Why Abstinence-Only Sex Ed is not the answer. – maude Skip to content

Why abstinence-only sex ed is not the answer.

Why Abstinence-Only Sex Ed is not the answer.

The United States leads in pushing abstinence but has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STIs.

The undeniable fact that young people are interested in sex is horrifying to some. After all, if they’re interested, they’ll ask questions, and getting answers to those questions might lead them to… doing things. Unspeakable things.

This seems to be the thinking behind abstinence-only sex education, the idea that the best way to teach young people about sex is to teach them that it’s something they absolutely shouldn’t do, that it’s something that should strictly only take place within the confines of marriage. Therefore a lot of things that are extremely useful to know, from basic safe sex practices to the scandalous idea that people might want to know how best to enjoy themselves or even, shock horror, give their partner a good time, are nowhere to be found.

This approach, of “you aren’t going to do it, so there’s no point in learning about it”, is more widespread, even in 2024, than anyone might sensibly think. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into a-o sex ed by the federal government, and in many jurisdictions that is the only sex education teachers are allowed to teach — if they go off-curriculum and offer a more comprehensive education they can find themselves in a lot of trouble.

But the only way to actually educate people about sex involves acknowledging that they’re going to do it. Cordoning off swathes of useful and constructive information in a misguided, mislabeled attempt at protective people is ultimately destructive.

The TL;DR version: among developed nations, the US pushes abstinence-only sex education the hardest, and ranks first in rates of both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. That’s a terrible result. It doesn’t work.

Argument #1: Abstinence-only sex ed prevents the spread of STIs

No it doesn’t. A 2015 paper published in Current HIV Research examined almost 300 programs aimed at reducing infections and found that the abstinence-only ones had zero effect. Significantly more successful were programs that included comprehensive advice on condom use and sexual communication and negotiation.

There is also anecdotal evidence that a-o sex ed and its focus on maintaining virginity until marriage has led to some behavior that is incredibly risky in terms of contracting STIs. The concept of ‘technical virginity’ — that only when a penis enters a vagina is sex taking place and virginity lost — excludes a whole variety of sexual activities that can absolutely spread infections. Oral sex, anal sex (the ‘poophole loophole’), ‘soaking’... if people are getting up to all of this stuff while treating it as ‘not sex’, they’re putting themselves at risk, because those things… are sex.

Argument #2: Abstinence-only sex ed prevents unwanted pregnancies

Again, no, it doesn’t. A 2011 paper looking at state-to-state statistics found a positive correlation between a focus on abstinence-only education and increases in teen pregnancy. The best-case scenario it could offer was that it maybe, possibly, maybe didn’t make things worse, perhaps. If “ineffective” is the best thing that can be said about an education policy, and even that comes with the caveat that it might be excessively complimentary, something is desperately wrong.

Argument #3: Abstinence-only sex ed preserves the sanctity of marriage

While this is perhaps less black and white and more nuanced than the pregnancy and STI issues, it’s still pretty hard to conclude anything other than “no it doesn’t”. Almost half of all marriages in the US end in divorce or separation, so it’s fairly hard to argue that marriage currently occupies a sacrosanct position in society anyway. Given the importance of sexual compatibility in a long-term relationship, is it really a good idea to persuade people that they should enter into a legal agreement with someone — one that, even when everyone involved is civil, upstanding and conscientious, is time-consuming and expensive to sever — before finding out if they’re on the same page? That seems, at best, financially cavalier.

And what if you simply don’t want to get married? There are umpteen entirely valid reasons why even a monogamous heteronormative couple who want to spend their lives together might not want to. It’s a patriarchal institution that has several elements people might find troubling. It’s also not unreasonable to wonder why why a printed document or ornate ceremony would make one relationship more meaningful or legitimate than another. If you’re taught there’s no sex without marriage, but marriage doesn’t appeal, that doesn’t automatically mean sex doesn’t either…

And this doesn’t even touch upon the huge gaps in a-o sex ed for LGBTQ individuals, who are essentially taught that whatever they are doing or considering doing, they’re wrong. A sex education system based around a definition of sex as p-in-v is, for a lot of people, significantly worse than useless.

Argument #4: Comprehensive sex education encourages reckless behavior

Put extremely bluntly, young people are dumb and horny. They’ve always been dumb and horny and they’ll always be dumb and horny. But they can figure a few things out — what could possibly go where, what might feel really good and so on. Prohibiting them from knowing how these things can be explored safely and consensually isn’t going to stop them being explored, it’s just going to stop them being explored safely and consensually. This isn’t objectively provable, but it seems incredibly unlikely that anyone has ever been told about oral sex in a comprehensive sex ed class and only then thought that it sounded like it might be quite nice. Teaching teenagers about condoms doesn’t encourage them to have sex — they need no encouragement whatsoever. It encourages them to use condoms, god damn it.

In no other form of education is it seen as a positive thing to limit what people are taught. A geography syllabus with no maps is a terrible geography syllabus. If you teach someone to drive but at no point mention speed limits, you’re a bad driving teacher. What possible justification is there for wanting adults to enter the world with an enormous, deliberately-placed gap in their knowledge? Abstinence-only sex education is anti-sex, anti-science, and ultimately isn’t education at all.

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