Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) sex education and medically inaccurate materials are still the norm in far too many of America’s public schools. According to the reproductive health policy group the Guttmacher Institute, despite evidence indicating that “adolescents who intend to practice abstinence fail to actually do so, and they often fail to use condoms or other forms of contraception when they do have intercourse” and that AOUM is “not effective at preventing pregnancy or STIs, nor do they have a positive impact on age at first sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners or other behavior,” the United States has spent more than $2 billion on AOUM programs in the last 20 years.
Not only does abstinence-only until marriage sex education not reduce pregnancy rates, STI infection rates, nor postpone commencement of sexual activity, it increases teen pregnancy rates and STI infection rates. Abstinence-only until marriage programs are not neutral or benign “options,” they are actively harming young people.
While that funding dramatically decreased during the Obama administration, the Trump administration has expressed interest in including AOUM funding for fiscal year 2018 and beyond.
Determine What is Being Taught
Call the school district and ask who the administrator is that is in charge of their sex education curriculum. Ask to be connected with that person. Ask the administrator if the district teaches their own district sex education or if it is outsourced to an outside organization.
If it is an outside organization, ask what organization teaches the material and developed the curriculum. If it’s not outsourced, ask who wrote the curriculum. They should be able to provide you with that information. If not, that is a red flag. In some states the district doesn’t decide and it is up to each individual school.
Make an Appointment
Ask to set up an appointment with the administrator to view the district’s sex education curriculum. Be persistent and don’t take no for an answer. Keep calling back and go to their office in person, if necessary. Demand—politely—to see the curriculum at the meeting.
If the district uses an abstinence-only program and it is taught by an outside organization, the district may not have a copy and may have difficulty getting it.
Meet with an Administrator
Bring a notebook and a pen, so you can take lots of notes while you are viewing the curriculum. Make copies or take pictures if possible. Look for sources and citations while viewing the curriculum. If there are statements made without any citation, write them down.
Pay close attention to activities. What does the curriculum say about condoms and birth control? Does the curriculum discuss consent? Does it make negative, shaming, judgmental remarks about pre-marital sex?
If the sex education curriculum is an abstinence-only, medically inaccurate, fear-based, and shame-based, voice your concerns and complaints about it to the administrator you are meeting with immediately.
After the meeting, call and voice your concerns about this to the superintendent. Ask to set up an appointment to sit down and speak with him/her. Try to set the meeting a few weeks down the road.
Know the Issue
Once you have a copy of the curriculum, identify the problems with it. Incorporate these problems into your talking points and presentations to potential partners. Familiarize yourself with talking points (Appendix A), facts & figures (Appendix B), and the coalition partners presentation to be able to answer questions.
Identify Coalition Partners
Within your group, identify potential partners to increase the size and strength of the public outcry about this issue. Examples: Local Planned Parenthood chapters; State NARAL group; Other local American Atheists affiliates, FFRF / Americans United / American Humanist Association Chapters; Progressive faith groups (such as Catholics for Choice); Teachers and administrators; Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals; LGBT groups. Think outside the box.
Ask to meet with the leadership of these groups or to attend a meeting. Bring talking points (Appendix A), one-page information sheet (Appendix B), and (if possible) give the slide show presentation available here.
Ask for their support in whatever ways they are able to provide it. Options include:
- Attending school board meetings to discuss this issue
- Letters to the editor in the local newspaper
- Email campaign to all school board members
- Join a social media campaign (Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, etc.)
- EXPOSE __________________ (use the name of an abstinence only group here)
- I DESERVE THE FACTS (your area)
Attend School Board Meetings
Mark your calendar for the school board meetings and tell everyone else who is opposed to the curriculum when and where it is. Plan to attend and speak, and communicate to everyone else the importance of attending and speaking, as well.
Distribute the talking points to speakers and coordinate assigned points for each person. Have some overlap in case not everyone is able to speak. Include young people, faith leaders, teachers, and medical professionals in the speaking. Show the diversity of the support for medically accurate sex education.
