureaucrats and so-called sex ed experts are going to teach all their students how to perfectly use birth control every time–which is what it has to be if it is not to result in a baby at some point.
    Yet the rule for abstinence is so simple anyone who is determined, in their own self interest, to follow the simple rule of “No” can be perfectly successful
    And over the years I have overheard enough teen-age conversations in corridors and lunchrooms to realize that education in birth control techniques brainwashes them into thinking that they can enter the promised (by their sex ed teachers) land of sex without consequences.
    A number of years ago some kids got their course so fouled up that they thought the brand name of a new headache remedy on the market was the brand name of a birth control pill they had been told about.
    As for the reliability of condoms–Brilliant idea to put them out on the shelves instead of keeping them behind the pharmacist. I have heard of teen-age boys claiming they were getting a hoot out of sneakily poking condom packages with needles in stores. Or maybe that was an urban legend floating around.

  • Kris D

    I find it very interesting that no one does a comparison with the U.K. (which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the Europe) & the U.S. England has been very proactive concerning birth control & how to use it but, gee, the rates go up. You can lead a teen to birth control, but you can’t make them use.

  • Miguel

    As much as I advocate abstinence from pre-marital sex (and DID practice it 100 percent), and as much as I advocate compassion for people like Bristol who make mistakes,
    I do confess I have a hard time giving her much sympathy for the media take on her.

    She is espousing a morality she was not willing to uphold. This confirms the self-righteous hypocritical stereotype that most non religious have of right wing types. Is it not possible to find an advocate that walks the walk? If we can’t, than what does that say about the cause? Has the gap between evangelical claimed beliefs and actual practices grown impossibly too large to find a leader who can reconcile both? It’s no wonder they don’t find us convincing.

  • FW Ken

    Miguel, you have a point if Bristol is currently sexually active. Otherwise, we assume repentance and reconciliation on her part.

    God grant a safe delivery, Mollie. Prayers offered!

  • Stoo

    Reading the above comments, i realise it’s helpful to clarify exactly how much abstinence we’re talking.

    As in, telling kids “it’s ok to wait till you’re a bit more grownup and ready, and find the right person, you don’t have to have sex right now” is one thing. A good thing, even! But “wait for marriage” is more of a fringe position and unlikely to be taken seriously here in the UK at least.

  • Dan Berger

    The comments thread brings to mind a variation on an old joke:

    Why wasn’t Jesus Christ born in a modern, Western country?

    Because they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.

  • Dave

    [...] Dave, you haven’t addressed Mollie’s primary point

    And you haven’t addressed the point I did make, Dan.

  • Dan Berger

    Um, yes, I did.

    Abstinence eduation prepares them, if at all, for life before marriage; sex ed that includes contraception education prepares them for life as sexually active adults.

    To which I claimed that pure “abstinence education” doesn’t exist. That’s been refuted in the thread, but I did respond to your point.

    Your post does seem to imply that “abstinence” and “contraceptive” sex ed are mutually exclusive.

  • Dave

    My concern, Dan, is that the most politically active promoters of abstinence education do seem to think that it is mutually exclusive of contraceptive education. They sneer at “throwing condoms at kids.” There’s a polemical tone that has, understandably, produced reactions and responses.

    I recall an incident here in Lorain County. Ohio, when abstinence advocates, unable to get their stuff into the public school curriculum, trapped the kids in an assembly for a presentation on abstinence. There was hardly any time to talk in any depth about self-esteem, goal-setting and right relationships. This sort of stunt naturally taints better-construted abstinence programs.

    The point of the post that started this thread is that the MSM have taken one side of the consequent dispute and don’t distinguish their coverage from their opinion. But that opinion was not born full-blown out of liberalism’s left ear. There’s good reasons for it — “good” in the sense of having sound roots in political experience.

  • Anna Broadway

    Nice article, Mollie. In doing some recent research on this topic, I’ve been amazed at how shoddy the sourcing and argumentation is for certain objections to abstinence education. I can only speak for the cases I’ve examined, but it’s been remarkable how much is mere assertion or “fact” supported by evidence that is secondary at best. We would do well to engage in more of the careful research it sounds like you’ve conducted.

    LeAnn, I cannot speak comprehensively to your point about use of the term “mainstream media,” but I did notice that phrase being used by feminist blogger Jessica Valenti in her recent book The Purity Myth. Though she could hardly be accused of conservatism, she had no problem taking the media to task.

  • Mollie

    Hey everybody. With a baby coming tomorrow, I have not been keeping track of everything on this comment thread like I should be.

    Take non-media related discussions on over to the coffeehouse!

    Also, we use mainstream media to distinguish from partisan or other niche media. While the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal in its tilt and the term may be used by media critics and those on the right more than those on the left, it’s definitely not a term used solely by the right.

    The term is also more important now — in an age where the mainstream media landscape is being rocked by alternative media — than it was even a few years ago.

  • Chris Bolinger

    While the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal in its tilt…

    Shortly before going into labor, Mollie is not mincing words. :-)

    All the best, Mollie!

