Growing up in a conservative area of the already politically ass-backward state of Indiana, I received abstinence-only sex education in middle school and it did me – and my peers – no favors.
Abstinence-only sex education is an attempt to teach young people about sex by essentially shaming and scaring them into believing that sex is only acceptable for married couples, and that one must wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity. This dramatically skewed view of intercourse and relationships purposely leaves out information about consent, birth control methods, accurate STD statistics, menstrual cycles, respectful and pleasurable sex, and promotes heteronormativity while completely closing the door on any discussions about same-sex relationships.
President Obama cut funding to abstinence-only sex education and instead redirected funding to programs that promoted comprehensive sex education. So as the Trump administration revamps its abstinence-only program, most notably by passing the $75 million “sexual risk avoidance education (SRAE)” program that gives funding to entities that encourage “sexual delay,” I have flashbacks to my seventh grade science class, listening to a woman from a local Catholic hospital talk about how condoms have small holes in them, and therefore, are all but powerless against STDs. Fact: latex condoms are highly effective at preventing the transmission of STDs.
I also remember the slideshows with horrifying pictures of extreme cases of herpes, with our “instructor” telling us that this fate was inevitable if we had sex before marriage. Instead of telling my class about safe sex practices, when and where to get tested, and the likelihood of contracting the various forms of STDs, she used these scare tactics in an attempt to deter us from exploring sex in a healthy or respectful manner.
There was no talk of birth control (unless you count telling us that condoms don’t work), and I specifically remember a girl in my class asking about the pill. The instructor sighed, and began her sentence with, “Well, I’m not really here to talk about birth control….” so I stopped listening after that.
No lessons on rape or sexual assault. No advice on the various birth control methods available. No discussion on gender identity or homosexuality. No insight about consent, mutual pleasure, or communication about boundaries. Absolutely not a word about abortion. And of course, no mention of vibrators or other types of sex toys.
The lack of facts had me confused for a long time.
And that’s why I shudder at the thought of abstinence-only sex education being so heavily funded and promoted again, despite the overwhelming evidence that it fails young people. Pregnancy rates and STD rates have only increased under abstinence-only sex education, and in some conservative states that champion the abstinence-only method and fight to restrict birth control and abortion access such as Texas, the teen pregnancy rate is staggering.
Furthermore, withholding information about sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, consent, sexual assault, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ is not only misleading, it is dangerous and potentially life-threatening. The information that abstinence-only sex education pushes is not only often blatantly false, but it also dismisses the sexual and reproductive health needs of young people. It puts a vulnerable population’s wellness in jeopardy, not only at the time of the education, but for years to come, if no credible resources on sex and sexual health are ever introduced.
I remember having to learn about sex, birth control, and pregnancy by Googling all of it. My parents are not sex-positive at all, so I had literally zero resources to figure out my chances of getting an STD, how often I should visit the gyno, what types of contraception are most effective, or signs of pregnancy. I was diligent in seeking out scientific sources because I was so paranoid about the potential harm that could come from having sex, and I knew that the answers taught in my wait-until-marriage lessons at school were not going to cut it. As I got older, I was fortunate to find the resources on my own to obtain birth control, regularly see my gynecologist, and ask questions about STDs. But I had to search for this information on my own, because what I had been taught was biased, scientifically unfounded, and misleading.
We should not have to resort to Google to get the facts about our sexual health.
Bringing back abstinence-only sex education in classrooms is dangerous and is nothing more than the religious right manipulating a normal human activity as a means of control to reinforce gender norms, sexism, and cis-sexism.
Knowledge is power, but young people, particularly women and girls, will suffer from a lack of accurate information if the abstinence model is their only lesson in sex.