Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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.


At April 7, 2009 at 2:14 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

Kelly writes "I think there is little question that [abortion] is devastating for young girls." I disagree; I think there is a lot of question.

Like any other significant choice, the decision whether to have an abortion does not exist in a vacuum; it can only be weighed against its alternatives. And it is not a question of "Would I rather have an abortion or eat an ice cream cone, but "Would I rather have an abortion, or continue a pregnancy and put my baby up for adoption, or continue a pregnancy and become a parent?" This is a very serious question, and different women will come to different conclusions.

I'm troubled by the terms "young girls" and "devastating." Is a young girl a 17-year-old or a 9-year-old? For a 9-year-old, giving birth will likely result in death or serious injury--truly a "devastating" prospect. For a 17-year-old, the burden of bearing and raising a child may well "devastate" her future plans and goals.

I'm sick of this portrayal of abortion as something that necessarily haunts or "devastates" the women and girls who undergo it. Some people believe that a fetus has moral rights--but not everyone does. (I don't.) And many people who accept a fetus's rights recognize that they're outweighed by its host's. The idea that "young girls" must suffer some psychological harm is projection (or wishful thinking) on the part of abortion opponents.

Like everyone else, I'd prefer to prevent unwanted pregnancies before they happen. But they do happen, and when they do, for many women (and "young girls") abortion is a liberating, not a devastating option.

At April 7, 2009 at 4:50 PM , Anonymous JKis said...

Thanks, Kelly, for an interesting and thoughtful post. I think abstinence-first is a responsible combination of pro-abstinence values with the ethical obligation to properly educate young people about sex/contraception/etc.

I do want to take issue, though, with this notion of "emotional consequences" and "the emotional damage that often stems from sex." This, to me, is reminiscent of a huge, underlying problem of abstinence-only education: it teaches kids that sex is a 'bad' thing, something to be afraid of having, and guilty about. Much of the 'emotional damage' you allude to might be ameliorated by teaching young people about sex in a way that doesn't make them feel like failures or transgressors when they do have it.

I don't want to suggest that any negative emotional experience provoked by a sexual encounter might have been prevented by a more sex-positive education- many people, of course, have sexual encounters are in themselves traumatic. These cases are tragedies, but I'm not speaking about them. I'm speaking about the (much more frequent) situations in which young people feel experience emotional upheaval after having sex because they've been taught to think that what they've done is 'wrong' or 'dirty' or (in some cases) 'sinful'. THIS emotional damage can be prevented. And it should be.

We should talk about sex to young people not as something that will damage them, but as something that will -one day, hopefully not too soon- become a wonderful and fulfilling part of their lives. We should give them knowledge, not fear.

At April 7, 2009 at 6:08 PM , Blogger Courtny said...

The only secular argument you present for abstinence-first education is the 100% guarantee of protection against pregnancy, STDs, and "emotional consequences" that comes from abstinence.

You then argue that comprehensive sex ed presented along with abstinence first education would be the most effective way to prevent these issues.

I don't see why the emphasis on abstinence is relevant. A good comprehensive sex-ed program is about choices--and abstinence is presented as one of those choices.

The only thing abstinence first sex ed offers that regular comprehensive sex-ed doesn't is the value judgment that abstinence is better. *eyeroll*

At April 7, 2009 at 8:04 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


"The only secular argument you present for abstinence-first education is the 100% guarantee of protection against pregnancy, STDs, and "emotional consequences" that comes from abstinence."

That's a powerful argument-- sufficient to justify the value judgment that abstinence is better, in my view.

However, most sex ed, including this "abstinence-first" idea, conveys a risk management view of human sexuality. As such it falls short of what is really needed, because it separates sexuality from the context of the whole human person-- a person in relationship with other persons. I think it is impossible to separate sex from questions about the right and wrong way to treat other people, ie. it's not just about managing your own personal risk.

At April 7, 2009 at 11:55 PM , Blogger Aku said...

I agree with Courtny, JKis, and TommyD on this. The "liberal" idea of comprehensive sex education, by definition, presents students with a complete set of options. Without presuming that students will be "devastated" or face "emotional consequences" from having sex, we instead want to educate them--and while that definitely means teaching that "abstinence is the only 100% effective method for preventing the transmission of STDs [and] accidental pregnancy," it doesn't mean we need to present that option as the best one in every scenario.

The problem with abstinence-first education is that it doesn't let the facts speak for themselves. It still presents sex as an afterthought or a worst-case scenario; if you must do it, you're saying, be prepared to face the consequences. If you really want to empower young girls and women, it's best not to lecture, however subtly. To say that you can combine abstinence-first education with a fair, comprehensive curriculum that allows for freedom of choice is patently false.


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