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Texas and the Politics of Abstinence-Only Textbooks


by Alexandra S. Dimick & Michael W. Apple - May 02, 2005

The Texas State Board of Education has recently approved health textbooks that teach abstinence-only sexuality education and that define marriage explicitly as only a union between a man and a woman. As one of the largest textbook markets in the country, what Texas decides can and does have an impact well beyond its borders. This is an instance of a much larger movement, one that contests what education is for, what values it is supposed to instill, what and whose knowledge is considered “official,” and what counts as legitimate pedagogy.

The Texas State Board of Education has recently approved health textbooks that teach abstinence-only sexuality education and that define marriage explicitly as only a union between a man and a woman. As one of the largest textbook markets in the country, what Texas decides can and does have an impact well beyond its borders.  This is an instance of a much larger movement, one that contests what education is for, what values it is supposed to instill, what and whose knowledge is considered “official,” and what counts as legitimate pedagogy.  The larger conservative movement has increasingly set the agenda for education at both national and state levels.  Whether we like it or not, many of the issues we currently find in education and in the larger cultural and social arena are defined in large part by the right.  The controversy in Texas over sexuality education needs to be seen in its larger context.  (See Apple, 2001 for more on this.)


It should come as no surprise that conservative religious groups have highlighted teenage sexuality and sexual identity as moral controversies by stating they are important to “Christian values.”  As one of us has shown elsewhere (Apple, 2001), the “authoritarian populists” of the religious right have become increasingly vocal—and powerful—in their attempts to challenge both what they believe are “un-Godly” curricula and secular values in society in general.  Their increasing power, as the Texas case documents, does not mean that their positions can’t be challenged on educational as well as moral grounds.  Educators and the public can contest the religious right’s definition of morality, since teaching abstinence-only sex education and advocating for strictly heterosexual marriage brings up important public concerns about sexuality and health, as well as concerns about ideological imposition.  Since the above issues deal with pressing concerns of life and death, and with questions of individual autonomy and collective responsibility, they are moral issues as well. Not only has research documented that abstinence-only programs seem less than effective in reaching their avowed goals, researchers have shown that more comprehensive sexuality education programs can help to reduce the behavior amongst teenagers that may place them at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or having an unplanned pregnancy (Collins, Alagiri, and Summers, 2002). Indeed, while the effects of abstinence-only curricula are still being researched, there appears to be little credible research evidence that shows abstinence-only teaching leads to known positive effects on the sexual behavior of teenagers.


Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the federal government has been so reluctant to release its longitudinal study of the success or failure of abstinence-only programs? Among some of the social and educational weaknesses of such programs are the following.  Abstinence-only sexuality education teaches that the only way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is to avoid having sex altogether until one gets married. As Wanda Pillow so clearly shows in her book Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother (2004), in so doing the curriculum often employs a fear-laden discourse to achieve its goal. In these programs, sex outside of marriage is characterized as simply dirty and dangerous, as inevitably filled with emotional and physical pain, and as again almost inevitably leading to STIs. Although abstinence-only supporters supposedly fear the graphicness of comprehensive sexuality education, abstinence-only education quite often shows explicit videos and pictures of genitalia covered in sores caused by STIs. Interestingly, unlike other forms of sexuality education, this specific form usually requires no parental notification whatsoever. Furthermore, showing the creative uses of popular culture by the Christian right in a way that is reminiscent of the very popular “Left Behind” series in fantasy novels, the abstinence alternative is made to seem “cool and sexy” with, for example, the online sale of abstinence paraphernalia that promotes a conservative Christian identity that oddly enough also gives youth a counter-cultural identity.  


But this is not all. Abstinence-only curricula use a highly gendered rhetoric, one that tells students the consequences of sex are worse for girls. It seeks to regulate women’s bodies and to reinforce traditional gender roles of heterosexuality and childrearing.  In doing so, such curricula exclude non-patriarchal understandings of the roles of women and men and create dangerous positions on the legitimacy of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning.  Abstinence-only curricula specifically reject and discriminate against these students.


These exclusions are not only dangerous in terms of the real lives of people, but they can have powerful effects on the public framing of the issues surrounding sexuality and education in general.  For instance, the debate over teenage sexuality education is most often framed in terms of public health.  High rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs amongst teenage youth in the United States are presented as the policy problem.  The policy remedy is polarized between comprehensive sex education, which describes both abstinence and contraception methods, and abstinence-only sex education, which excludes contraception.  However, by defining this issue narrowly as a public health crisis, it allows for polarized “crisis” talk to dominate the discussion.  Such discourse hides deeper agendas of the conservative Right’s attempts to regulate and control bodies, particularly women’s bodies.  Further, this discussion does not reflect the larger public’s view of sexuality education. 


A recent poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (2004) suggests that parents overwhelmingly agree that sex education should be taught in schools.  For example, 93 percent of high school parents and 95 percent of middle school parents interviewed believe that birth control and pregnancy prevention methods are appropriate content for their children to learn in schools.  However, only seven percent of respondents thought that sexuality education should not be taught in school, and, of these, only fifteen percent said that if it was taught, only abstinence should be taught.  Thus, once again we see a conservative group within the Texas State Board of Education, representing itself as a “moral majority,” using their power to dictate an agenda that contradicts majority public opinion.  

Since sex education is already a controversial issue in many states, we need to worry about which textbooks are adopted by Texas.  It is the case that what is approved and sold as a textbook in Texas plays a key role in determining what is and is not available throughout the entire nation.  Unless we focus on these “local” battles now, it will be much harder to keep open the space for the teaching of knowledge and values that are not simply limited to those advanced by such conservative groups.


References


Apple, M. W. (2001). Educating the “Right” way: markets, standards, God, and inequality in education. New York: RoutledgeFalmer. 


Pillow, W. S. (2004). Unfit subjects: Educational policy and the teen mother. New York: RoutledgeFalmer. 


Sex education in America: Principals survey. (January, 2004). Washington DC: National Public Radio, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Kennedy School of Government. Retrieved March 20, 2005, from http://www.npr.org/programs/morning


Collins, C., Alagiri, P., and Summers, T. (2002).  Abstinence only vs. comprehensive sex education: What are the arguments? What is the evidence? AIDS Research Institute, UCSF. Retrieved March 2, 2005, from http://ari.ucsf.edu/pdf/abstinence.pdf




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 02, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11855, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:57:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Alexandra Dimick
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    ALEXANDRA SCHINDEL DIMICK is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a former middle school life science teacher. Her research focuses on gender and science in education.
  • Michael Apple
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL W. APPLE is the John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written extensively on the relationship between conservative movements and educational realities. Among his most recent books are Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age and Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.
 
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