a bird and a bottle

More on the Dems and Ab Only

The fabulous Ms. Lindsay Beyerstein has taken a new job as a reporter for In These Times. Her first piece, up today, takes on the Democrats and their recent support for abstinence only funding. What do the Dems have to give up, she wonders, in order to secure the success of some of their other priorities? Here’s a snippet:

Even opponents of abstinence-only education might concede that a few extra million for abstinence education is a small price to pay for easing the passage of a very important domestic spending bill that contains a lot of spending that’s important to Democrats.

Yet, principle is at stake here. Few people realize that the CBAE program promulgates out-and-out quackery and barely disguised religious dogma. These programs don’t just encourage students to remain abstinent as teenagers. By law, they are required to teach “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity,” among many other stipulations. In other words, the program must teach that all sexual activity outside of marriage, even between consenting adults, violates some nebulous “expected standard.”

Go check out the whole thing here.


Wait – Do Elections Have Consequences?

The mantra in the six weeks or so since the Supreme Court handed down its truly awful decision in Gonzaels v. Carhart has been that elections have consequences. After Gonzales, that phrase was used to wag fingers at all of those supposed social liberals who voted for Bush. The phrase has also been used to rub Republicans’ faces in the new Democratic congressional gains.

However it’s been used before, I am feeling today like it’s a bit of a silly phrase, lacking meaning. Why? Because a Democratic Congressman, David Obey of Wisconsin, is pushing for an increase in funding for abstinence only programs. Obey, who is part of the Democratic House leadership and the head of the House Appropriations Committee, is supporting an increase in Community Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) funding by $27 million — up to $150 million. CBAE is one of the many abstinence only programs that has been proven to be both ineffective and filled with lies. And yet, a Democratic leader in the House is throwing bad money after bad money in support of abstinence only programs.

I’m sure this is a political move on Obey’s part to placate some of te more conservative members of his home state. I get that politics is a game. But Obey shouldn’t roll the dice when young people’s lives are on the line.

SIECUS has an action alert. Got tell Pelosi and Obey what you think.

Congress to Call off the Ab-Only Hounds

Abstinence only “education” programs are chock full of misogyny and are totally ineffective. This we know.

Yet the Bush administration has allotted more and more money to them at every turn.

That’s the bad news.

The good news? With the help of the new Democrat-controlled Congress, that might be about to change. Jessica’s got the word that Congressional Democrats are planning to let Title V — the main funding stream for federal abstinence only programs like the one Jill wrote about here quietly die.

How’s that for legislative inactivism?

(also at Feministe).

What happens when there’s no sex ed?

With all the recent bad news about abstinence only programs here in the U.S., one hopes that their popularity is on the decline. Sure, there are still plenty of communities in which v-cards and silver rings are the thing, but there’s at least hope, with so many states refusing abstinence only funding, that its influence will wane.

For those who still doubt the potentially disastrous effects of refusing to educate teenagers about contraception (not to mention preventing the transmission of STDs), we can direct their gaze to China’s big cities to see what one result of such a policy might be. As the NY Times reports today, abortion rates are on the rise in China’s urban centers. Why is this happening? It’s not married women trying to avoid fines for violating the country’s one child policy. It’s young urbane women who, though sexually active, have never been taught about contraception or even the basic mechanics of pregnancy.

Health experts say that many single women lack even a basic understanding about reproductive health and contraception. At the same time, premarital sex, once rare, is now considered common, particularly in urban areas. So as more single women are having sex, despite often knowing little about it, they also are having more abortions.

“There is a blind spot in sex education in China,” said Xu Jin, director of the [women’s health] clinic, which is run by Marie Stopes International, a nonprofit group that provides sexual and reproductive information and services. “We are here to fill the hole in the system.”

Using abortion as a way to fill a knowledge hole is the worst nightmare of the wingnut antis. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the best approach either; better would be to educate women on how to prevent pregnancy if they do have sex. Instead, the U.S. – and it seems China, too – have decided to ignore that need and leave women to figure it out on their own. The result? Higher rates of unintended pregnancy and women who have no idea about how their own bodies work. Case in point:

One afternoon in mid-April, Dr. Deng was between appointments when a black telephone rang on her desk. It was a hotline for single women.

“You have a pregnancy problem?” Dr. Deng asked. “Where are you?”

“Gansu,” the caller answered, naming one of the poorest provinces in western China.

“How old are you?” Dr. Deng continued.


The woman had had sex twice in early March and had taken a morning after pill. Her period had come on March 17. She had not had sex since then but it was late April and her period was late. She was worried. Dr. Deng offered reassurance: no sex, no pregnancy.

