Abstinence-only sex education doesn’t provide any reproductive health education. If anything, it may put teens who receive it more at risk.
Just wait until marriage
Although some abstinence-only sex ed programs ended when George W. Bush left office, the Trump administration is ushering in the return of this useless curriculum.
Back in May, the Trump administration approved a $277 million increase in spending for “abstinence-until-marriage programs.” Salon reported that Valerie Huber, head of Ascend—a pro-abstinence organization, will join the Department of Health an Human Services as chief of staff to the assistant secretary for adolescent health. Huber’s new position will allow her to push for more abstinence programs directed toward teens.
Abstinence with a twist
Although most of these religious-right backed abstinence programs used to be known as “abstinence-only,” current republican-supported abstinence curriculum was recently rebranded. Abstinence programs are now known as “sexual risk avoidance” programs.
Instead of pushing the whole “wait until marriage” agenda, schools now teach that abstinence as the way—the only way—to avoid health risks related to sexual activity. Those risks, according to these “just say no” sex ed programs, don’t properly educate teens about contraception. And Salon reports that two Ascend-backed programs—REAL Essentials and Choosing the Best—still teach that having sex makes a person “dirty.”
“REAL Essentials explains that glue (i.e., sex) is a bonding agent that works best on a surface that is ‘clean and dry’ (i.e., virgins),” the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, reports.
“Choosing the Best includes a similar exercise using adhesive tape. The exercise involves placing tape on a student’s skin, then removing it to show what has transferred from the skin to the tape. What remains on the tape is supposed to represent the emotional baggage resulting from sex.”
Abstinence-only sex ed just doesn’t work
Abstinence-only education so ineffective because it shames students, and doesn’t provide essential information about sex. And these programs aren’t relatable. Over half of high school students have had sexual intercourse before finishing high school.
However, comprehensive sex education programs—curriculum that discusses abstinence among other contraceptive information—can help teens choose to delay sexual intercourse. They also increase condom usage among young people.
So, why do abstinence programs still exist?
Fear and control can’t win
Kris Gowen, a sex educator at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, thinks fear is the heart of the issue.
“Adults are afraid that young people will make poor decisions about their sexual health if they are given too much information,” Gowen explains.
“I can see the logic in that—the idea that if you expose a young person to certain facts about safer sex they will be more likely to engage in sex—but it’s simply not true. Research has shown that providing young people with accurate information about sexual health decreases the likelihood they will participate in unhealthy sexual behaviors.”
In addition to being absolutely ineffective, abstinence-based programs are dangerous and isolate kids who don’t identify as heterosexual.
Gowen hopes all sex ed programs will expand, become comprehensive, and acknowledge the relationship component of sex.
“Unless you are talking about masturbation, sex happens with another person,” Gowen adds.
“In addition to teaching about different methods of contraception and how to avoid STIs, we need to talk more about consent, listening to a sexual partner, and understanding what a healthy relationship looks like.”
After all, truly healthy sex is what every parent wants their child to eventually experience. If educators teach teens how to make responsible decisions, they’ll respect this, and make it a reality.