Abstinence Education Harms LGTBQ+ Youth

Did you know that lesbian, bisexual, and gay teens are just as (if not more) likely to have or father a teen pregnancy than their heterosexual peers? Furthermore, as most major data sources fail to gather data on gender identity, the trans teen pregnancy rate is largely unknown.

Last month was Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. This month, June, is LGBT Pride Month. That makes now the perfect time to discuss queer teen pregnancy and what we can do about it.

We can create a world where every young person feels empowered to make choices for themselves, and where every pregnancy is planned and wanted.

To combat queer teen pregnancy, reduce homophobia, and save taxpayer money, the federal government should redirect the $90 million budget for abstinence education toward LGBTQ+ inclusive comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programs. All too often, sexual health education focuses on heterosexual and cisgender youth. LGBTQ+ people are often only discussed in tandem with HIV/AIDS. As a result, queer youth report that sex ed feels irrelevant to their needs and further stigmatizes them. Worse yet, the federal government spends $90 million annually on sexual health education programs that teach sexual abstinence instead of equipping young people with the tools and resources they need.

This may soon change — but not for the better: President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, while maintaining $85 million dollars for abstinence education programs.

Abstinence education ignores the reality that many teens are sexually active and need medically accurate information to make informed sexual decisions. The average bisexual girl, for example, has had sex before she is 14.5 years old. At that age, you were probably in the 9th grade.

Clearly, teenagers don’t need to hear stigmatizing messages about how virginity defines their worth (as many abstinence education programs preach). They need class time with a trusted adult to discuss sexual decision making (if, when, with whom, and under what circumstance they want to have sex), and how to reduce the risk of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or unintended pregnancy if they decide to be sexually active.

Sex ed programs also need to be LGBTQ+ inclusive because stigma is a major driver of the queer teen pregnancy crisis. Many researchers hypothesize that queer teenagers engage in a process of stigma management to cope with the homophobia they endure. Stigma management is when someone makes choices to reduce their experience of stigmatization. For queer teens who are bullied because of their sexual orientation, this can mean intentionally having sex with people of a different gender or even intentionally getting pregnant to assert heterosexuality to their peers, family, and maybe even themselves. So we cannot combat queer teen pregnancy without being LGBTQ+ inclusive.

Failing to address this teen pregnancy crisis costs taxpayers money. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that teen pregnancy costs taxpayers $9.4 billion annually. Teen pregnancy prevention programs shouldn’t be viewed as an expense to cut to save money — we save more money than we spend when we invest in preventing unintended pregnancy. Even if you do not agree with me that LGBTQ+ inclusivity is the morally correct thing to do, you should support LGBTQ+ inclusive comprehensive sex education because it can save taxpayers money.

How do we address this issue? First, we defend evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs and reallocate the $90 million that federal government spends on abstinence-based sex education toward comprehensive sex education. Then, we ensure that programs in our home states are LGBTQ+ inclusive.

Educators can build inclusive environments that increase students’ perception of social support (a key mediator of teen pregnancy). To ensure sex ed resonates with LGBTQ+ youth, programs should use gender-neutral terms and avoid assuming sexual orientation. By investing in LGBTQ+ inclusive programs that teach young people the skills and provide the information they need to make informed decisions about their sexual behavior, how to advocate for what they want, and how to access tools and resources to reduce their risk of STDs and unintended pregnancy, we can drastically reduce queer teen pregnancy.

Here in Arizona, “No Promo Homo” laws, set forth in ARS §15-716, prohibit teachers from engaging in positive discussions about LGBTQ people. Instead of empowering all students with the information they need to safeguard their health, these laws codify shaming, stigmatizing language that marginalizes LGBTQ youth further. Only seven other states — and Russia — have laws similar to Arizona’s No Promo Homo law.

Join me in advocating for the needs of this vulnerable population. LGBTQ+ youth deserve better, and we can help demand inclusive sex ed that works for queer youth. Call, write, or email your legislators and ask them to demand abstinence education funding be reallocated to inclusive comprehensive sex ed programs. Together, we can create a world where every young person feels respected and empowered to make choices for themselves, and where every pregnancy is planned and wanted.