Abstinence-only sex education is making a comeback.

The Department of Health and Human Services is shifting away from comprehensive sex education — in which abstinence is only one component of instruction — and toward a model that emphasizes delaying sex.

If you're there thinking, "Wait, what?" You're not the only one.


Jimmy Kimmel, (almost) everyone's favorite late-night comedian, had a lot to say about the issue. Buckle up, folks, it's going to get bumpy.

Kimmel, who's no stranger to calling out controversial issues, found it hypocritical that the Trump administration is asking to earmark $75 million to champion the euphemistically titled "sexual risk avoidance education" considering the latest of the president's many scandals.

So the comic did what he does best, lighting up Trump's plan with his own abstinence-only pamphlet.

The video’s funny, but here’s something a little less hilarious: A focus on abstinence-only education is terrible for teens.

Organizations receiving Sexual Risk Avoidance Education funding, for instance, would have to teach teens about contraception from a theoretical rather than a practical perspective. Huh? Exactly. Instructors will still present the idea that birth control and barrier methods exist somewhere out in the real world, but non-prescription contraception won’t be distributed or even demonstrated.

Basically, we’re going to have a lot of this:

GIF from "Mean Girls."

(Thank god for YouTube, right?)

There's loads of research to back up how much abstinence-only education doesn’t work.

Data shows that abstinence-only education doesn’t actually decrease pregnancy rates among teens. It does the opposite.

And while opponents of comprehensive sex ed think teaching kids about disease prevention and contraception encourages early sexual activity, the flip side is that not teaching these ideas doesn’t make teens less fascinated with sex. It just leaves them confused and without the knowledge they need to make educated decisions about sex.

Laura Lindberg, co-author of a 2017 report that confirmed abstinence-only programs didn’t reduce either teen pregnancy or delay the age of sexual activity, put it bluntly to NPR, "We fail our young people when we don't provide them with complete and medically accurate information."

That’s especially evident in the case of Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), whose staunch support of abstinence-only education didn’t prevent the pregnancy of his own 17-year-old daughter in 2014.

Another study found that teens who received abstinence-only education were less likely to use condoms while still engaging in sexual activity.

So what actually reduces rates of teen sex and pregnancy? Comprehensive education and affordable contraception methods.

But being transparent with teens about safe sex is only one piece of the puzzle.

Teaching teens they should wait until marriage can be particularly stigmatizing. As Dr. Terez Yonan, a physician specializing in adolescent medicine told Teen Vogue, the heteronormative framework such programs are based on alienates and sidelines LGBTQ youth. "It isolates them," she said. "They don’t learn anything about how to have sex with a partner that they’re attracted to and how to do it in a safe way that minimizes the risk of STDs and pregnancy."

Abstinence-only education also often provides teens with information on relationships and consent that marginalizes and puts pressure on young women.  As Refinery 29 points out, these programs "engage in teaching affirmative consent and violence prevention in ways that perpetuate gender stereotypes, such as putting the onus on young women to be in control of young men's sexual behaviors."

But even if the above weren’t true (and all of it is), abstinence-only education is behind the cultural curve in general. Marriage rates are dropping as priorities and cultural ideas about the role of marriage change. Many are waiting until they’re older to get married or deciding not marrying at all. According to 2015 statistics, the average age of first marriage was 27 for a woman and 29 for a man in America.

Are we really expecting teens to wait until they’re almost 30 to figure out the right way to unroll a condom (there’s a reason we need the banana demonstration!) or that lube is a must in the bedroom?

Abstinence-only education, while ostensibly well-intentioned, is also often terrifying.

Take this clip from the 1991 movie "No Second Chance" for instance. It intercuts a teacher threatening an entire classroom with death by venereal disease with grainy stock footage of a man loading a gun.

"What if I want to have sex before I get married?" One nervous student asks.

"Well," the teacher says, leaning in close, "I guess you just have to be prepared to die."

It hasn’t gotten much better. While the fashions have changed, a 2015 episode of "Last Week Tonight" made it clear that the message remains the same: Sex before marriage is dangerous, shameful (especially for young women), and morally repugnant.

If we really want to give today’s youth a chance at a bright and healthy future, it’s going to come from frank and open discussions about sex, sexuality, and healthy relationships — not by scaring them into celibacy.

Of course, if we need another idea for how to prevent teens from having sex early, Kimmel has some words of wisdom.  

"I didn’t need abstinence education when I was a teenager," he quipped. "I just played the clarinet."

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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