Sex-Ed Hearing: Not So Sexy

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It’s hard to believe a hearing on sex could be so dull. This morning, the vaunted Henry Waxman convened a marathon hearing before his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to “assess” the evidence on abstinence-only sex education, on which the federal government has spent more than $1.3 billion in recent years. The program requires states that take the money to refrain from teaching about contraception in school unless it’s to talk about scary STDs and condom failure rates, while encouraging young people to avoid sex until marriage, an expectation that 95 percent of Americans fail to meet.

As oversight hearings go, this one turned out to be a snoozer, in large part because there’s not much news here. About a bazillion studies have all found that not only does abstinence-only education not work to reduce unwed pregnancy or STDs, but that it perpetuates false information about the reliability of the things that do work, disparages gays and lesbians, promotes religion in public schools, and demeans women.

The federal program has produced one major success: giving life to a bunch of loony fringe religious groups that wouldn’t exist but for those federal funds. Many of these groups got their start as “crisis pregnancy centers” that used dubious tactics to dissuade young women from having abortions. But their views were largely left off the panel, a fact that irked Republicans who accused Waxman of stacking the hearing solely with critics. Indiana Rep. Mark Souder complained that Waxman had failed to invite such witnesses as the doctors who treat girls infected with STDs “while using condoms.” He fumed about liberals who are promoting a “radical sexual economy” as part of their attack on abstinence programs, and suggested that teaching kids about birth control and condoms was part of that depraved agenda.

Despite a heavy line of up of public health officials on the schedule, Waxman kicked off the “oversight” hearing with testimony from two of his own colleagues, Rep. Lois Capps, a former school nurse from California who once taught sex ed, and Sen. Sam Brownback, whose only credentials on the issue seemed to be his parenting of five children. (Waxman even swore them in.) Nonetheless, a surprising number of members showed up to pelt questions at the pair, including our own DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who wasted most of her time talking about how nice it was to work with Brownback on some previous marriage issues. (True to form, though, she also razzed Brownback for failing to vote for D.C. statehood.) Souter managed to make Brownback look like a moderate after asking if it would be appropriate to ask 9-year-olds whether such things as masturbation, oral sex and naked cuddling qualified as abstinence, which he claimed was common in traditional sex ed classes. Of course, Capps and Brownback said no.

Despite attempts by Democrats to get Brownback to concede that federal dollars might be better spent, it was clear that Brownback and the other Republicans in the room weren’t going to be swayed by anything resembling science, or even their traditional opposition to federal spending. They stayed on message, which seemed to be that abstinence-only funding ought to continue because regular sex ed doesn’t work either. “The parents of this country want their children to be abstinent,” Brownback insisted.

I confess to hearing the call of the “asparagus festival” going on in the Rayburn building cafeteria and leaving before the meatier part of the hearing began, as it took more than an hour and a half just to finish up with Brownback. The administration witness wasn’t slated to go on until the very end, which was hours away. But it was clear from the get-go that the hearing would change few minds and produce few new pieces of information. (A webcast of the hearing is available here.) Democrats don’t seem ready or able to put an end to the boondoggle on this one, despite the consensus that it is, in fact, an ideologically driven waste of money. Instead, they have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate to provide federal funding for comprehensive sex-ed that would actually give kids something besides a virginity pledge to help them avoid early pregnancy and pernicious diseases.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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