It’s easy to show the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education — when it comes to preventing STIs and unintended pregnancies among teens, the research shows that it just doesn’t work. But one thing we often overlook is the motives behind abstinence-only education, and why it’s wrong to advocate abstinence to begin with.
Abstinence education is based on the idea that young people should choose not to have sex until marriage, and that the only way to prevent the spread of STIs and unintended pregnancy is to not have sex. We often make the assumption that when it comes to sex education, both sides base their advocacy on the importance of promoting sexual health. However, I do not believe that is what is truly at the heart of the abstinence movement.
When I took a “sex education” class in junior high school in the great red State of Utah, I was shown a video featuring an abstinence advocate named Pam Stenzel. Stenzel’s program, called “Sex Has a Price Tag,” was, admittedly, quite compelling. Not only was she charismatic as she spoke and shared a great deal of humorous anecdotes, she also seemed grounded in her justification for advocating abstinence. She cited various facts about STIs and the effectiveness of contraceptives. However, looking back on it now, I can see that Stenzel failed to answer one question above all: is abstinence truly more effective than comprehensive sex education?
Of course not. Look at the research. Not only are we able to back up the effectiveness of contraceptive use, we are also able to show why abstinence has no long term benefits. In fact, research has shown that abstinence-only education actually makes young people less likely to use contraceptives when they do have sex.
During her talk, Stenzel claimed that her motivation for going around the country speaking about abstinence was that she didn’t want to see another young person say that they didn’t know about the potential consequences of sex. But Stenzel was also featured in the 2006 book by the esteemed Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. And in that book, she was quoted as giving a very different reason for teaching abstinence in a speech at a she gave at a conference for fundamentalist Christians. Here’s what she said (emphasis mine):
People of God, can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works… I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God! Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here. AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at 20 is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their first in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.
Stenzel’s comment highlights the true motivation behind abstinence education, and it isn’t public health. The opposite appears to be true: the abstinence movement is pushing an agenda that actually supports increased rates of unintended pregnancies and STIs among teens. The folks behind abstinence education would rather put an extreme ideology first — one that advocates for traditional gender roles, bans sexual activity outside of marriage, and ignores LGBT folks altogether — than do what’s best for the health of America’s youth.
Why am I so sure about this? Because states where abstinence-only sex ed is taught have the highest rates of STI infection and teen pregnancy. The states with the lowest rates are the ones where comprehensive sex education is available to young people.
It’s pretty simple. We know abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, and yet the abstinence movement continues to teach it. Stenzel’s religious motivation for abstinence is actually quite common among abstinence speakers. Sometimes I get the sense that the abstinence crowd doesn’t even actually care whether or not it works. They seem much more preoccupied with policing other’s sex lives.
This idea that sex is immoral is based entirely on one particular ideology. But no one religious group should have the right to force their beliefs upon the majority — who may not share their views. Everyone deserves access to sexual health and wellbeing. This is something that abstinence education doesn’t teach, and our communities are suffering as a result.
Further reading: Interested in reading more about the motivations and practices of the abstinence movement? Check out Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, our Millennial Advisory Council’s latest pick for their feminist book club.