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Poking Holes: How Fear-Based, Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Deliberately Undermine Young People’s Confidence in Condoms
 
Condoms are not only a reliable form of birth control; they are the only contraceptive method that provides sexually active couples with protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Nonetheless, fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs go out of their way to try and convince young people that condoms never work. Using exaggerated statistics, misinformation, and fuzzy logic, these curricula suggest that condoms have large holes; will break, slip, and tear more often than not; and provide no protection against some of the most common STDs.
The driving logic appears to assume that if young people have no faith in condom, they will not have sex. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that young people will have sex but simply won’t use condoms thereby increasing their likelihood of unintended pregnancies and STDs. 
 
Exaggerations
  •  “One in 5 times condoms will fail for pregnancy.” (Passion & Principles, Leader's Guide, 10)
  • “Nearly 1 in 3 will contract AIDS from infected partner with 100% condom use.” (Passion & Principles, Leader's Guide, p. 12) 
  •  “…because condoms are made of latex (rubber): condoms can break during intercourse, condoms can slip off after intercourse, condoms are heat and cold sensitive and can weaken and disintegrate…” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 25)
  •  “Out of 100 sexually active women, if a condom is used, 14 of the women will experience an unintended pregnancy during the course of one year.” (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 44
Condoms are a highly reliable method of preventing pregnancy and STDs. In order to make young people believe otherwise, fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula frequently exaggerate statistics about condom failure and blur important distinctions like the difference between method failure (a problem with the condom itself) and user failure (the failure of an individual or couple to use a condom consistently and correctly). When used consistently and correctly condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy and can reduce the risk of transmission of STDs. Exaggerating failure rates does nothing to educate young people.
 
Ignoring the Evidence
  • "Condoms don’t effectively prevent the spread of AIDS.” (Mike Long, Teenagers: Everyone Is NOT Doing It, p. 34)  
  • “[Students] should be told that condoms do not appear to provide any protection from HPV, (which causes 99% of all cervical cancer).” ( WAIT Training, p. 21)
  • Condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of HPV because it is a highly contagious STD which can infect the entire genital region and can be passed by skin to skin contact.” (Navigator, workbook, p.45) 
  • "Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be.” (Pam Stenzel, Sex Still Has a Price Tag)
 
The curricula repeatedly suggest that condoms provide little, if any, protection against STDs, purposely ignoring years of scientific research.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.” The CDC also states that “latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.” [1] And the latest research suggests that consistent use of condoms can greatly reduce HPV infection, as well as resulting health problems such as warts and cervical cancer.[2] Given that 46% of high school students have had sexual intercourse[3] and condoms are the only protection against STD available for sexually active individuals, it is unconscionable that these programs would deliberately undermine young people’s faith in this method of protection.   
 
Fuzzy Logic
  • “Couples who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate of about 15% in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a period of five years, there could be a 50% chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms used as the birth control method.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 18) 
  • “The condom has a 14% failure rate in preventing pregnancy...since the HIV virus is smaller than a sperm and can infect you any day of the month, the failure rate of the condom to prevent AIDS is logically much worse than its failure rate to prevent pregnancy.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 96) 
  • “We know that the failure rate for condoms used to avoid pregnancy is around 10-20 percent over the course of a year. Now consider that a woman can become pregnant only a few days out of each month. People can get HIV any day during a month. You don’t need to be an algebra genius to know that you’re risking your life.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 67)
While these statements may seem like complicated math problems, and students may be willing to accept their suppositions on face value, these claims are neither logical nor accurate.  Condom failure rates are not cumulative; in fact, correct use of condoms can increase as couples become more experienced users. Condoms are regulated by the FDA and do not have holes large enough to let either sperm or viruses through.[4] And, you don’t need to be an algebra genius to know that Sex Respect’s assertion that the likelihood of becoming infected with HIV during condom-protected intercourse is higher than that of becoming pregnant is way off base. For one thing, this statement seems to suggest that it is equally as likely that a teenager’s sexual partner will have HIV as it is that he/she will be fertile. For another, it ignores years of research that has concluded that using a condom for HIV prevention is 10,000 safer than not using a condom.[5] It’s outrageous that an education program would deliberately rely on unsound arguments or the naiveté of its students in an effort to obscure the truth.
 