Oy. On the whole, knowledge is greater about sex and pregnancy here, even (i think) among communities where abstinence only is the norm because of the ubiquity of sex in pop culture. That said, is this really a level of knowledge and a way of dealing with reproductive health that we want to emulate?

Yeah, I don’t think so either.

Prisons as Tourist Destinations?
May 12, 2007, 2:29 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, is our children learning?, media, news

I love it when the Times avoids real social commentary by sidelining articles in the styles or travel sections. Yesterday, for example, the Times had an article in the Escapes section about prisons. Prisons? In the friday travel section? Well, yes, because it’s not about prisons today, per se, but rather about how prisons of the past have become tourist attractions.

Turns out, prisons around the country are becoming big tourist destinations and, in some places, big business. Alcatraz has, of course, been a big draw for quite some time (and is now owned and operated by the National Park Service). Turns out, the conversion of Alcatraz into a park and museum was the top of a much larger trend. Today, it’s one of many prison parks.

There’s a lot of good that come out of this — particularly, education about life inside a prison and about the errors of the U.S. penological past. But, because these museum/theme park prisons are not often political entities, the lessons that can be learned today are often notably missing. For example, Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison on which the Times article focuses and which was the subject of Dickens’ musings, was built around the idea that rehabilitation could be found only through solitary life. All incarcerated men were in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. Of course, this proved effective not as a rehabilitation tactic but as a way to ensure that people went insane. Today, in Supermax and other maximum security prisons, people often remain in solitary for months if not years on end. Should we really still believe that this is makes penological sense?

Also, there’s a danger to opening prisons up as theme parks. They become Disneyfied (to borrow a term from SF). Take this example from the NYT article:

At the Crime and Punishment Museum in Ashburn, Ga., visitors can eat lunch at the Last Meal Cafe, which has, the museum’s Web site proclaims, “meals to die for.”

Get it? Yeah. Because wolfing down a greasy burger can help a person really understand the American prison system. Or can help some company make a buck. There’s also this:

In just about every prison tour, there seems to be at least one poster child whose bad behavior helps bolster ticket sales, and the more notorious, the better. Al Capone is featured at Eastern State. The Wyoming Territorial Prison Museum in Laramie, Wyo., which gets 20,000 visitors a year, highlights the fact that Butch Cassidy was imprisoned there for stealing horses.

If Al Capone knew he was Pennsylvania’s Mickey Mouse, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

So what’s the takeaway here? To me, it’s the lost opportunity to really re-examine the failings of American criminal justice. As the article notes, some visitors view the prisons like they do a car accident — it’s impossible to look away. But as SF noted in an email to me, that’s the wrong analogy. The better comparison is to a torture museum, which have become popular around Europe. This stronger connection, of course, exposes the fatal flaw: torture is illegal across Europe while the tortures of the U.S. prison system persist.

Taking down Abstinence Only Programs…now with 100% more humor!

Courtesy of very talented cartoonist (and new commenter(!)) Mikhaela Reid, have a laugh at the expense of abstinence only “education” programs (click the image to see it full size):

Reid - ab only

Taking on Abstinence Only “Education”

Seems that last week’s report that abstinence only “education” programs are totally ineffective has emboldened some of ab-only’s opponents.

Earlier this week, Salon’s Broadsheet reported that the ACLU (full disclosure: where I will work this summer), Advocates for Youth, and SIECUS, hot on the heels of last week’s report, have sent a letter to the director of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), warning him that if HHS doesn’t comply with federal law (which the groups claim abstinence only programs violate), they’ll file a lawsuit challenging the Federal abstinence programs. Salon tells us that the case would be based on:

evidence that 1) many federally funded abstinence-only programs are filled with medically inaccurate information about condoms, HIV and other sexual health issues and 2) the programs have not proved to be effective in preventing teens from having sex.

But it’s not only the advocacy groups that are getting on the case now. Even the NYT is getting in on the action, though they did bury their editorial in the little-read Saturday paper. In their Editorial this morning, the paper writes:

Reliance on abstinence-only sex education as the primary tool to reduce teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases — as favored by the Bush administration and conservatives in Congress — looks increasingly foolish and indefensible.

I take issue with the fact that the Times is totally hedging here — these programs are not becoming “increasingly” foolish or indefensible. They always have been, but no one was willing to stick out their neck before this report came out and made support of abstinence only a losing game. I appreciate that the Times is helping make this an issue. But their “eh” language won’t help much.

The truth is, it’s on Congress now to defund these programs. Congress has been complicit in their expansion for too long (the Republican Congress, I might add). Now, led by Democrats and changing the priorities, this Congress needs to use the recent report as support for its decision to defund these programs and mandate real, comprehensive sex ed in all our schools.