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Is THIS What Abstinence-Only Education Looks Like?

05/24/2012 Comments (334)

Here is a lovely and honest post called "The Wait Was Well Worth It."  The writer and her husband were virgins until their wedding night, and she describes the freedom and security, along with the pain and awkwardness, that she experienced in having her first sexual encounter with her new husband.

It's no easy feat to remain a virgin until marriage.  An abstinence-only education seems like the obvious solution if we don't want our kids to suffer the effects of sexual sin, which include getting pregnant, getting STDs, and suffering the heartache that comes of behaving like you're committed to someone when you're not.

We don't want to just shove condoms at kids and hope for the best, and we don't want to educate them so thoroughly in every permutation of human sexuality that their innocence is ruined forever.  But abstinence-only education (as provided in the classroom) doesn't seem to make much of a dent in promiscuity rates, either.  (It appears that teen birth rates are actually higher in conservative states; but surely this only means that conservative girls who get pregnant aren't getting as many abortions as pregnant teens in more liberal states) 

I've always assumed that the ineffectiveness of abstinence education is due to the "drop in a bucket" phenomenon -- that even a good message like abstinence gets lost in the ocean of bad messages that kids hear from TV, the internet, negligent parents, etc.

But maybe there's a deeper problem with abstinence-only education.  I stumbled across this XOJane post, in which thoroughly secular people recount their experiences in school with abstinence-only education.  Here's a typical story:

    [G]irls were given two glasses of water and told to chew up food and spit it into one of them.

    Their teacher -- a guest speaker from an anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy" group, then asked them which glass they'd rather drink. The lesson, in case you haven't guessed already, is that premarital sex makes you a gross glass of regurgitated food.

The readers recounted many variations on the "used food" theme:  kids were supposed to lick a Hershey's Kiss and then invite someone else to lick it, too.  Or kids were asked to take tape and stick it to their arms or the floor, and then pass it down the line.  At the end of the activity, you look at the tape, or the candy, or the cup of water and think, "Ew, this is used.  I don't want any."

Is this what a typical abstinence-only education is like?  If so, I'm as horrified and disgusted as the XOJane commenters.

What's so bad about this kind of presentation?  I'm going to answer as someone who remembers being a teenage girl (maybe men will have a different perspective, and can share it in the comment box).

Here are the problems: First, the message simply won't work for so many girls.  What about the girls who have already had sex or "gone too far?"  These demonstrations teach them that they are already ruined, worthless, revolting, useless.  Many will despair, and throw themselves into promiscuity whole hog out of misery, or out of some desire to compensate themselves by at least getting some pleasure out of their "ruination."

And what about girls who are in love with their boyfriends, or think they are?  They'll think, "Well, this is no problem for me and my boyfriend.  I can give myself to him and it will be pure and beautiful because we'll be together forever <B <B <B" (and meanwhile, the boyfriend is thinking, "Score!").

Girls have sex because of lust and desire, just as boys do, but also out of a desire to please and to be accepted -- and out of simple teenage shortsightedness.   Many girls will think, "Okay, maybe sex is hurting me in some abstract, far-in-the-future way, but it's fun, and it keeps him sticking around and makes me feel important.  Totally worth it."

So, for a large population of girls, the "used food" analogy will not persuade them to be abstinent -- just the opposite.

But what's even more disturbing is that this approach may actually work -- but it will do so by making girls into a commodity.  It tells them, "Yep, you're Kleenex.  Now make sure you only let your husband blow."  (Oh, in theory you could say that the used chocolate or chewed-up crackers represent the boys' bodies as much as it does the girls', but come on.  It's girls who have a hymen that can be broken; girls who can get pregnant.  It's generally girls who hesitate, while boys apply the pressure.  And it's girls who are more likely to be aware that they're giving something away when they have sex, whereas teenage boys are probably truly incapable of seeing sex as self-sacrificial:  they're just not made that way. )

The  most dangerous part of this idea -- that females are receptacles -- is that, like most lies, it looks very similar to the truth.  The truth is that women are built to receive -- but like a wife welcoming in her beloved, not like a specimen cup. )

So this gimmicky abstinence education teaches a terrible lesson about what women are.  And what about what it says about sex in general?  That it's dirty, gross,  --  something that is gonna mess you up anyway, use you up, make you cruddy and dirty.  So your best option is to confine that filthy mess to marriage, because your spouse is the one who promised to deal with crap like that.

My God.  What does this have to do with marital love?  Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.  I understand that teenagers are not easy to reach, and that sometimes you have to wield a heavy hammer to get their attention.  But this kind of approach is why people think Christians hate women and fear sex.  It's why people leave the faith.

So, what the heck are we supposed to tell kids?  How do we grab their attention?  Well, my oldest kids are just heading into the teenage years, so I'm just starting to work through which ideas I do want to transmit to them, and how I want to transmit them.   Tomorrow I will share some of the ideas that should be taught in abstinence education, and I hope you will join me in sharing your experiences.

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.