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Wednesday morning in the Rayburn Congressional Office Building on Capitol Hill, hundreds of abstinence-only supporters gathered to prepare for their annual lobby day. With their programs exposed as failures by independent studies, a budget crisis, and new leadership in Washington, they know that their funding is in serious jeopardy.

So, what do you do when faced with this kind of dilemma?

Rebrand!

Sitting amongst their crowd Wednesday, the talking point repeatedly drilled into the young lobbyists’ heads was that their programs aren’t just about not having sex. Oh, no… they are actually “holistic approaches” to promote “healthy lifestyle choices”.

Really? Has the social conservative fringe gone New Age on us?

No. No they haven’t. But in the face of the devastating evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been a failure with a $1.5 billion price tag, desperation is called for. The order of the day was to rebrand themselves, while fudging as many facts as they can.

After the morning round of Congressional meetings, The Heritage Foundation hosted a lunch with speakers, including some House members and staff. Longtime abstinence-only defender Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation spoke, giving the standard false talking points of the movement.

His most blatant falsehood is that “0%” of comprehensive sex education programs talk about abstinence. This stems from “research” done by the Administration of Children and Families under the Bush Administration in 2007. However, “research” and “science” are not exactly the strong suit of Rector or Bush, as Rector was off by roughly 100% on this one.

This study was thoroughly debunked by ETR Associates in 2007, as they found that ACF merely studied curricula by doing word counts of “abstinence” and “condom”. If they had looked a little deeper and actually “read the content” of the comprehensive sex education programs, they would have found that they are full of advise and strategies on how to delay sexual activity and choose not to have sex, stressing that this is the safest behavior. The limited use of the word “abstinence” stems from studies that have shown this word to turn off students and instead used language that produced better results. Yes, some programs actually care about “results” more than reinforcing their own social conservative ideology. And our results are better.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good smear, right?

Another falsehood he pushed was that “0%” of unintended pregnancies could have been prevented if they had access to or knowledge about contraceptives. Literally… zero. Why? Because they all wanted to have babies. One might say that he pulled this stat out of his “Rector”, so to speak.

Rector also railed against the liberal media “hiding” the facts from the public, as they will only share studies done by those non-partisan, egghead professional scientists pointing out that abstinence-only programs simply don’t work. Why? Because the media is “controlled by the promiscuity lobby”. This was a common theme among the speakers, that the liberal media and MTV are “telling you to have sex” and “think that pre-marital sex is OK… but it’s not!” The very fact that television would allow a Trojan condom ad to air that showed men who don’t wear condoms as pigs, was bemoaned – “is this what has come of our country? Is this America?” Yes, adults can actually engage in safe consensual sex… the horror.

Rector and his colleagues dismissing independent studies showing the failure of abstinence-only education is nothing new. When the damning Mathematica report was released in 2007, Rector let their true colors come out on an Abstinence Clearinghouse conference call to discuss damage control. He laid out a strategy to spin this report to the media, saying “The other spin I think is very important is not [program] effectiveness, but rather the values that are being taught”, further stating that whether or not these programs work is a “bogus issue”.

This lies at both the core of the abstinence-only movement, and their strategy as they move ahead. “Independent studies” by “non-partisan scientists” are to be ignored at all cost. Instead, they focus on the inherent “morality” of their cause, and the “deviant nature” of those who would dare give young people a comprehensive, realistic, science-based approach to sex ed. According to Rector:

“abstinence sex ed is in harmony with the human heart. Comprehensive sex ed is not in harmony with the human heart”

And those comprehensive sex ed programs?

“It’s like Hugh Heffner and a school nurse got together and made a plan for your life”

Former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) elaborated, dismissing the “scientists on the Hill” and saying that “folks at places like Planned Parenthood demean you for having values!” He revealed the main force behind these programs by saying that instead of asking God to bless America, “America should bless God”. Because God hates condoms, I presume.

Several spoke about the deeply traumatic experience of being taught in high school health class how to put a banana on a condom (horrors!), and comprehensive sex education was derided sarcastically for teaching that “sexuality is a natural part of life”.

However much faith that these folks have in their superior “values”, they at least were bright enough to know that stressing the “results” of their programs was now a total loser. That’s why everyone made sure to shift their talking points away from it, repeatedly saying that their programs are not just about telling young people not to have sex. No, instead they were now “holistic”. They were really about telling kids not to smoke, drink, do drugs or fight. So what if their programs don’t decrease teen births or STI rates, at least they’re telling kids not to do heroin, right? What, you want to take away our funding and turn the kids into junkies?

The “holistic” spin is of course laughable, but that didn’t stop them from trying to frame ab-only as the truly “comprehensive” sex ed. Kisa Smith of the Heritage Foundation claimed that comprehensive sex ed “treat kids like animals” and assumes that “they can’t think for themselves”. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) claimed that the ab-only movement is “fighting for young people’s rights.”

This is, of course, Orwellian rhetoric. It is the abstinence-only movement that insults the intelligence of young people, claiming that they can’t have all of the information they need about safe sex, because they’ll all go have wild crazy sex if they have it. It is the abstinence-only movement that is continually trying to deny young people the right to all of the information they need to protect themselves. In reality, kids are smart enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, and if you respect them enough to give all the information they need, they’ll be much better off.

Following their next round of Congressional visits, they held a concert of sorts in front of the Russell Senate Building, full of raps and Christian rock songs about abstinence (including one speaker claiming that if a girl is not a virgin, she doesn’t deserve to have a nice engagement ring). As I was enjoying the concert, National Abstinence Education Association president Valerie Huber saw me and made a bee line to me. She recognized my face and wanted to tell me that my blogs are not “fair”.

I wasn’t going to mention it, but since she’s throwing darts about “fairness”, I feel obliged to mention that this is the same Valerie Huber who was suspended from her position as a supervisor of Ohio’s Department of Health abstinence-only program after being found guilty of ethics violations. She attempted to secure a state contract for a company that she was involved in, and was caught red-handed. So I won’t take any lectures from her about “fairness”, as I consider exposing the failures of the abstinence-only movement as totally “fair” to the taxpayers that have been subsidizing programs like hers’ over the past decade.

Wednesday, the progressive blogosphere and youth sexual health advocates stepped up to the plate and answered our call to flood Congress with thousands of letters, countering the abstinence-only lobbyists. It couldn’t hurt to end their work week with some more, so if you haven’t yet, please send your Congressperson this letter asking them to, at long last, defund these ineffective and harmful abstinence-only programs. We have them scared and on the ropes, so let’s not miss out on this great opportunity.

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