  • dalea

    Best wishes for a blessed birth Mollie.

    While the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal in its tilt and the term may be used by media critics and those on the right more than those on the left, it’s definitely not a term used solely by the right.

    Over at DKos, which is a liberal/progressive alternative media venture, the term used for MSM is TraditionalMedia, or TradMed, or TM. The Left regards MSM to be the voice of the corporations that own them. Reporters and commentators like Chris Matthews, David Brooks, David Broder, Wolf Blitzer and the rest are refered to as corporate whores or prestitutes.

    The Left has its own highly developed negative view of the MSM.

  • Mollie

    I also want to clarify that mostly what I meant by “tilts liberal” is that most journalists self-identify as liberal.

    I don’t personally know, for instance, one member of the mainstream media who self-identifies as a conservative. I know a couple of libertarians, like myself. And I know about a gazillion liberals.

    This self-identification does not necessarily correlate with how stories are written or produced, contrary to what many think. One of the best reporters I know is gay and extremely liberal and I would trust him to write up any story on gay rights in a manner that would give no one on any side anything to complain about.

  • Dale

    dalea wrote:

    The Left has its own highly developed negative view of the MSM.

    Left does not equal liberal. The criticism of the MSM from the Left is that it is not suitably anti-corporate and anti-capitalist. Liberals are not anti-capitalist. Mollie said the MSM tilted liberal, which is true; she did not say the MSM was anti-capitalist.

  • Julia

    As to Bristol Palin not being a good choice to be an abstenance advocate

    High schools have many speakers who are there to say ‘don’t do as I did’. Ex-drug users, students injured in drunk driving accidents, etc. These are often the most effective in getting the kids’ attention.

  • dalea

    Dale says:

    The criticism of the MSM from the Left is that it is not suitably anti-corporate and anti-capitalist.

    It is entirely possible to be anti-corporate and pro-capitalism. Murray Rothbard and, to an extent, Ayn Rand were. Lind’s Up From Conservativism makes that argument. Many libertarians on both the right and left take this position. While Left, Liberal and Progressive are somewhat separate identities, they do work together and move in the same movements. Kos himself identifies as a ‘Libertarian Progressive’. So, there is a highly developed critique of the TM aka MSM on the broad left.

  • Mollie

    Though libertarians tend to oppose corporate behavior for different reasons than liberals, dalea is correct.

  • Dale

    While Left, Liberal and Progressive are somewhat separate identities, they do work together and move in the same movements. Kos himself identifies as a ‘Libertarian Progressive’. So, there is a highly developed critique of the TM aka MSM on the broad left.

    The “highly developed critique” is not among the “broad left”; it is among those parts of the left that are anti-corporate and anti-capitalist, a small but vocal minority. The employees of the MSM are still predominantly liberal, and self-identify as such, especially when it comes to social issues like sex education.

    I don’t see a distinction between anti-capitalist and anti-corporate. The capitalist system rests upon the concept of secular corporations (as opposed to their precursors, the religious orders). A corporation is a voluntary association formed for business purposes, with a legal existence distinct from its members. Without corporations, there are no corporate shares; without corporate shares, there are no capital markets; without capital markets, there is no capitalism.

    Murray Rothbard was, if anything, ultra-corporatist. He advocated “anarcho-capitalism”, the elimination of the state, and the transfer of functions currently reserved to the state to voluntary associations; most importantly, the role of exercising physical coercion. Think of Exxon-Mobil, the Roman Catholic Church and AARP, each with their own court systems and militias, and that’s Rothbard’s “anarcho-capitalism”.

    In contrast, those on the left who criticize MSM employees as “corporate whores” and “prestitutes”, object to MSM journalism because it has been “bought and paid for” by “corporate interests”, i.e., the capitalists who purchase controlling shares of the media corporations. That attitude isn’t “liberal” in the usual meaning of the word; it’s anti-corporate and anti-capitalist.

  • dalea

    Dale says:

    I don’t see a distinction between anti-capitalist and anti-corporate.

    Adam Smith did, he regarded corporations as creatures of state grants of privilege. A world without corporations would have DBA’s run by individuals who would be legally liable for their actions. The human life span would be the limit on business duration: the firm could then be sold to new owners who would have the same arrangement. This would be a world dominated by small businesses that competed against one another. It is totally possible to have capitalism without having corporations.

  • Dale

    dalea wrote:

    Adam Smith did, he regarded corporations as creatures of state grants of privilege.

    In Adam Smith’s day, the state granted monopolies on trade. For example, the British East India Company was granted a monopoly over trade from India and China. Smith objected to those monopolies. With a few exceptions, like utilities, modern corporations are not state-granted monopolies.

    Modern corporations and capital markets hadn’t fully evolved in Smith’s time; thus, he couldn’t oppose them. Later political economists saw corporations and capital markets as a rational product of Smith’s concepts.

    And we’re way off subject. Mea culpa. ;-)