Valueless Condoms for a Valueless School District

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District chooses the convenience of condoms over the values of dignity and restraint. 

There are two basic ways to avoid the spread of STD’s among high school students: teach them how to practice restraint or give them condoms.  The Philadelphia School District and Mayor Nutter have chosen to double-down on the latter.  In 22 high schools across the city, condoms are now available in clear dispensers outside the nurse’s office.

“The reality is, many of our teenagers, regardless of what adults think, are engaged in sexual activities,” Mayor Nutter said last week. “Discussion about whether or not they should be sexually active is an appropriate discussion, but if they are, then we need to make sure they’re engaged in safe sexual practices.”

The tragic part of this whole issue is that the discussion about abstaining from sex (practicing restraint) is not happening in Philadelphia public high schools.  In fact, the concept of abstinence has been branded as “religious” by those looking to inject politics into the issue of STDs.  A closer look at the idea of abstinence (or restraint) reveals it is a value or lifestyle philosophy, not a religious principle.  And values, such as approaching sex with dignity and reserving it for the most deserving of partners is something that should be taught in public schools.  Sexual promiscuity comes with consequences, such as HIV and out-of-wedlock births, both of which have a negative impact on education and quality of life.

Kids in public schools should be taught as much.  Distributing condoms is fine, but a lesson on restraint should be part of the package; perhaps there could even be a short Use Only with that Special Person on the condom wrapper.  But again, those looking to inject politics into the issue rail against any notion of abstinence or restraint.  Why?  Because abstinence and restraint are viewed as conservative and are frequently associated with those who support traditional, heterosexual marriage.

Earlier this year President Obama, who drastically cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs in his first term, had a minor change of heart and decided to place Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education Program on the Office of Adolescent Health list of approved groups eligible for government funds.  Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Heritage Keepers had met the criteria, “gone through a transparent, rigorous review process” and had “demonstrated outcomes.”

Progressive liberals heard the news and went berserk.  Accord to an article on Salon:

. . . over a dozen major organizations, including the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign, asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius to explain Heritage Keepers’ inclusion. They said the program “ostracizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth; promotes heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable family structure; withholds life-saving information from sexually active youth; and uses fear-based messages to shame youth who have been sexually active and youth living in ‘nontraditional’ households.”

A visit to Heritage Keepers website paints a more inclusive, holistic, and research-based picture of their sex education program, however:

The Heritage Keepers® Abstinence Education program encourages teens to develop a strong sense of personal identity and worth, set protective boundaries, resist negative peer pressure, determine and protect personal values and goals, and set high standards for themselves. A significant amount of the curriculum focuses on reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), specifically discussing STD symptoms, treatments/cures, and prevention (all with information provided by the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and approved for medical accuracy). Condom efficacy is also explained in relation to each STD.

The most recent publication of the Heritage Keepers® curriculum in 2008 was approved by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, for medical accuracy and sound referencing. Heritage ensures that the curriculum is research-based with over 80 references from widely accepted social science research to support curriculum information. The Heritage Keepers® curricula have long been approved by the National Abstinence Clearinghouse for adherence to federal A-H legislative requirements for abstinence education as set forth in Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act. The Heritage Keepers® program also meets all 66 standards of the CDC-funded SMARTool (Systematic Method for Assessing Risk-avoidance Tool).

Unfortunately, organizations that strive to help young people “develop a strong sense of personal identity and worth, set protective boundaries, resist negative peer pressure, determine and protect personal values and goals, and set high standards” are just too darn conservative for organizations such as the ACLU; regardless of research showing the program helps keep youth free of STDs and unwanted pregnancies, organizations like Heritage are on the wrong side of the political fence.

The Philadelphia School District, as evidenced by the fact that they are pushing condoms while refusing to promote values such as abstinence and restraint, has voiced its position loud and clear.  Who needs conservative restraint when we have the progressive convenience of condoms?

Again, this is unfortunate.  Abstinence and restraint are life skills that transcend politics—rise above race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.  As Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist abbot, published author, and noted scholar on Eastern philosophy wrote in his essay “The Dignity of Restraint”:

What’s good about it? Well, for one thing, if we don’t have any restraint, we don’t have any control over where our lives are going. Anything that comes our way immediately pulls us into its wake. We don’t have any strong sense of priorities, of what’s really worthwhile, of what’s not worthwhile, of the pleasures we’d gain by saying no to other pleasures. How do we rank the pleasures in our lives, the happiness, the sense of well-being that we get in various ways? Actually, there’s a sense of well-being that comes from being totally independent, from not needing other things. If that state of well-being doesn’t have a chance to develop, if we’re constantly giving in to our impulse to do this or take that, we’ll never know what that well-being is.

At the same time, we’ll never know our impulses. When you simply ride with your impulses, you don’t understand their force. They’re like the currents below the surface of a river: only if you try to build a dam across the river will you detect those currents and appreciate how strong they are. So we have to look at what’s important in life, develop a strong sense of priorities, and be willing to say no to the currents that would lead to less worthwhile pleasures. . . .

It’s important that we realize the role that restraint plays in overcoming the problem of suffering and finding true well-being for ourselves. You realize that you’re not giving up anything you really need. You’re a lot better off without it. There’s a part of the mind that resists this truth, and our culture hasn’t been very helpful at all because it encourages that resistance: “Give in to this impulse, give in to that impulse, obey your thirst. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for you spiritually. Watch out, if you repress your desires you’re going to get tied up in psychological knots.” The lessons our culture teaches us—to go out and buy, buy, buy; be greedy, be greedy; give in, give in—are all over the place. And what kind of dignity comes from following those messages? The dignity of a fish gobbling down bait. We’ve got to unlearn those habits, unlearn those messages, if we want to revive words like dignity and restraint, and to reap the rewards that the realities of dignity and restraint have to offer our minds.