For the Religious Right, It’s All about Shaming

The right in America seems increasingly hostile to science and facts. We see that clearly in debates over issues like climate change and evolution. But it’s also a big problem when it comes to sex education — especially if it involves anything to do with LGBTQ youth. The latest example: an essay from a religious-right author that misinterprets a new report about risky behavior among sexual minority youth.

The conservative website The Federalist published the essay, “CDC Study Says Teen Virgins Are Healthier,” from book author and Focus on the Family staffer Glenn Stanton on Nov. 29. Stanton’s essay points to an August report from the federal Centers for Disease Control suggesting that sexual minority youth “have a higher prevalence of many health-risk behaviors compared with nonsexual minority students.”

Stanton briefly acknowledges, deep into his essay, that the CDC study doesn’t show “sexual activity drive(s) the increase in other negative health behaviors.” But that seems like just a throw-away line because his essay largely argues the opposite — that the study does show engaging in sexual activity leads youth to risky behaviors like violence and tobacco, alcohol and drug use as well as poor diets and lack of exercise.

“The sexual choices and values our young people hold have real-life consequences far beyond sexuality itself. Thus, there are indeed compelling reasons to encourage teens to choose not to be sexually engaged with peers of the opposite or same-sex.”

In addition, Stanton broadly suggests that the study shows: “Virginal students rate significantly and consistently better in nearly all health-related behaviors and measures than their sexually active peers.” On the other hand, he writes: “Teens who have sexual contact with the same or both sexes have remarkably lower percentages of healthy behaviors overall than their heterosexually active peers.”

But that’s not what the CDC report really says. In fact, the report’s writers make clear:

“[T]hese analyses are based on cross-sectional surveys and can only provide an indication of association, not causality.”

The report also points to likely factors behind that possible association (emphasis added below):

“Most sexual minority students cope with the transition from childhood through adolescence to adulthood successfully and become healthy and productive adults. However, some sexual minority students struggle because of the disparities in health-related behaviors documented in this report, particularly violence-related behaviors and alcohol and other drug use, that can be compounded by stigma, discrimination, and homophobia. Because many health-related behaviors initiated during adolescence often extend into adulthood, they can potentially have a life-long negative effect on health outcomes, educational attainment, employment, housing, and overall quality of life.”

So stigma, discrimination and homophobia play a role in a young person’s behavioral choices. And those challenges would still be a problem even if every LGBTQ teen were sexually abstinent. But that’s not something you’ll see religious-righters like Stanton and his colleagues at Focus on the Family acknowledge. That’s because they promote that stigma, discrimination and homophobia.

Stanton is also reinforcing the idea that shaming — including the suggestion that sexual activity makes one impure, dirty and even dangerous — is a good educational strategy. It’s not. That’s especially true when it comes to sexual minorities who are already bombarded with the message that something is “wrong” with them.

In 2004, far-right members of the State Board of Education in Texas insisted that new health textbooks focus on heterosexual couples and ignore healthy same-sex relationships. They wanted middle-school textbooks simply to tell students that “homosexuals, lesbians, and bisexuals as a group are more prone to self-destructive behaviors like depression, illegal drug use, and suicide.” And they wanted textbooks to point out that “Texas law rejects homosexual ‘marriage'” and that “students can therefore maintain that homosexuality and heterosexuality are not moral equivalents, without being charged with ‘hate speech.'” Publishers refused to add those passages to their textbooks, but their texts still ignored LGBT people.

Then a TFN Education Fund study in 2009 found that sex education classes in Texas public schools largely ignored or disparaged same-sex relationships and failed to include health information particularly important to LGBT youth. In some cases, abstinence-only curricula were still teaching students that sexual activity between same-sex people was illegal even though the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down sodomy laws in 2003.

Moreover, elected officials regularly portray LGBT people as immoral and even dangerous (especially if they want to use a public restroom). Lawmakers across the country have pushed bills to promote discrimination against LGBT people. Texas legislators proposed nearly two dozen such bills in 2015, and that number could be higher in 2017.

So when LGBT youth constantly hear messages that they’re immoral, dangerous and even worthless, is it any wonder some might not care about the risks they take with their own health?

Look, TFN supports high school sex education that includes the importance of abstinence (along with information on condoms and other forms of contraception and disease prevention). But the message from the CDC report isn’t that having sex leads young people to kill themselves.

The message is that we have to work harder to understand better the reasons some LGBTQ youth (and youth in general) engage in risky behaviors. And we have to work harder to instill in those young people the knowledge that they are not worthless, that people love and care about them, and that they should love and care about themselves as well.

But again, that’s not the message Stanton and religious-right groups want to hear or promote. That’s why they’re twisting the truth about the findings in the CDC report. For them, it’s all about shaming.

The TFN Education Fund, by the way, is working on a follow-up to our 2009 report on sex education in Texas public schools. We plan to release the results of our new study in early 2017. Stay tuned.