With National HIV Testing Day arriving on June 27, it's an apt time to rethink a major public policy impediment to the fight against HIV/AIDS: misguided and unscientific sex education in schools.
One troubling aspect of sex education in America is an increasingly apparent trend towards ignoring the importance of issues relating to homosexual activity. A bill currently before the Alabama legislature seeks to bar state spending on educational materials which "recognize or promote" a homosexual lifestyle. The Oklahoma legislature has passed a resolution asking public libraries to restrict children's access to books with homosexual themes. Schools across the country -- even in New York's supposedly liberal Westchester County -- are moving to ban gay student clubs, signaling an alarming trend in educational policy.
The question, according today's New York Times, is "whether classrooms are appropriate venues to explore issues of homosexuality." The answer -- at least from a rational, scientific perspective -- is a resounding yes. In the case of chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS for which no cure exists, public health efforts must focus on reducing the number of new cases in order to control an epidemic. Since the majority of HIV transmissions in the United States occur through sexual contact (and many of these through homosexual contact), effective public health policy must focus on educational programs that seek to minimize risky sexual behaviors. Is government-sanctioned homophobic education really the best that we can do? Out of fear that education about homosexual issues will "promote a homosexual lifestyle," some politicians are missing an important opportunity to save lives. Education can't make our kids gay, but it can help them protect themselves against deadly disease.
Federally funded abstinence-only education is yet another symptom of an unhealthy educational system. Admittedly, abstinence is by far the best way to protect oneself from HIV/AIDS. However, there is evidence that abstinence-only education has little or none of its intended effect. According to a Columbia University study conducted in 2004, 88% of those students who pledged virginity as part of an abstinence program still engaged in premarital sex and were less likely than peers to use contraception or seek STD testing, further evidence that a more realistic approach to education is needed. As it stands, children fed an abstinence-only curriculum receive limited, often inaccurate information about STD prevention. Programs that are designed to promote currently fashionable political and religious agendas -- rather than provide children with the information they need to protect themselves against disease -- do a disservice to everyone. If we are serious about combating HIV, good science and good sense should dictate our public policy on education.
(Information on HIV testing centers is available through the Center For Disease Control at http://www.hivtest.org/ .)
Mara Burney is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.