The running dispute between abstinence education and comprehensive sex education flares up at least once a year around budget request time.
Comprehensive sex education programs claim to teach abstinence as the primary strategy, but also teach contraceptive use, just in case. “Abstinence only doesn’t work,” we are continually told.
I recently spoke at a conference of remarkable young people that made me think that conventional classroom-based abstinence education does need something else. Call it: comprehensive abstinence education.
The conference was sponsored by Singles for Christ, an organization of college students and other young adults. About a hundred young people gathered at a university in southern California to talk about being “100% Pure,” and about how “True Love Waits.” Singles for Christ is an offshoot of Couples for Christ, an international organization founded in the Philippines.
While sitting at my book table, I was approached by a non-conference-going student from another University of California system school. She identified herself as a “student sex educator.” She wanted to pick up the literature, to see what information we were promoting.
I imagine she was expecting to find the stereotypes of abstinence education: Scare kids away from sex. Keep them ignorant about self-protection. Wring your hands when the kids get pregnant or infected.
That is when it struck me what was so remarkable about this abstinence conference. It didn’t talk about avoiding pregnancy or STDs. Instead, the Singles for Christ conference talked about marriage: how to prepare for marriage, and how to choose a partner wisely.
The very first presentation of the conference was by a young married couple with three small children. They talked about meeting at a Singles for Christ event and about their courtship. They didn’t have to say they loved each other and their children. Anyone could see that for themselves.
But it was more than the presentations that convinced me there was something special going on here. It was also watching the young people interacting among themselves. They were singing, laughing and teasing each other. No downcast up-tight virgins here. These kids were obviously having a blast.
I thought to myself: I bet this program “succeeds” in all the measures that Congress expects of federally funded sex-ed programs: a lower rate of non-marital births, a later age at sexual debut and fewer STDs.
The genius of the Singles for Christ program is that the young people are brought up within a social network of shared expectations. Most of the Singles for Christ were probably Kids for Christ or Youth for Christ. They probably have married parents who are Couples for Christ or widowed grandmothers who are Handmaidens for Christ. When they were teenagers, probably very few went home to empty houses, turned on a TV porn channel, and had unsupervised afternoons after school.
This abstinence program is more than a classroom experience. This is a full way of life that provides young people with an appealing future as part of a married couple.
The lessons are embedded in a community of supportive adults, who expect certain behavior and model that behavior. The adults prepare the young to participate in the adult life of the community, on the community’s terms.
I have seen this model before.
I saw it in the group of Chinese Baptist students I encountered at Berkeley, of all places. Their pastor and his wife discouraged dating, and encouraged socializing in groups. I saw it last month in a Catholic student group at Florida State University. Run by a religious order called the Brothers of Hope, these young people are getting married in their early 20s and starting families. They are too busy to be messing around getting into sexual trouble. Their sex lives are directed toward enhancing their marriages and creating families.
This is why the political battles over government-funded sex education are so fierce. Each side is promoting a whole way of life. Modern sex education prepares the young for a lifetime of casual sexual encounters that have no future.
The norm in our society is that sex is a sterile activity, with babies thrown in as an afterthought if you happen to like that sort of thing. If you do get pregnant, it isn’t a big deal, since you can kill the baby if you feel you need to.
The socially responsible way of having a baby is to carefully plan it for your 30s after you’ve established the real business of your life, namely business.
Having sex with someone who would be a disaster as a mate or co-parent is now considered normal. The sexual social contract is approximately, “I will allow you to use me, if you allow me to use you.”
Broken hearts are collateral damage to the sexual revolution. The best message on offer is “Protect yourself from STDs. Try not to get pregnant. Other than that, you are on your own.”
The advocates of abstinence education have a better, more hopeful message, that goes beyond merely abstaining from sex. The message is that marriage is attainable: “You can get married and stay married. Your children can spend their entire childhoods with both their parents, married to each other. This way of life is possible and desirable.”
On second thought, maybe it isn’t comprehensive abstinence education, after all. Comprehensive marriage education offers the most complete and appealing message of hope to the next generation.
Jennifer Roback Morse is the
senior research fellow in economics at the Action Institute and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.