Abstinence-only education fails African American youth.

Author:Kuehnel, Sarah Smith


Studies consistently reveal that approximately half of all adolescents engage in sexual intercourse before graduating high school, (1) and many legal scholars have analyzed the correlation between youths' sexual activity and abstinence-only sex education. (2) Studies also consistently reveal that the percentage of Black American (3) adolescents engaging in sexual intercourse substantially exceeds that of their White American (4) counterparts, (5) but few legal scholars have analyzed the relationship between Black youths' sexual activity and abstinence-only sex education. (6) Legal scholars have addressed the dangers that abstinence-only programs cause for gay and lesbian youth, (7) and for girls, (8) but have all but failed to address the social ramifications such programs have on racial minorities. (9) Several scholars argue that the right to information (10) or freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment (11) precludes federal endorsement of abstinence-only sex education. Others base legal justification for comprehensive sex education, as opposed to abstinence-only education, in international human rights law. (12)

The dearth of legal analysis of the impact of abstinence-only education on African American youth is surprising considering the groups' rates of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), (13) including HIV/AIDS. Part I of this Note discusses the rates of STDs and pregnancy among Black youth. Part II discusses the historical and current frameworks of federal funding for abstinence-only education. Part II also addresses the increasingly strict prohibitions on the type of information teachers can disseminate in federally funded programs. Part III compares abstinence-only education programs with comprehensive sex education programs and shows that, although funding has increased for such programs, beneficial results from the implemented abstinence-only programs have not increased with increased funding.

Finally, in Part IV, this Note proposes a right to comprehensive sex education, (14) based upon the Supreme Court's reasoning in Plyler v. Doe. (15) Comprehensive sex education would alleviate the consequences youth, especially African American youth, (16) suffer as a result of inadequate information on sex, a problem currently compounded by abstinence-only education.


    Black Americans and White Americans perceive and experience the consequences of sex differently. Black culture generally attaches less stigma to early sexual debut and teen pregnancy than White culture. (17) Blacks, though, suffer harsh consequences for their earlier sexual initiation, as they are disproportionately affected by STDs, including HIV/AIDS, (18) and have higher rates of adolescent pregnancy than Whites. (19) Part LA discusses the relative ages that Blacks and Whites initiate sexual intercourse and posits possible explanations for the difference between the two cultural groups. Part LB analyzes rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, among Black and White youth, while Part LC evaluates the prevalence of pregnancy among Black and White teens.

    1. Sexual Activity and Values Among Black Adolescents

      Black adolescents' higher rates of sexual activity coupled with evidence of their fundamentally different attitudes towards sex relative to White adolescents suggest that abstinence-only sex education is bound to be ineffective among Black youth. Studies consistently find that Black adolescents initiate sexual activity significantly earlier in life than White adolescents. (20) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, while over six percent of all students engaged in sexual intercourse before the age of thirteen, nearly twenty-seven percent of Black males had done so by that age. (21) The CDC also found that Black students in grades nine through twelve were more likely to have had sex with four or more partners and to be currently sexually active than White students in the same grades. (22) Findings suggest that African Americans' attitudes toward sex partially contribute to their increased sexual activity. (23) A number of studies and statistics demonstrate that Blacks exhibit a more accepting attitude towards engaging in sex at a young age and outside of marriage. (24) As a group, Blacks, as compared to Whites, were more accepting of pregnancy, (25) which, at the very least, demonstrates being more accommodating to the consequences of sex but also arguably implicates a more accepting attitude towards sex as well. Studies also find that African American youth are less likely to have sex after substance abuse than Caucasian youth, (26) implicating a more accepting attitude towards sex because Black students, more frequently than White students, engaged in sexual intercourse free of inhibition-lowering substances. White adolescents "were more likely to report that having sex" was "against their religion or morals" than Black adolescents, (27) suggesting that sexually active African American youth do not have the same psychological restrictions as their Caucasian peers, which allows Black youth a more open perspective on sex. Consistent with the idea that Black culture views sexual intercourse as not inconsistent with religion or morals, Black youth are also more likely to report having had four or more partners (28) and being currently sexually active. (29) And, at least for black male youth, sex is often perceived positively. One study found that Black boys in grades seven through twelve perceived both greater benefits and less shame from having sex than White boys. (30) The combination of experiencing less shame and greater benefits displays Black male youth's acceptance of sex. Black youth's views of sexuality demonstrate that abstinence-only education is particularly ill-suited to provide adequate sex education for their demographic.

    2. HIV/AIDS and Other STDs Among Black Adolescents

      Abstinence-only education is also ill-suited to address the rates of sexually transmitted diseases among Black youth. Black Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and other STDs. Blacks, who comprise approximately thirteen percent of the United States' population, account for forty-nine percent of new HIV/AIDS cases (31) and forty-two percent of all cases "[s]ince the beginning of the epidemic." (32) More alarming, young people under the age of twenty-five represent one-half of all new HIV infections in the United States. (33) Of those aged thirteen to twenty-four, fifty-five percent of cases occur among African Americans. (34) The figure increases to sixty-six percent when considering cases among thirteen to nineteen year olds, and to seventy-one percent for those infected with HIV before the age of thirteen. (35) Compounding the problem, Black students are less likely to receive school instruction on HIV/AIDS (36) and birth control (37) than White students. One study found that Black males were less likely than others to receive instruction on birth control. (38) Another study discovered that approximately one-third of Americans generally reported "no formal instruction on contraceptive methods before" turning eighteen, but that forty-five percent of Black males reported no instruction before age eighteen. (39) This information is particularly alarming considering that a smaller proportion of Blacks remain alive after nine years of contracting HIV compared with other races. (40) Thus, the group most severely affected by HIV/AIDS, both in acquisition of the disease and in resulting lifespan, is the least likely to receive adequate instruction on how to avoid contracting the disease. Moreover, Black youth significantly underestimate their vulnerability to contracting HIV and other STDs, (41) suggesting that accurate information about the risk is crucial to remaining healthy. Though it is possible to argue that students in abstinence-only programs receive education on how to avoid contracting diseases when they receive instruction to refrain from sex, this message is both inadequate and ineffective because of Black youth's more accepting attitude towards sex and because the higher rates of HIV among Black youth prove that the message of abstinence-only is either not getting through or being ignored.

      Along with the increased risk for HIV/AIDS, Black Americans are infected with chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea at shockingly higher rates than White Americans. (42) Black youth, because of their earlier initiation into sexual intercourse, are at increased risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs). (43) In 2005, forty-one percent of all chlamydia and syphilis cases, and sixty-eight percent of gonorrhea cases, occurred among Blacks, with the highest concentrations among fifteen to twenty-four-year-olds. (44) Fifteen--to nineteen-year-old Black females were fourteen times as likely as White females of similar age to have gonorrhea in both 2005 (45) and 2006, (46) while Black males of the same age group were thirty-six times more likely than comparable White males in 2005 (47) and thirty-nine times more likely in 2006. (48) Furthermore, since 2004, syphilis rates among fifteen--to nineteen-year-old Black males have increased dramatically. (49) The prevalence of STDs among Black youth indicates current prevention efforts are inadequate.

    3. Pregnancy Among Black Adolescents

      The United States has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the Western worlds. (50) Despite recent progress and sharp decreases in the number of teen pregnancies, (51) teens in the United States are the most likely both not to use any method and to use less effective methods of birth control than their peers in other developed countries. (52) Scholars contend that this accounts for the large disparity among teen pregnancy rates in the United States and other developed countries. (53) Among those under the...

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