Abstinence-Only Education is Stupid and Dangerous
In my freshman year of high school, during what should have been my gym period, my class was instead ushered into the auditorium for a special presentation. A woman (whose name I cannot remember) had come to teach us about the importance of “saved sex,” that is, abstaining from any sexual activity until marriage. At the time, I didn’t care about the particulars of what she was saying, was only excited that I was getting out of gym class. At the end of the presentation, we were given a survey to fill out asking what we had learned. I hastily wrote something superficial about how informative the speaker had been and handed it to my teacher on my way out the door to my next class.
Knowing what I know now about abstinence-only education, I wish I had taken a little more care with my answers.
In the United States, there is no national mandate that says sex education must be taught in high schools; that decision is left up to state legislators, meaning that depending on where you live, your state’s sex-ed curriculum could either be highly informative or more like that scene in Mean Girls.
Currently, thirty-nine states (and the District of Columbia) mandate that some form of sex ed and/or HIV education be taught to students, but only eighteen states require that the information presented be medically accurate. This opens the door for conservative, evangelical “educators” worming their way into the school system to spread their harmful ideas about sex.
So, if I could go back in time to that day, to when I was handed that survey, this is what I would write.
Abstinence-Only Education is Full of Misinformation
Abstinence-only classes aim to teach teens the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage, and because of this, information about different birth control methods and STIs is not only withheld but warped. Students have been taught such things as:
• Condoms are ineffective, and in fact, can cause cancer
• Treatable STIs will kill them in a matter of days
• The birth control pill causes cervical cancer
• That if teens are caught having premarital sex, they will go to jail (this was taught in Virginia)
All of these statements are lies, some comically so. But what’s not funny is the real harm that is being done. In states where abstinence-only is favored above comprehensive sex education, teen pregnancy and STI rates have skyrocketed. Far from preventing premarital sex, abstinence-only “educators” have instead played a huge role in creating a minor health crisis among teenagers and forcing young women into motherhood.
It Unfairly Targets Women
The level of importance that is placed on orthodox gender roles puts an unfair burden on women. They are treated as sexual gatekeepers whose job it is to keep men in line. They must constantly be monitoring their clothing and mannerisms because a man might see their shoulder blade, or mistake a passing glance for a sultry look and go mad with lust. Not only does this contribute to the vile rape culture we have built up around ourselves by victim-blaming, but it also deprives women of their sexuality. Women enjoy sex, too, and to force us into a position where we must be constantly fending off advances from men takes away our agency.
A popular tactic that is used in many abstinence-only classes (and was used in my class that day) is for the presenter to take a piece of tape and wrap it around the arm of several boys in the class until it loses its ability to stick. This is supposed to be a metaphor for a woman losing her desirability after having sex with multiple men, tying her worth to her virginal status. This is possibly one of the ugliest aspects of abstinence-only education because it turns women into objects and tears down the self-esteem of young girls who are living through some of their most vulnerable and formative years.
It Excludes LGBTQ+ Individuals
Room is made at the table only for those who subscribe to a heteronormative, cisgender lifestyle, promoting the archaic belief that sex and marriage should be between a man and a woman. In these abstinence-only classes, the LGBTQ+ community is treated either as an abnormality, something not even worth discussing, or as something that is unhealthy and sinful. Obviously, this is incredibly damaging to an already marginalized community; LGBTQ+ teens have a far higher rate of suicide than their heterosexual peers and need to be uplifted rather than disenfranchised.
It Just Doesn’t Work
Above all, abstinence-only education simply does not work. Countless studies have shown that they do nothing to lower the rate of teens engaging in sexual intercourse. Teens still have sex, they don’t know how to protect themselves, and they either get pregnant or contract an STD. This is why comprehensive sex education is so important; teens need to learn how to protect themselves.
Look, I get it. As a parent, it’s probably very uncomfortable to think about your teen having sex. But whether you like it or not, if they decide they want to have sex, it’s going to happen. You can lock them in their room and throw away the key, but it’s going to happen (few forces in this world are more powerful than adolescent hormones). This is why fostering an open and honest dialogue about sex is so important, so that we can keep our children safe. Sex isn’t bad. Fearmongering about sex is.