(WOMENSENEWS)--Avra Feinberg was flummoxed.
When this 16-year-old junior took sex education at her public high school in McLean, Va., her teacher was only allowed to read from the textbook and students were not allowed to ask questions.
"They told us abstinence was the only effective form of birth control and that other methods would fail," says Feinberg, whose last name has been changed to protect her privacy. "But with so many of us already having sex, that message wasn't very helpful. If our sex-ed classes don't give us complete information, what are we supposed to do?"
Feinberg's question is one being posed by health advocates concerned about the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education programs, which have received $1 billion in federal funding since 1982 and are now being taught in an estimated one-third of U.S. middle and high schools.
Most recently, the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) added to the concerns being raised about these programs when last month it released "State Profiles: A Portrait of Sexuality Education and Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in the States," which shows a growing number of states are boosting funding for these health courses.
In March, the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union petitioned a federal court to stop the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence from featuring religious material on its official Web site, AbstinenceEdu.com.
Also last month, a study released by Columbia University in New York showed teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are less likely to use condoms than their non-pledging peers, but six times more likely to engage in oral sex and four times more likely to practice anal sex.
"These developments are disturbing because they show we are neglecting American teens who are in dire need of better sex education," says Deb Hauser, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth. "Young people in America have the highest pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, with 1 in 25 teen girls giving birth. They also have one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, with teens accounting for 25 percent of new STD cases in the U.S."
The SEICUS study also warns of the consequences of programs like those in South Carolina, where contraception may only be discussed in the context of marriage; where adoption can be discussed, but not abortion and where homosexuality may not be discussed "except in the context of instructions concerning sexually transmitted diseases."
The report touches on a growing concern among health advocates: fear that abstinence-only sex ed, with its emphasis on sexual shame, conventional values and female culpability, may be doing a disservice to American girls.
"These programs set up a clear dichotomy of 'good girls do and bad girls don't,'" says Martha Kempner, director of public information for SIECUS. "They tell girls that if they have sexual desire, they are not only abnormal, but bad."
Sex Ed in Public Eye
Released in late March, the SIECUS report comes on the heels of mounting concerns about abstinence-only sex education.
In early December, a congressional report ordered by Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, found that 11 out of 13 popular abstinence-only sex ed programs contain false or misleading information, teaching teens that, for example, one can contract HIV through saliva, that touching someone's genitals can lead to pregnancy and that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide.
In mid-December, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that one-third of all U.S. teens have not learned about contraception in school.
In January, NBC aired a poll showing that 30 percent of teens between 13 and 16 are already sexually active.
In February, a coalition of 210 health organizations demanded that Congress implement formal review of taxpayer-funded abstinence-only sex education programs.
Misleading Health Info Mixed with Agenda
Critics say that abstinence-program teachers are only allowed to talk about birth control in terms of failure rates. They can say condoms have a 3 percent failure rate; but not that they are 97 percent effective at preventing pregnancy if used correctly.
Health educators are concerned not only about how abstinence-only programs are affecting teen behavior, but about the conservative values these programs promote.
With names like Education Now, Babies Later and Managing Pressures before Marriage, abstinence-only health courses assume marriage and child-rearing are the right choices for all students and disregard the 10 percent of students who are gay or lesbian.
Health advocates say abstinence-only programs also peddle fear.
In a Nevada TV spot cited in the SIECUS report, for instance, a young woman claims sexually active women are three times more likely than virgins to attempt suicide and says some of her friends "have had sex, lost their boyfriends and been left feeling dirty and cheap."
Call for Comprehensive Sex Ed
Advocates are also challenging the accuracy of abstinence-only sex ed curriculums, which have been in U.S. schools for nearly a decade.
"There's no scientific evidence that abstinence-only sex ed actually works," says Bill Albert, a spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, based in Washington, D.C. "Federal funding is flying out the door without any analysis of these programs' effectiveness."
Since President Bush took office in January 2001, federal funding for abstinence-only initiatives has more than doubled. Though the government will funnel $170 million into these programs in 2005, the kind of comprehensive sex-ed that was popular in the 1990s (which includes complete information about safe sex, condom use and birth control) will receive no dedicated funding.
That's a trend many health advocates lament.
"Comprehensive sex-ed is backed by 30 years of research proving it works," says Deb Hauser of Advocates for Youth. "This approach delays the onset of sexual activity and increases contraception use. While abstinence is an admirable goal, it's unrealistic to think that young people will wait. We need to respect teens by empowering them instead of treating them like hormonal accidents that are just waiting to happen."
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
For more information:
"A Portrait of Sexuality Education and Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in the States":
Advocates for Youth--
"Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact":