Art Imitating Life—Parks and Recreation Takes on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policies

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Commentary Sexual Health

Art Imitating Life—Parks and Recreation Takes on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policies

Martha Kempner

Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation took on the ridiculousness of abstinence-only-until-marriage policies. Between jokes about old people having sex and mushy bananas, the episode provided some good information and made important points about the sex education debate.

For a while it must have looked like all I ever did was watch TV. I was frequently discussing the most recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, or Teen Mom, or bemoaning TLC’s latest melodramatic “reality” show about 50-year-old pregnant virgins who are addicted to hoarding sex toys (or whatever). But it’s been awhile since I’ve praised the good portrayal of the abortion debate or ranted about the ridiculous exploitations of people’s sexuality. In truth, I started to feel like watching this kind of TV was too much like work and I went on hiatus. 

Then last week Parks and Recreation, a show that has made me laugh on the few occasions I’ve seen it, took on sexuality education and I had to watch. I’m glad I did. Amy Poehler is just funny and the writers did a good job researching the issue and putting real world information into a farce about the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. 

Though it might not have been ripped from the headlines in the same way that Law and Order: SVU’s 50 Shades of Grey episode was, it did mirror some actual controversies and shed light on real issues. 

Here’s what we learned from this mockumentary-style sitcom last week:

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Old People Have Sex:  The episode starts with Amy Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope, announcing to her staff: “Good news people, old people have Chlamydia.”  Apparently, the elderly community in Pawnee is hopped up on ED drugs and desperately in need of some safe sex information. 

They’re not alone; more than 60 percent of adults over 60 have sex at least once a month and they are getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6,700 people ages 45 to 65 were diagnosed with Chlamydia in 2000 and that number had jumped to 19,000 by 2010. Similarly, syphilis in this age group rose from 900 cases in 2000 to over 2,500 in 2010. And the number of new HIV infections in people over 50 doubled between 2000 and 2009.   

Older adults are at increased risk for STDs for a number of reasons. Physiologically, post-menopausal women often have vaginal dryness which can lead to small vaginal tears during intercourse thereby increasing their risk of contracting certain STDs, including HIV. In addition, the immune system is less effective as we age which can also increase the risk of contracting an STD. But much of the risk is behavioral.  Many older people find themselves single – due to death or divorce – for the first time in many decades and though they enter into sexual relationships they are unlikely to consider themselves at risk for STDs and unlikely to use condoms.     

While pointing out an important and overlooked topic, the writers and actors of Parks and Recreation also had a lot of fun with the safe sex lecture for seniors. When Leslie asked the room full of octogenarians what they were risking by having sex the answers included: “a heart attack,” and “your partner dying on top of you.”  And when she took out the requisite banana and condom, one old man asked what to do if the banana was “soft and mushy and leaning a bit to the left.”

Safer-Sex Presentations Violate the Policies of Some States and School Districts:  Leslie’s condom demonstration was interrupted by city employee Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) and the leaders of the local Society for Family Stability Foundation who inform her that the city has an abstinence-only-until-marriage mandate and she has to stop her presentation immediately.

Though it’s doubtful that any real-world community has an abstinence-only mandate that would be wide-reaching enough to shut down a presentation to senior citizens, such mandates frequently silence those who teach high school seniors (and all other grades as well). 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided with 16 states requiring that abstinence be stressed and 11 saying schools should cover it; 19 states require that information on importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage be provided; and 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy.  

Under many of these laws, Leslie’s condom and banana would be specifically banned. In Mississippi, for example, the law states that education: “shall not include instruction and demonstrations on the application and use of condoms.”

It’s important to remember that school districts often adopt their own policies about how they will approach sex education (though they can’t go against state law) and choose their own curricula. Districts also make their own decisions about condom demonstrations.

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Materials Are Often Ridiculous: One of the best gags of the episode was the abstinence-only-until-marriage booklet on which Leslie was supposed to base her revised lecture: So You Think You Know More than God included a chapter entitled “There’s a Party In Your Pants and Nobody is Invited.” Reading from the pamphlet, Leslie tells seniors: “Our bodies are god’s gift but they’re also the devil’s playground. The devil likes to hide in all your private nooks and crannies and if you open to wide he might get out or in.”

Once upon a time, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula were this blatantly religious. The first draft of Sex Respect, for example, suggested teens take Jesus Christ on a date with them as “protection.”  Today’s programs —with names like Why kNOw, WAIT (Why Am I Tempted) Training, Passion & Principals, and HIS (Healthy Images of Sexuality)—are slightly more subtle but no less ridiculous:


  • “Getting involved in a physical relationship with someone can be like the pot of boiling water. First, you start kissing and then hands start roaming and then, oops! Sex just kind of happens!” (Worth the Wait, Section 2-26)
  • “Before Alan and Susie knew what had happened, they had sexual intercourse, because there was nothing left to satisfy their desires. Soon their relationship grew bitter, and they broke up, each feeling used, insufficient, and empty.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 35)

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Don’t Work: Leslie’s employee, Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones) makes several impassioned pleas against abstinence-only programs.  She says: “Objective studies have shown that abstinence only education doesn’t work people still have sex they don’t know how to use protection so the disease keeps spreading. We need to give people practical knowledge.” Later she points out that states with abstinence-only polices have higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. 

A federally funded evaluation of the “best” abstinence-only programs that received government money found that young people who received the program were no more likely than those in the control group to have abstained from sex and that they had similar number of partners and initiated sex at similar ages. Advocates for Youth notes that 11 states evaluated the impact of their abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and not a single one was shown to reduce teen sexual activity. And 80 percent of teens who pledged virginity (often as part of an abstinence-only program) became sexually active before they got married. 

Moreover, research found that an increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. As always correlations does not necessarily mean causation but it does mean that Pawnee’s Ann was right.

Some Communities Fight Abstinence-Only Restrictions: While it’s doubtful that Parks and Recreation will revisit the issue of sex education, the episode ends with Leslie on a local television show calling the policy antiquated and insane and vowing to change it.  The good news is that there are communities in which this does actually happen. 

According to SIECUS, Midland, Texas, the childhood home of former-President George W. Bush, was one of the districts that recently had this kind of epiphany. Though many of those involved with public schools had believed abstinence-only-until-marriage education was the way to go, a rise in pregnancy rates convinced them that it was time to change their approach. In 2011, the school district adopted an evidence-based program, It’s Your Game – Keep It Real, that provided more information to student in the seventh and eighth grade.  

That same year, the board of education of Oswego Community Unit School District in Illinois also considered abandoning abstinence-only-until-marriage education in favor of a program that would emphasize abstinence as the most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but would also add lessons on contraception (which had been banned until that point).

Sex Educators Get Called Names: At the end of the episode, Leslie Knopes holds up a local newspaper that takes on her support for sex education by calling her Loosley Grope. Funny but kind of sad because many sex educators I know have actually been called names just for their support of teaching accurate information to teens.  Heck, I was once called a tramp on national radio for suggesting that teens deserve comprehensive sex education.

In fact, there was only one place where I think the writers didn’t quite get it right. Apparently, 85 percent of Pawnee residents approve of the strict abstinence-only approach (and the other 15 percent are perverts).  Granted, Pawnee is fictional and I don’t know much about its politics (or perversions) but the good news is that most real polls show overwhelming support for comprehensive sex education across the country and across the political spectrum.  One study, for example, found that 95 percent of parents of junior high school students and 93 percent of parents of high school students believe that birth control and other methods of preventing pregnancy are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.

So, outside of Pawnee at least, Leslie Knopes would get a lot of support, that is if she wasn’t a fictional character.