Stay until the end of the board meeting and speak to the superintendent and board members about this individually. Be strong and assertive about your opposition to this harmful curriculum. Do the same thing every month at every board meeting, until the curriculum has improved.
Record the speeches you give to the board. If possible, record your one-on-one interactions with school board members and the superintendent. Post the videos to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Use the Media (and Social Media)
Have coalition partners write letters to the editor and op-eds using the suggested templates included in this packet (Appendix D). Think outside the box about who should be the author listed on the letters. For this issue, having a faith leader co-author the letter with a medical professional can send a powerful message about the importance of this issue and diffuse potential framing of “religion vs. science.”
Contact local newspapers and television stations about your plans to attend the school board meeting. Provide them with high quality video, audio, and pictures if they aren’t able to attend themselves. Have group leaders and coalition partners available to discuss this issue on the record with members of the press. Be prepared to do on-camera interviews.
Rehearse the four core talking points and stick to them. Practice with others in the group to get comfortable doing the interview, but don’t plan exactly what you’re going to say. Just remember bullet points.
Tell a personal story about why this issue matters to you (i.e. you have a child in school and want them to learn facts).
Create buzz around this issue by using your group’s social media presence, your coalition partners’ social media presence, and your own social media to boost any article, story, or discussion about this issue.
Do the Work for Them
Use the medically accurate sex education curricula provided by coalition partners like Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, etc. Give them to the school district and tell them how easy it is to instruct students on these issues. Show them that it’s cheaper, more effective, and that the community supports it.
Stay strong. Don’t give up. Keep attending every school board meetings to urge them to change the curriculum. Keep contacting the media with updates about new groups joining your coalition. Educate the public with letter writing campaigns and local press.
These fights can take months or even multiple years, but are winnable and have a measurable effect on the lives of children in your community.
Hold Them Accountable
If the school board leadership does not act on this issue, consider running for school board yourself. Ask people running for school board what their position is on this issue.
Be prepared for this the curriculum to not change overnight. Prepare to ramp up actions over the course of the school year and year over year. Bring more and more groups into your coalition.
If you have students in the school district, work with them to stage protests in school. Print visible and identifiable shirts that protest abstinence only education (suggested designs are available in the full toolkit).
If your students are passionate about this issue, consider organizing a walk-out during an abstinence-only class.
Online Resources and Potential Partners
Planned Parenthood not only offers a variety of comprehensive resources online for advocates, educators, and even students, some local Planned Parenthood chapters will teach medically accurate and comprehensive sex education in your schools. For more information, we strongly urge you to contact your local clinic.
Advocates for Youth
Advocates for Youth champions efforts that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. Advocates believes it can best serve the field by boldly advocating for a more positive and realistic approach to adolescent sexual health. Their website includes resources for advocates to change policies as well as guides for parents and students looking for more information.
The Guttmacher Institute is a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally by producing high quality and independent research and analysis, collaborating with other groups, and addressing emerging issues to promote understanding and shape public debate.
Future of Sex Education
The Future of Sex Education Initiative (FoSE) is a partnership between a number of national advocacy groups that has developed the National Sexuality Education Standards to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the minimum, core content necessary for sexuality education in schools. More information about the NSES is available here: http://www.futureofsexed.org/nationalstandards.html
MTV’s It’s Your (Sex) Life
It’s Your (Sex) Life is MTV’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning public information campaign to support young people in making responsible decisions about their sexual health. The campaign focuses on reducing unintended pregnancy, preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, and open communication with partners and healthcare providers.
SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States)
SIECUS has put together an excellent community action kit that gives step by step instructions about how to get your school district to teach comprehensive sex education instead of abstinence-only until marriage.
ETR (Educational Training and Research Associates)
ETR is a health nonprofit that provides science-based programs and services for youth and families. The link above is a selection tool to find an evidence-based program (EBP) that will be age appropriate and meet the needs of your school district’s sex education programming.