There is no doubt about it; sexual health education is under attack. The Trump administration’s recent attempt to defund Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPPP) grants to sexual health providers across the nation is evidence enough. However, as we celebrate recent legal victories that reinstated the TPPP grants and prepare for challenges ahead, we should reconsider how we frame the value of comprehensive sexuality education and whether pregnancy prevention is actually the best justification for teaching kids about sexuality and reproduction.
What if, instead of touting sexual health education’s effectiveness at preventing adolescent pregnancy, we empowered every middle school child in the nation with knowledge about his/her/their body, sexuality and what it means to give and get consent? Perhaps then we wouldn’t need a movement of the magnitude of #MeToo to condemn the nation’s widespread problem of sexual harassment and assault.
What if every young person knew how to protect his/her/their body from preventable infections that can have life-long consequences? Then maybe our national STD rates wouldn’t be at record highs.
There are many reasons why we should not hang our hats on teen pregnancy prevention. Studies show that adolescent pregnancy is an indicator, rather than a direct cause of the negative economic, educational and health outcomes often attributed to it. For instance, young mothers are not more likely to end up poor. Rather, poor adolescents may be more likely than their wealthier peers to end up pregnant and parenting, but their outcomes remain very similar to their peers who start out poor and do not become parents as teenagers.
Moreover, young parent activists denounce damaging teen pregnancy prevention campaigns and recount the difficulties they’ve experienced as a result of judgmental, denigrating narratives about pregnant and parenting youth and the discriminatory practices those narratives enable.
My research and that of others illustrates that common narratives about teen pregnancy and its consequences have aided policy agendas that withdraw resources from impoverished communities and leave them vulnerable to labor exploitation and deepening poverty. Some activists and researchers even ask us to do away with the framework of teen pregnancy prevention altogether.
At the same time, decades of work have been done to concretize teen pregnancy as a problem in the minds and institutions of this nation. To be sure, appeals to teen pregnancy prevention are often effective in garnering resources for sexual health education.
As SIECUS makes clear in their annual reporting on sexual health education, there is no federal mandate and no federal funding stream specifically devoted to comprehensive sexuality education. Instead, there is a hodge-podge of competitive grant programs that emphasize outcomes — primarily reductions in sexual activity and pregnancy — instead of educational content.
In this climate, sexual health education advocates are forced to make arguments that have the broadest possible appeal (i.e. comprehensive sex education prevents teen pregnancy) and take advantage of whatever resources exist, including TPPP, which truly does increase access to sexual health education for the communities that need it the most.
It cannot be denied — the current political climate is hostile not only to sexual health education but to almost all measures that aim to increase equitable access to reproductive self-determination.
Even teen pregnancy prevention no longer garners the bipartisan support that was typical of the last three to four decades. After all, it was the Trump administration’s claim that the problem of teen pregnancy has been solved that was used to justify the defunding of TPPP.
Those who believe in increasing everyone’s ability to make unencumbered reproductive decisions should seize this moment of crisis. We need to change the way we think and talk about sexual health education and its worth. We should emphasize the value it holds for helping young people ensure their own mental and physical wellbeing, as well as build respect and collective responsibility for the bodily autonomy of their peers.
As advocates for reproductive self-determination, we ought to be wary of any argument that casts doubt on a specific group’s ability to choose whether or not to become a parent. And we should see any agenda that aims to prevent the existence of certain types of pregnancies and family formations as an obstacle to our stated goals.
High-quality comprehensive sexual health education should be a federally funded mandate, but not in the name of categorically devaluing young parents and their families.
Clare Daniel PhD is the author of Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era. She is an American studies scholar and administrative assistant professor at Tulane University’s Newcomb College Institute and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
This article originally appeared in The Hill and can be found on The Hill’s website.