Attacking Sex Ed: Safety and Health Suffers When Politicians Manipulate

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Attacking Sex Ed: Safety and Health Suffers When Politicians Manipulate

Scott Swenson

When politics interferes with legitimate public health debates, children, teens, adults -- and the truth -- suffer most. The most recent dust up over sex ed isn't new, not even for the person who planned it.

Voters have to decide what is more important, good public policy in the best interest of children, or the political manipulations used to distract us from the issues at hand. Now we learn from Laurence Lowe at TNR’s The Plank, that the attack on comprehensive sexuality education in a recent McCain-Palin ad, is an old trick used before by McCain’s campaign chairman Steve Schmidt.

If Karl Rove was Bush’s brain, his protegé Steve Schmidt
is now Sen. John McCain’s.  Schmidt is responsible for the attack on
comprehensive sexuality education launched in an ad attempting to
portray Sen. Barack Obama as culturally out of step for wanting to help
protect kindergartners from pedophile priests, teachers, family members
or others that prey upon children. 

Lowe reveals that this is not
the first time Steve Schmidt used legitimate sexual health concerns for
political advantage.  At the end of his piece Lowe writes, "Even
for a campaign that, under Steve Schmidt’s leadership, has sought to associate
its opponent with Paris Hilton and has recently been playing particularly fast
and loose with the truth, this ad represents a dismal new low."  It’s the early part of Lowe’s piece that deserves your full attention, excerpted below.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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candidate–an Indiana state senator named Joe Zakas–was trailing in the polls
when, one week before election day, Schmidt seized on [Tim] Roemer’s vote for a July
1991 amendment to produce a mailer labeled "Tim Roemer’s Sex Survey."
(One of the 60,000 Indiana
3rd congressional district voters who received the mailer described
it as "two pictures of Roemer, two gays embracing, a cover of the current
Playboy and–between the gays and the Playmate–a cover of the Bible. (Something
bad about his values, I guess.")

That amendment was overwhelmingly
approved in the House, and the questions that Zakas would not say aloud at a
press conference because of their "graphic sexual nature" had to pass
both an ethics review board and a peer review board before they could be
included in what were, after all, health

November 6, 1996 (only available on Nexis, so no link):

Steve Schmidt, campaign
manager for Zakas, said the mailings, though strongly worded, were designed in
part to create "some controversy in the final week" and force Roemer
to engage Zakas directly in a campaign give-and-take.

Schmidt said he never saw a
campaign in which the incumbent refrained as Roemer did from hitting back. He
said the strategy was a risk for Roemer and whether it paid off would remain
uncertain until the votes were tallied.

"We never went after
his personality," Schmidt said. He said all of the attacks were based on
Roemer’s voting record. Roemer contended that the
survey mailing was "for the most part sleazy and highly inaccurate."

forward twelve years. We’re two months out from Election Day, and Schmidt’s
candidate is running neck-and-neck with his opponent. On those two counts (and
too many others to name) the circumstances are quite different.

Yet Schmidt has
just authorized an ad whose brazenly misleading message is strikingly similar
in conception to the sex surveys.


Lowe doesn’t say is that now former Rep. Tim Roemer is "pro-life."
So it appears that when Schmidt and other social conservatives talk
about their "family values", they only apply to partisan Republicans,
not people who are "pro-life" Democrats. Is that a value, or a
political contrivance? Is that consistent to the core, or political

It is important to note that in the campaign against Roemer, Schmidt waited until the last week. Given this is early September, what ugly tricks will he be pulling when there is little time to respond?

There is no doubt that people have differing views on sex education. There should also be no doubt that whichever side of the debate you are on, the reason you care about the issues is because you care about the health of children, teens, and adults.  Most people recognize a need for different approaches to all manner of health at different stages of life.

During eight years of the Bush Administration, a more than one billion dollar tax payer funded industry emerged to promote the narrow fundamentalist Christian view that abstinence-only-until-marriage should be, not only taught in schools, but the moral code for every American, regardless of belief or quantifiable success.

Ab-Only’s failures have been well documented by multiple independent studies and in writing on Rewire. The Bush Administration and social conservatives in Congress continue to fund these programs in spite of the failures, in some respects because the programs employ legions of social conservative activists they can mobilize, and because they line the pockets of political friends — children’s health and safety seems an afterthought. As Micheal Reynolds wrote in The Abstinence Gluttons last year:

Over the past six years George W. Bush’s faith-based Administration and
a conservative Republican Congress transformed the small-time
abstinence-only business into a billion-dollar industry. These
dangerously ineffective sexual health enterprises flourish not because
they spread "family values" but because of generous helpings of the
same pork-heavy gumbo Bush & Co. brought to war-blighted Iraq and
Katrina-hammered New Orleans–a mix of back-scratching cronyism, hefty
partisan campaign donations, high-dollar lobbyists, a revolving door
for political appointees and a lack of concern for results.

One of the chief cooks is a media-shy
63-year-old Catholic multimillionaire, welfare privatizer and
Republican donor named Raymond Ruddy. With close ties to the White
House, federal health officials and Republican power brokers that date
back to W.’s days as Texas governor, Ruddy has leveraged his generous
wallet and insider muscle to push an ultraconservative social agenda,
enrich a preferred network of abstinence-only and antiabortion groups,
boost profits for his company and line the pockets of his cronies–all
with taxpayer dollars.


Regardless of party, choice of candidate, or belief, Americans should be able to have a legitimate debate about issues of protecting children from pedophile predators, which is what the "age appropriate" part of comprehensive sex ed is about, without the lies and distortions used by political hacks to manipulate low information voters.

Using children in this cynical way puts them at risk. Not teaching kids to be aware of self and body creates shame and stigma that follows them as they grow. Policies promoting shame and stigma in older kids, like abstinence-only-until-marriage programs put teens at risk for higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. So not only do the crass political tactics of the far-right endanger children, the actual policies implemented by the Bush Administration do as well.

These failed policies have cost US taxpayers more than one billion dollars only to promote shame and stigma, and profit for political cronies. Children become political pawns.

What suffers is public health and healthy respect for self and body that other civilized countries, who do not have the Puritanical anchor that weighs on American politics, demonstrate with lower teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates.  As the Washington Post found in their 2006 series comparing attitudes toward sex in the US and abroad,

Although prevalent
attitudes on teen sex differ in Western Europe and the United States,
the views of leading researchers and doctors on both sides of the
Atlantic do not. Their opinions lean much closer to the European model.
They tend to agree that the mixed message America sends to teens about
sex — authorities say "don’t" while mass media screams "What are you
waiting for?"– endanger our children.

The outcome? Levels of teen sexual activity look remarkably similar here and abroad, but U.S. rates of teen pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases are among the highest of all industrialized nations, despite recent decreases. Read brief accounts of how Western European and American perspectives compare.


There is a direct link between the tactics that manipulate public opinion and the policies that endanger public health, frighten youth, and prevent discussions of what is the best public policy for health and safety in a pluralistic democracy. Most parents, 82% according to this University of Pennsylvania study, believe we should put health and safety of children first, and thus support comprehensive sexuality education. But they’re more than one billion dollars of tax money has already been wasted, how much more will be?