In light of this report from the CDC that almost a quarter of new HIV cases are people under 24 and over half of them don’t know they’re infected, a couple of things:
1. Federally funded abstinence-only programs began with, shocker, the Reagan Administration. Clinton actually spiked funding toward the end of his second term, increasing funding tenfold from 1997 (when it was $9 million) to 1998 (when it was suddenly $96.5 million). G.W. Bush continued to increase funding for abstinence-only programs to the tune of tens of millions of dollars for every year he was in office. “Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress funneled a total of over one-and-a-half billion tax-payer dollars into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.” In W’s last year in office, the federal government funded abstinence education to the tune of $176 million dollars.
2. President Obama cut all federal funding for abstinence-only education, but then revived it again as part of Obamacare. So from 2010-2014, we’re funding $50 million dollars’ worth of abstinence-only programs with federal tax dollars (and yes, all $50 million was used in 2010 and 2011).
3. People in the US currently impacted by this gap in sexual health education range roughly from ages 13-34 (assuming you get sex ed sometime between grades 6 and 12). People who got the full brunt of abstinence-only education range in ages 13-29.
4. Dismaying, upsetting, but not at all shocking that that age group is such a high percentage of new HIV cases, and that they don’t even know they’ve got it.
When I was in seventh grade (1993), our science teacher asked the boys to leave the room. (I think they went off with our Physical Education instructor? I don’t remember. The boys just DISAPPEARED.) There was some awkward giggling. I think our science teacher demonstrated how to properly put on a condom (I feel like I’ve known my whole life to pinch the air out of the tip?). It actually doesn’t stand out all that much for me, because my mom had already bought me many fine books about girl puberty and boy puberty, and I was pretty sure I was never going to want to have sex with anyone, ever, especially not the jerkwads at my school. I already knew I wasn’t supposed to be embarrassed about sex and I knew it wasn’t a big forbidden thing, I just also knew it was not something I was in any ol’ hurry to go have. It wasn’t a big deal.
What I do remember is someone asking how lesbians have sex, which was immediately followed by one of the girls in the class asking, genuinely, “what’s a lesbian?”
I don’t know if our teacher couldn’t answer or if we just thought she would get in big trouble for answering, but one of my classmates, one of those awful girls who picked on me (they all picked on me), looked at the teacher and said, “oh don’t worry, I’ll tell her, she’s just really sheltered.” And then this horrible little puke of a girl said, “A lesbian is a girl who wants to have sex with another girl.” And when the original question-asking girl wrinkled her nose and went, “ew!”, the girl who I was hating less and less every second shrugged and said, “Some girls like having sex with other girls, I guess. It’s not a big deal.”
And That Was The End Of That.
(well, except kids still wrote “dyke” on my locker throughout the rest of middle school, but I think that was more to do with asserting my lack of desirability as a sexual creature, a friend, or a lab partner than with anything against queer people (which I also was and am).)
Anyway, my point is, in the near past it was possible for a child to get access to and retain quite a bit of information about sex and sexuality. Kids are capable of understanding the difference between “grown up problems” and “who am I gonna play four square with at recess” problems. If you treat them like beings capable of thought, they will think and make informed decisions.
And we, as adults, are fucking it up. We have been, we still are, and these kids and young adults are paying the price. Round of applause, everyone.
(photo by Paolo Massa)