Three Surgeons General Speak Out Against Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed

joycelyn elders

Joycelyn Elders was the 15th Surgeon General of the United States. 

Three former Surgeons General banded together for a common cause this week: supporting sex education.

In a spot-on editorial for the Washington Post, former Surgeons General Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher, and Richard Carmona said that the government should fund comprehensive sex-ed, instead of pouring money into abstinence-only education. While medically accurate, comprehensive sex-ed has gotten substantially more funding under Obama than it did under previous presidents. However, last month Congress quietly approved a bill that approves $75 million for abstinence-only sex-ed. The funding increase was slipped into a bill about Medicaid reform, so it didn’t get much press. Now, Elders, Satacher, and Carmona are pointing out how absurd the issue is.

They write in their op-ed:

“We call for age-appropriate, medically accurate, evidence-informed and comprehensive school-based sexual health education for young people. Ignorance is nobody’s ally, and education remains this nation’s most powerful tool.”

As they point out, just telling young people to not have sex misses huge issues. Forward-thinking sex educators talk about sex as part of the much bigger picture of identity and decision-making. Whether they want to have sex, and with whom, are questions students should think through while weighing lots of issues—and with all the accurate, relevant information in hand. Programs that treat sex as a single question (“yes or no”) are myopic.  

These Surgeons General have long been promoters of a smarter attitude toward sex. In 1994, Elders resigned from her job as Surgeon General when she acknowledged at a global conference on AIDS that masturbation is a part of human sexuality and that it could be a good idea to promote masturbation as a way to prevent young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Then, fourteen years ago, the Surgeons General office published a report explaining why sex education is important for the nation’s youth. Since then, not much has changed in politics, write the three Surgeons General in their op-ed. “Fourteen years ago, we called for a thoughtful discussion about sexuality, for the recognition that sexuality encompasses more than sexual behavior and is a fundamental part of human life. We were largely ignored.”

a chart shows an increase for evidence-based sex ed funding

Chart by Bethany Ng. 

But what has changed is teen’s sexual behavior. Thanks to the expanding funding for comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed, the birth rate among teenagers has declined more than 50 percent since 1991 and the rate of new HIV infections has leveled off.

That’s good news, but it’s clearly not good enough. The op-ed points out that every hour in this country, 70 teenagers become pregnant1,100 youth acquire an STD and one young person contracts HIV. Sexual assaults on college campuses are rampant and queer and gender non-conforming youth face high rates of harassment. Meanwhile, abstinence-only programs by law, “must withhold lifesaving information about the health benefits of condoms and contraception.”

It’s rare to see powerful people speak up so stridently and honestly on an issue that’s so politically dicey. It’s nice to read some common sense on sex education for once. I hope politicians listen. 

Related Reading: The Surprising History of American Sex-Ed Films.

Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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