Texas Has a Major, Major Sex-Ed Problem

"If you didn't know better, you'd think there was a concerted effort going on in Texas to increase the number of children being born to teen parents," writes Gail Collins in an excerpt from her new book, As Texas Goes…, featured on The Daily Beast. Although conservative Texan politicians love to crow about the right to bear arms and shun taxes, their fervent love for freedom does not translate to teen sex. The state refuses to accept federal funding for sex-ed programs that aren't abstinence-only, because its "first choice is that teens chose not to have sex," according to a spokeswoman for State Health Services. But in this case, "first choice" means "only choice," and the choice comes with tragic statewide — and nationwide — repercussions.

Collins' research on Texas's abstinence sex education problems is fascinating like a train wreck: no matter how many statistics you've read about teen pregnancy and anecdotes you've heard about horrible sex-ed tactics, there's probably something in here that will make your jaw drop. Some choice details: most Texas districts get their sex-education materials from private vendor programs with names like "Worth the Wait" and materials that illustrate incorrect condom failure rates by making students pass around leaky balloons (the student left holding the deflated balloon at the end of the session might be told that "if he had been the one to get a leaky condom it could have meant he was at high risk or even death") and encouraging teachers to construct an 18-foot-long model called "Speedy the Sperm." (I couldn't bring myself to Google that.)

Many Texas textbooks are too pearl-clutchy to even use the world "condom." The most popular one, Health (how specific!) says that "barrier protection is not 100 percent effective in preventing the transmission of STDs" — does that sentence remind you more of the flora and fauna of the Great Barrier Reef than contraceptives, or is that just me? Another one lists "8 Steps to Protect Yourself from STDs," which includes "get plenty of rest" but not "use a condom." Hold on, I have to go bang my head against a wall (which could plausibly be the ninth step on that list).

It gets worse. A video used in three districts shows a boy asking an evangelical educator what will happen if he has premarital sex. "Well, I guess you'll have to be prepared to die," is the response. TOO BAD FOR YOU. Wait, it gets even worse! There's an abstinence-only program that assures students that "if a woman is dry, the sperm will die": basically, non-sluts don't get pregnant! Problem solved.

So, as non-crazy person might expect, all this isn't working out so well:

Slightly more than half of 9th- to 12th-graders reported having had sex in 2009-higher than the national figure of 46 percent. By the time they're seniors, 69 percent of Texas students are sexually active, and they indulge in risky behavior like sex with a large number of partners at rates higher than the national average.

The state has the third highest rate of teenage births in the country, and the second highest rate of repeat births to teenage girls. Sixty-three out of every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years old becomes a mother. That compares to 5 out of 1,000 in the Netherlands, and 42 in the United States as a whole. Texas is also well ahead of Rwanda (44), Micronesia (51), and Egypt (50).

There are federal repercussions that go beyond the obvious argument that Medicaid is a federal program, so the state shouldn't get the last word on how to use its funding: eventually, more than a tenth of the national workforce will be Texas-born. So what should Texas do? Collins says the state could follow California's example: the Golden State used to have similar issues, until it stopped accepting money for abstinence-only programs and required all of its schools to teach HIV/AIDS prevention. Texas could also ease up on its harsh teen birth control restrictions: even if a teenage girl has already given birth, she's barred from accessing state-funded contraception services without a parent's consent. Unfortunately, given the current state of things, it seems unlikely that Texan politicians will start making rational decisions anytime soon.


Gail Collins on Texas's Abstinence Sex Education Problems
[Daily Beast]
Image via Aliaksei Lasevich /Shutterstock.