Fear and Shame
  • “That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot, that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she were not taking that drug.  This girl could end up sterile or dead….Thanks mom.” (Pam Stenzel, Sex Still Has a Price Tag)
  • “Having sex with condoms is like playing with fire.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.75)
  • "Sex is like jumping out of a plane. Married couples have parachutes, but for unmarried couples, using a condom is equivalent to” grasping the corners of a folded blanket and hoping for the best.” Singles would be better off staying in the plane because “if we jump without being married, we’re going to go ‘SPLAT.’” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 98)
In discussions on condoms, as in discussions on most other topics, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula resort to messages designed to instill fear, guilt, and embarrassment in young people. Using analogies about fire and jumping out of airplanes, they suggest yet again that sex is always dangerous and condoms provide no protection. A better analogy might be one of seatbelts—car travel is neither inevitably dangerous nor completely safe but to improve the odds of remaining healthy, we suggest everybody wear a seatbelt if and when they travel in a car. Young people need to know that sex does carry risk, and they need to know that condoms can help reduce that risk. 
 
Impossible Standards
  • Q: “Circle the item(s) that can be totally eliminated through the use of a condom?” “Infertility, isolation, jealousy, poverty, heartbreak, substance abuse, AIDS, pregnancy, cervical cancer, genital herpes, unstable long-term commitments, depression, embarrassment, meaningless wedding, sexual violence, personal disappointment, suicide, feelings of being used, loss of honesty, loneliness, loss of personal goals, distrust of others, pelvic inflammatory disease, loss of reputation, fear of pregnancy, disappointed parents, loss of self-esteem, leaving high school before graduation”
    A: “The correct answer is that none of the things listed can be totally eliminated through the use of a condom, however ALL of them can be eliminated by being abstinent until marriage.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, pg. 19)
  • “Even more widespread than disease are the emotional scarring and deep wounds that come out of broken relationships. No matter how strong a condom is, it won’t protect you from a broken heart.” (Game Plan, p. 36)
  • "There is not a condom in the world that can protect your heart, your reputation, your character and your values." (Pam Stenzel, Sex Still Has a Price Tag)
  •  “Condoms can never protect someone from the emotional problems that can result from multiple sexual partners and premature sexual activity.” (Worth the Wait, Section 6-20.41)
  • “There will never be any form of birth control or protection that will teach faithfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility, and commitment.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 34)
Condoms were never intended to prevent everything from poverty to meaningless weddings; they were intended to prevent pregnancy and STDs and we know from years of scientific research that they do a very good job at that. The endless suggestions that condoms can not protect against a broken heart and, therefore, young should not use them, are both ridiculous and dangerous. Young people may experience emotional pain from a sexual relationship whether or not they used condoms, but if they do not use condoms they are much more likely to also experience an unintended pregnancy or STD. Discouraging sexually active students from using condoms goes against both common sense and public health standards.
 
 
Curricula Referenced:
 Speakers Referenced:
  • Mike Long, Teenagers: Everyone’s NOT Doing it, A Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Curriculum for High School Students, For more information see SIECUS's review of Mike Long at <www.communityactionkit.org/index.cfm>
  • Pam Stenzel, Sex Still Has a Price Tag, A Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Presentation for High School Students, 2006. For more information see SIECUS's review of Pam Stenzel at <www.communityactionkit.org/index.cfm>

     



[1] Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases-Prevention Messages (Atlanta, GA: National Center for HIV, STD & TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), undated document.
[2] Rachel R. Winer, et al, “Condom Use and the Risk of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection in Young Women,” New England Journal of Medicine, 354.25 (June 2006): 2645-2654.
[3] Danice K. Eaton, et. al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2005,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 55.SS-5 (9 June 2006): 1-108, accessed 8 June 2006, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/index.htm>.
[4] Workshop Summary: Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention,  (Washington, DC: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 12-13, 2000, Hyatt Dulles Airport, Herndon, VA, Released 20 July 2001).
[5] Ronald Carey, et al., “Effectiveness of Latex Condoms As a Barrier to Human Immunodeficiency Virus-sized Particles under the Conditions of Simulated Use,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 19.4 (July/August 1992): 230.