Every little dollar is sacred

Ross Douthat, noted abstainer, argues in yesterday's New York Times that despite evidence that abstinence only education is as effective one of its alternatives (comprehensive sex education), which is to say, not effective, the federal government should continue to fund it anyway, because it might be effective.  Besides, people in Alabama don't want to hear about condoms, and people in Berkeley don't want to hear about abstinence.  You see, it's all relative.  No really:

Predictably, the rare initiatives that show impressive results tend to be defined more by their emphasis on building social capital than by their insistence on either chastity or contraception. A 2001 survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that “most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.” The exceptions included an abstinence-oriented program with a strong community-service requirement, and a comprehensive program that essentially provided life coaching as well as sex ed: participants were offered “academic support (e.g., tutoring); employment; self-expression through the arts; sports; and health care.”

None of this renders the abstinence-versus-contraception debate pointless. But we should understand it more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy. Luker describes it, aptly, as a conflict between the “naturalist” and “sacralist” approaches to sex — between parents in Berkeley, say, who don’t want their kids being taught that premarital intercourse is something to feel ashamed about and parents in Alabama who don’t want their kids being lectured about the health benefits of masturbation.

As someone who thinks government money ought to be spent wisely, I find this puzzling.  Douthat argues that while neither approach works unequivocally well at its intended goal, a third one has been shown to be effective (I don't know, by the way, whether any of this is true, my sense is that it isn't, but that's not my point).  Given the option between the three things–two ineffective, one effective, Douthat argues that it doesn't matter, because it's all a matter of community values:

The debate might be less rancorous if the naturalists and sacralists didn’t have to fight it out in Washington. This is the real problem with federal financing for abstinence-based education: It drags the national government into a debate that should remain intensely local.

We federalize the culture wars all the time, of course — from Roe v. Wade to the Defense of Marriage Act. But it’s a polarizing habit, and well worth kicking.

If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy, the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa.

America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.

But as long as they are, it shouldn’t be Washington’s job to choose between them.

How about another school of thought on sexuality: the empiricist.

7 thoughts on “Every little dollar is sacred”

  1. I got from the article the notion of bottom up versus top down experimentation.  If sex education is not working and there is no difference between abstinence or contraceptive promotion (again, as you say a big if) then perhaps local plans catering to local ideals will be better suited to the task.
    Of course, as you point out, this presupposes that the funding should continue at all, or that federal funding should be handed to local municipalities for unregulated programs.  I guess the underlying assumption is that this is a job to be funded and in some way managed by the federal government.  And operating on that assumption to promote a decentralized locally based strategy does seem innately contradictory, though not if one is simply of the opinion that the funding should be federal if not the direction.  It's a lot of hoops to jump through, but the argument doesn't seem automatically contradictory.

  2. John, is Ross guilty of an appeal to ignorance here? Since we can't know for sure which method is an effective sex education, we'll consider them all equally effective?
    I would also challenge his premise here. There are more comprehensive studies done as recent as this year. Why use a 2001 study, when we have 2010 studies available (http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/164/2/152?home). Conclusion of this study: "Conclusion: Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement."
    I think the government should found a more comprehensive study and draw their own conclusions. After that, a clear policy can be made.

        By various maxims, forms, and rules,
        That pass for wisdom in the schools,
        I sought my passions to restrain;
        But all my efforts proved in vain.

                                      — John Newton

  3. I don't think he's actually guilty of that.  He actually notes correctly that one cannot attribute the uptick in the number of teenage pregancies to the Bush admin's insistence on abstinence-only sex ed.  Good for him (that's a pretty low standard, however). 

    That study has gotten a lot of press.  Keep in mind, of course, that it's only one study.  If it has been done correctly, then perhaps other studies will follow to back it up, etc. 

    In this case, Douthat is guilty of dumbassness.  He would be well advised to take a more empirical approach.  Besides, as many have pointed out elsewhere, teen pregnancy may look like a local problem, it's one with definite implications at the federal level. 

  4. I agree. That's why they need more studies.
    For example, (http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2008/09/16/index.html): In contrast (to abstinence-only), many comprehensive sex education programs, which emphasize both abstinence and the use of protection for those who do have sex, were found to have a positive impact and should be replicated more widely. The study concludes that a comprehensive approach to sex education is effective.
    I do think that using old studies should be a fallacy too, especially since there are new studies (like the one above) available.This should be called the-earth-is-flat fallacy. Using old data to make an argument is in my opinion a fallacy, especially when new data is available.

  5. As far as I can tell, the "naturalist" approach is the empiricist approach. The "sacralist" approach is self-defeating, because it refuses to acknowledge it's own ineffectiveness, that abstinence-only education does not reduce unwanted pregnancy.

  6. I agree with pregnancy having Federal ramifications and requiring a program to support, with its aim being a reduction in teen-age pregnancies.  I think the argument for hyper-local control is more about the will of the given localities, something like: if the local community is for abstinence (based on religious or other moral grounds), then perhaps the strength of the collective will supporting no pre-marital sex will be more effective than their trying to apply something they have no heart for.
    In many cases, the regulatory part has its measure in results.  If the community can show some percent reduction, then perhaps that is oversight enough. (Of course, i wonder in communities with a strong religious undercurrent, why would there be a number of teen-age pregnancies consistent with the national average, if such an average has hyper-local application)?

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