Why Telling People Not to Have Sex Won't Help Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections

In America, the majority of states require that, if sex education is provided in school, it has to stress abstinence as the solution to avoiding unplanned pregnancy and STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). This requirement has been in place for decades. Yet, it is statistically the most ineffective method of helping folks be healthy when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.

 

Maybe that seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t abstaining from sex the one definite way to keep from getting an STI? Let’s break down why teaching abstinence fails on STI prevention.

 

1. How do we define sex?

We all have very different understandings of what “sex” means. For some folks, sex means penis and vagina penetration, for others it means oral, for some, touching. When people are told to just abstain from sex different people will have different understandings about what sex means to them. When we think about how STIs are spread, and what the research shows, just telling people to not have sex leaves a massive gap in understanding how we transmit and contract STIs. STIs can be transmitted through oral sex, sharing sex toys, and using hands and fingers with partners. Research shows that the language around abstinence-based education completely fails to define sex and how different ways of having sex relates to sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-based education also erases many LGBQ+ folks and assumes that sex is just a penis going into a vagina. This is also harmful for those who do not have penis-in-vagina sex.

 

2. People will have sex, and most will have more than one partner.

Most folks do have some type of sex before they are married. It is completely up to each individual to decide when and if any sort of sexual activity is right for them. The idea that folks should reduce their risk by never having sex, aside from a monogamous marriage, is not realistic and does not even begin to address that, yes, even marriage partners need to be mindful of sexually transmitted infections.

STI assessment guide.

 

3. Getting married, or waiting to have only one partner, will solve the STI issue.

This is an old tactic of abstinence-based sex education. Folks have been pressured for a long time to wait until they get married to have sex. That is an absolutely okay choice. It is also completely okay to not wait. However, waiting until marriage does not guarantee that STIs shouldn't’t be a part of the health care of people in a relationship. Because STIs can be spread through many different kinds of activity, partners may tell each other that, yes, they haven’t had sex. But we already know people have different ideas about what sex is. Perhaps there was still a risk of contracting an STI that they weren't’t aware of. Perhaps one partner was sexually assaulted, which is not sex (sex is consensual), and was exposed during the assault. Perhaps one partner or both don’t feel like they can disclose their sexual history for fear of losing face or the love of their partner. Even monogamous, married, or long-term partners should keep STI health in mind. Whether they are managing an STI or getting regular testing even if they don’t have symptoms.

How to tell your partner you have an STI.

People with no sexual experience can have an STI.

 

4. STIs are the end of the world.

Sexually transmitted infections are often portrayed to be the end any possibility of a satisfying and healthy sex life. This isn’t the case at all. Having the tools to be aware of risks, protection and prevention methods, and medical care and communication, all contribute to making sure folks pursue the sex life they want. Abstinence-based education often relies on scare tactics to try and keep people from having the “wrong” sort of sex. This is not okay. It is not shameful to have an STI. It does not make someone a bad person. It also doesn't’t mean that they can never have sex again. By talking about sexually transmitted infections openly between partners, folks can work together or reducing risk when possible and supporting each other.

 

For many of us, sexually transmitted infections are scary. But we have many tools available to help us manage our sexual health as best we can. What we should hope to accomplish is to reject the tactics of abstinence-based education and take control of our bodies and lives in a way that is best for each of us.