Abstinence-only sex education is being taught at an alarming rate and has even more alarming consequences. Here are some scary statistics.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of all 50 states, only a mere 30 states require sex education. Of those, only 17 states require that the information taught be medically accurate- meaning that scientifically false information like “birth control causes breast cancer” or “condoms are highly ineffective” can be taught without consequences. Only 20 states require that information about contraception is covered, and 39 states require that abstinence is stressed. 19 states require that it be stressed that sex should only occur within marriage, and only three states prohibit sex education from promoting religion.
You might think that this sounds like outdated policies from the 1950s, but all of these stats are true as of March 2021.
It’s Just Not Working
According to SEICUS, the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the US, “The federal government spends over $170 million each year on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs… [which] promote religions and instill fear, shame, and guilt in young people… These programs include negative messages about sexuality, distort information about condoms and STDs, and promote biases based on gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy options.”
After over 25 years of abstinent-only sex education reigning supreme, it has been proven again and again to be ineffective at not only stopping teens from having sex but preventing pregnancy or STIs. In fact, it’s been found that in abstinence-only education states, teen pregnancy rates are higher than ever.
Instead of preventing teens from having sex, contracting STIs, or having an unwanted pregnancy, abstinence-only sex education serves to reinforce that having sex is wrong. Having sex reduces a person’s value and worth. This reduction of self-worth drives a myriad of consequences, from teens feeling unable to talk to a trusted adult about sexual health, consent, or contraception – to feeling uncomfortable talking with their partner about sex and consent – to not protecting themselves against unwanted pregnancy and STIs – to sexual assault victims feeling unable to get help.
Birth Control & Condoms – Why Bother?
Since only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate, and only 18 states require that information about contraception be covered, sex education often leaves out accurate and encouraging information about prevention methods like condoms and birth control. After all, if having sex is shameful and wrong, and teens shouldn’t be having it at all or should be waiting until marriage to have it, and then it should only be to have a baby – why even bother to educate them about their protective options to prevent STIs and pregnancy? Because after all, sex is meant to have a baby… and if both partners are only having it with each other, there’s no STI risk.
But we already know that abstinence-only sex education isn’t preventing teens from having sex… they’re doing it anyway. Sometimes, they’re having oral or anal sex instead, which still transmits STIs.
At best, teens are armed with shame-based messages about sex and contraception. At worst, non-factual sex-education that tells them birth control is dangerous and condoms don’t work. So, teens don’t seek to use protection, especially those that require pre-planning, like getting access to birth control and condoms in advance. After all, a teen seeking out protective options in advance shows that they were pre-planning sex, as opposed to just getting “caught up in the moment” – which seems like the lesser of two evils in shame-based messaging.
Instead, when teens are taught that there’s nothing wrong with having sex, and how to properly use contraception, it makes sense that they will be much more likely to view their sexual health in a mature, responsible way, pre-planning and seeking protection.
Sexual Assault Victims Can’t Speak Up
With shame-based sex education, victims of rape and sexual abuse have an extra layer compounded on to an already tragic assault. They often feel that their value has been taken from them, their bubble has popped, and they’re no longer pure – especially when the assault is their first sexual experience. In an instant, they believe that they’re gone from pure, virginal, moral, and chaste to dirty, slutty, immoral, and used up – all due to shame-based messages that tell us sex, and particularly sex outside of marriage, is wrong. In an already complicated and painful situation, why must we add shame and guilt to the list?
This compounds why victims feel they cannot speak up about their abuse. They fear that they will be shamed, degraded, and ostracized in regards to their assault. This is not only because we live in a society that constantly blames the victim, but also because they now have a perceived loss of value, worth, and morality – all from no longer being a virgin or chaste. They may even think that after the abuse, no one else will want to be with or marry them, and speaking up will only make that worse. The emotional toll of shame-based messages prevents survivors from speaking up about their assault, fearing that they will be shamed or lose their value publicly.
We’re Having More Sex
Abstinence-only sex education may even encourage teens to have more sex after they’ve lost their virginity. Take for instance, when a girl is labeled a “slut”, even if she has no prior sexual experience. The label can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She has already lost her value and is already considered a slut – so what does it matter if she goes on to have sex with 100 people? She can’t gain that perceived social value back by not having sex, so she might as well have more.
The same can happen for shame-based abstinence-only sex education. When a teen has sex for the first time, they may feel that their worth and value is now gone. They are already a “slut”. They can’t get that value and worth back by not having sex again. At that point, having more sex isn’t a big deal and won’t decrease their value, because it’s already at an all-time low.
Instead of teaching our teens responsible sexuality, we’re teaching them zero skills to live as a healthy sexual person. We’re teaching them that all sex outside of marriage is bad. That they’re bad. Why should they keep trying to live up to this image of purity that they know they won’t be able to attain? They may as well have fun with their bodies!
What Can We Do?
Getting involved and making a difference can feel like it’s completely out of reach. There are so many screwed up problems in this system, so it can be really complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. You can do things in your everyday life to make sure that not only are you informed but that the world is – whether it be educating your friends or standing up for policy changes you believe in. Here are some ideas on ways you can get involved in creating more sex-positive sex-education now and for future generations.
- Educate yourself. You can be your number one best advocate. Learn about your contraceptive options and talk about them with your partner. Read and support sex-positive news sites, share them with your friends, and have a general awareness of the issues.
- Educate others. If your friend thinks condoms don’t work, birth control causes cancer, that you can prevent pregnancy by jumping up and down, or something else non-factual – let them know what’s up, and cue them into medically accurate sex-positive, information. They’ll appreciate it and thank you later, I promise!
- Call people out on their shit. If you read an article that’s not accurate, call them out in the comments! If you hear someone promoting abstinent only education, deliver them the facts. Sometimes, you just can’t change ignorant – but hopefully, we can change some people on the fence, and slowly make our way toward a more sex-positive world. This isn’t my strong suit, because I personally get anxious with confrontation, but it really is a powerful way to stand up for what’s right, if you can handle the heat.
- Vote for politicians with sex-positive policies. Stay up to date with the politicians running for office – whether it be local, state-wide, for senate, congress, or national. See how they feel about issues like birth control and abortion. If they’re advocating for rolling back women’s reproductive rights, or if they have a very conservative, religious perspective, you can almost guarantee that they aren’t supporting comprehensive sex education.
- Advocate for comprehensive sex education. If you have any voice in your local community or school system, advocate for comprehensive sex education to be taught. Provide them with medically accurate information and books from organizations like SEICUS. Be sure you’re educating your own children in sex-positive, responsible, healthy, medically accurate ways when you become a parent.
- Have your voice heard. Write for sex-positive websites (like Slutty Girl Problems) and share what you know, and what you believe in. Share your values on Facebook, Twitter, and to that douchebag on Tinder that can’t seem to comprehend basic equal rights. Start your own blog and promote it like crazy!
- Be an activist. Join feminist organizations that are helping to make a difference in reproductive rights and sex education. There are many organizations nationally and locally where you can help to make a difference – whether it’s through volunteering, organizing or supporting marches, or getting involved in public health invites. Every step forward is worth it!
Jessica Valenti – The Purity Myth
Leora Tanenbaum – I Am Not a Slut: Slut Shaming in the Age of the Internet