Abstinence-only sex education is a very real thing in the United States. It is something I vehemently oppose and so this blog talks about what ‘abstinence-only’ education is and why it is a bad scheme of education.
What is abstinence-only sex education?
Abstinence-only sex education refers to an education scheme that teaches students to refrain from sex outside of marriage. It will often exclude information about safe sex practices and, in extreme cases, basic anatomy and contraceptive methods.
How popular is abstinence-only sex education?
37 US states require abstinence centric education to be provided to students. Of those 37, 25 require abstinence to be stressed and 19 require the ‘importance of waiting until marriage’ to be included in the education. To put this in context, of the 25 who require abstinence to be stressed, only ten have a mandate that requires to sex education to actually be taught and seven of that ten require the sex education taught to be ‘medically accurate’. In addition to state law, Congress approved a motion to raise the annual funding of abstinence-only programs to $75 million in May of 2015.
Does abstinence-only education work?
No. The American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association all advocate a ‘comprehensive sex education’ program, i.e. one that teaches students about safe sex, contraceptives and a non-judgemental attitude to sex. Abstinence-only sex education has been criticised by Congress (yes, the same Congress that increased funding for this particular strain of sex education) in 2004 for misrepresenting the failure rates in condoms, making false claims about the effects of abortions and even treating gender stereotypes as fact. A study in 2007, again by Congress, found that abstinence-only education did not actually delay the onset of sexual activity. Furthermore, a 2009 study by the CDC- using data collected over a five year period- found that birth rates amongst US teens rose in 2006 after a significant decline between 1991 and 2005 and most worryingly, a third of adolescents had not received information on methods of birth control before the age of 18.
What are the effects of abstinence-only educations?
One of the biggest effects is actually how this education is presented. Many speakers are seen to refer to promiscuous women as a worn/broken pair of shoes or a chewed stick of gum. And I must stress that the example is always about a woman. Abstinence-only education essentially partakes in ‘slut-shaming’ by presenting sex before marriage as something that is instigated by a female. One particular speaker called Pam Stenzel advises boys on what to do if “there is a girl throwing herself at you, if she is the one pressuring you, if she is the one dressing in that manner that says not only to you but to the rest of the world ‘take me now'”- she tells the boys to run away. And yes, Ms. Stenzel is paid to give talks on abstinence. Teenagers are very impressionable and imagine the damage to normative perceptions of women that occurs in teenage boys especially if the above counts as their sexual education. Ms. Stenzel does not go on to tell girls what to do if they are being pressured into sex. Furthermore, due to emphasis on not having sex, these education schemes are unlikely to educate about socio-sexual issues like consent. This is something I personally believe is lacking from all manner of sex Ed syllabuses but imagine reaching the age of 18 and having little to no idea of what constitutes consent, especially in a non-verbal scenario. That is the world that abstinence-only sex education creates.
So, what do we do?
Sex education should be a continuous element of education. You start with the basic biology at an appropriate age and as you mature, you are educated to have a better appreciation of the biology but as we compliment this with the inclusion of information about birth control and then socio-sexual issues such as consent and ‘sex culture’ are then incorporated. However, the biggest element needs to be choice- it’s okay to choose abstinence and it’s okay to choose sexual activeness. As long as it is your decision (and everything is consensual and legal), then you get the final say on how you approach sexual activity. Sex needs to become less of a taboo and something that should be discussed at school and in the home environment.
I hope you enjoyed this blog. I know it is very different to the majority of my other work but I felt that it is an issue that especially in Britain, my country of residence, is rather overlooked because abstinence-only sex education is a rarer occurrence. However, it is a very real issue and I like to help shed light on it. If you want any more information on the topic, there are number of wonderful resources online (including this wonderful segment from John Oliver as well as sex-positive vloggers such as Laci Green). Alternately, you could seek out information from health care professionals, such as Planned Parenthood.