Abstinence-first education: truth, choice, and a responsible alternative
by Kelly Roache
On the modern political spectrum, social conservatism is all too often automatically equated with a pro abstinence-only stance. However, the complexity of this issue demands a more nuanced view of the question at hand; for instance, Princeton’s own Anscombe Society has no position on the topic. If the ultimate aim of sex education is to protect both the physical and emotional wellbeing of the students it serves, perhaps a “middle ground” is the most suitable solution: that of abstinence-first education.
Abstinence-first shatters the arguments of its would-be critics by teaching about safe-sex (and even sex in general, nullifying a major criticism of abstinence-only), but being expressly clear that abstinence is the only 100% effective method for preventing the transmission of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and emotional consequences. Even initially, this approach may seem more agreeable to students while providing them with accurate information, something often lacking in sexual education programs around the country, but still expressing a clear preference for abstinence in light of these facts.
Critics of abstinence-only like to point to misinformation preached in a few notably exceptional districts as evidence that such programs support an underlying religious or ideological agenda. Not only is there a strong secular argument for abstinence, but I think most reasonable people, conservative and liberal alike, can agree that this should be the basis of an abstinence-first program, one founded in truth. And it follows that while neither religion nor fear of sex should be invoked as an agenda, neither should more liberal doctrines, such as the argument that students should be exploring their sexual freedom an identities at age 13.
Rather, when the goal is safety and happiness for our little sisters and cousins and nieces and – someday – daughters, the most effective tool is truth. Too many sex ed programs tout condoms as a magical solution preventing disease and pregnancy when used properly. However, condoms are almost completely ineffective when it comes to some lifelong STDs like herpes and HPV, whose implications range from lifelong outbreaks to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Spread by skin-to-skin contact, these viruses cannot be prevented through condom usage, but only by abstinence, giving schools a responsibility to endorse this method. Moreover, there has been an ongoing debate on this blog about abortion, and while we may disagree as to whether it is bad for women, I think there is little question that it is devastating for young girls. Nor is it desirable for a 16-year-old to raise a child either on her own or in a hasty marriage. By not clearly delineating sex, even with birth control, as potentially having the consequence of pregnancy, we fail in our responsibility to provide the most accurate information, thus protecting our girls’ agency.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for abstinence-first education is that it presents a choice, which is ultimately left up to the student; this is preferable to hearing only the abstinence argument or having it omitted all together in curricula that assume teenagers will have sex regardless. As feminists, we should laud abstinence-first programs as offering an alternative that protects girls and young women from the emotional damage that often stems from sex or even the pressure to have sex itself, while still providing them with information to keep them safe should they choose to be sexually active. By preserving this choice, but being honest about the risks and rewards involved, we can empower our girls by freeing them from the mold of a sexual object and allowing the facts to speak for themselves.