Sex Ed Should Not Promote Only Marriage or Heterosexual Relationships, Advocates Say

By Penny Starr | October 15, 2009 | 8:25 PM EDT

Martha Kempner, vice president for information and communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) uses a rose to show how abstinence-only programs teach children that no one wants a flower with no petals -- a comparison she claimed the curriculum uses to warn them against having pre-marital sex. ( Starr)

( -- A coalition of liberal sex education advocates says the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress will end support for abstinence-only programs that emphasize marriage and heterosexual relationships.
“The appropriations bills this year represent the most profound change in national sex education policy that we have ever had in the history of this country,” said William Smith, vice president for education and training with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), at an event held Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Martha Kempner, vice president for information and communications with SIECUS, said the sex education programs used over the past eight years in America’s middle and high schools had a pro-marriage agenda.
“It’s six years of marriage promotion,” Kempner said. “You’re going on a journey and basically students are told that the only life goal that is acceptable is heterosexual marriage, and there’s one journey to follow to get there and it requires abstinence until you get there.”
Kempner also said that while federally funded abstinence-only programs did “re-brand” to be more “mainstream,” the core message of heterosexual relationships and marriage in the curriculum remained the same.
“They put on a coat of polish, but they didn’t take out the real messages,” Kempner said. “They were still espousing marriage as the only appropriate adult relationship, including inaccurate information … promoting biases against sexual orientation, gender and family structure.”
The event, also sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA), AIDS Action, and the Healthy Teen Network, was entitled “Getting Sex Education Right in America.” But the emphasis was on criticizing two abstinence-based programs, Choosing the Best and Wait Training.
“We continue the strong traditions we’ve had at SIECUS in presenting to you some of the highlights of some of the most obnoxious and harmful abstinence-only until marriage programs being used around the country,” Smith said in introducing the program.
Kempner said those highlights included claims that marriage would “eliminate 100 percent of the risk of contracting HIV sexually.”
“There is certainly truth to the statement,” Kempner said. “If two people enter into a monogamous relationship when they’re uninfected, stay faithful to each other and both of them avoid contracting HIV from other methods, such as infected needles, they will remain HIV free.”

William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS, said at an event on Capitol Hill on Thursday that he believes Congress will appropriate millions of dollars this fiscal year to promote sex education that includes sexual diversity. ( Starr)

“The thing is, the key to this relationship is the life-long monogamy,” she said. “Whether or not these two people are legally married is irrelevant from a public health perspective. But this isn’t about public health. It’s about marriage promotion.”
Kempner also claimed that emphasizing marriage and heterosexual couples is also discriminatory.
“It’s also a message that absolutely and completely ignores gay and lesbian people – students, families, anyone,” Kempner said. “Helping young people develop relationships with people of the opposite sex is its stated purpose. There’s videos, there’s games. Whatever it is, it’s all about heterosexual relationships.”
Virginity pledges, Kempner added, not only don’t keep teens from having sex, but they also unfairly target homosexuals.
“I think we have to remember that the bias is probably the strongest when we ask all the kids in the class to sign a virginity pledge,” Kempner said. “They are going to be asked to stay abstinent until marriage.”
“Asking a gay or lesbian teen to sign this in high school is tantamount to asking them to agreeing to a lifetime without sexual behavior,” she said. “These programs are really made --  I would say they are made -- for a heterosexual classroom, but they are really made for a heterosexual world and obviously that’s inappropriate.”
But Joneen Mackenzie, a nurse and mother of four grown children who started Wait Training when she discovered that good information about sex and healthy relationships was not readily available, said her organization has been criticized for years by groups like SIECUS and Planned Parenthood, even though the message her group sends is based on research that supports abstinence education.
That includes the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and its Guidelines for Effective School Health Education to Prevent the Spread of AIDS, which state the following:

Randall Moody is a lobbyist for the National Education Association, which he said has an 'enlightened policy' that encourages sex education in schools to address 'diversity of sexual orientation' and 'gender identification.' ( Starr)

“School systems should make programs available that will enable and encourage young people who have not engaged in sexual intercourse and who have not used illicit drugs to continue to abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready to establish a mutually monogamous relationship within the context of marriage.”
“All kids should be abstinent, all kids should stay away from drugs and alcohol, and all kids should learn the skills that will lead to a healthy, loving, satisfying life-long relationship,” Mackenzie told
Mackenzie said SIECUS and Planned Parenthood send the message that all sex is good and that all young people need is information. She said studies show children only need information they can understand and that will help them make choices that will lead to forming a healthy and lasting relationship when they are adults.
At Thursday’s event, speakers mentioned abstinence as part of comprehensive sex education, but not a curriculum that included mention of marriage or heterosexual relationships.
Randall Moody, a lobbyist for the NEA, said the organization and its members support sex education that includes “sexual abstinence, birth control, family planning, diversity of sexual orientation, gender identification, parenting skills, STDs, HIV-AIDS, sexual harassment and abuse and problems associated with and resulting from teenage pregnancy.”
“We think this is an enlightened policy and something that our members support as well as the general public,” Moody said.
Efforts to reach Choosing the Best Publishing were unsuccessful, but according to the Web site on the “Setting the Record Straight” page the organization responds to criticism from liberal sex education groups like SIECUS.
A comprehensive explanation of its mission and curriculum are given, including one section rebutting its use of “scare tactics.”
Choosing the Best knows that not every teen will abstain from having sex, just as not every teen who knows the risks of smoking will choose not to smoke. However, the goal of abstinence education is to help teens understand that abstinence is best for their health and future. Abstinence education provides teens with the facts about the negative emotional and physical consequences of pre-marital sex, as well as the benefits of waiting, empowering them to make an informed choice about their sexual behavior.”