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How Abstinence Only Education Distorts the Meaning of Sex, Gender, and Abstinence

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Notre Dame chapter.

Sex education has a much greater value than we generally give it credit for. Sexual education class is the only class where students can learn about themselves. No other class can teach us about the importance of our sexuality, our bodies, our choices in regards to both, and how these decisions contribute to the ongoing debate on gender and sexuality. The purpose of sex education goes beyond learning about the male and female reproductive systems; it allows us to examine one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity. Comprehensive sexual education allows us to examine the physical, emotional, and psychological implications of sexuality in our lives and gives us the tools to make informed choices.

However, several attitudes toward sexual education have been both powerful and misiformed. The implementation of abstinence-only education has destroyed the good that sexual education could provide to students’ lives. It has reduced sexual education and health classes to little more than overexaggerated cautionary tales on sexual intercourse based on outdated information. Abstinence-only education, while arguably done with good intentions, has destroyed the environment of honest, reliable dialogue on sexual and gender issues and has created one of the most uneducated generations that are unprepared for the intense sexual saturation present in our current culture.

I would like to clarify two things first: A) I fully understand and respect Notre Dame’s (and other Catholic institutions’) policies on sexual chastity. It is not my place to either change it or insult it and B) this is not to say that abstinence is not a worthwhile choice. Abstinence encourages maturity and provides a deeper dimension to relationships. It can help people develop their emotional maturity and can lead to healthy, long lasting relationships– a great outcome. But how do we rectify the reality that many students, regardless of religion or inspite of it, will be having sex in college?

The answer is this: We need comprehensive secular sex education. By allowing teachers to integrate the full range of choices and practices regarding sex (contraceptive use, abstinence and STD preventive methods) we encourage students to make choices regarding their sexuality based on sincere convictions rather than misguided preaching and unfounded information. The reality is that sex is a decision that involves a broad range of religious, personal, and emotional decisions and attitudes. However, abstinence only education eliminates this aspect of sex and is mediocre at best. Abstinence only education eliminates the possibility of choices by assuming there are no choices. Is there really a choice to engage in or avoid sex if the options are either abstinence or severe physical consequences? How many times have students been subjected to images of mutilated genitals when the subject of sexually transmitted diseases comes up in the curriculum? Rather than focus on the personal, heart wrenching stories of HIV and other STD victims, we decide to show them images of practically disintegrated bodies as cautionary tales. We no longer see these individuals as whole people subjected to a tragic disease but as objects, as the frightening consequences of not practicing abstinence. Several curriculums have used deceptive information to persuade teenagers that condoms are ineffective for preventing HIV and AIDS (see article here). The frequent claims that condoms are ineffective at preventing STDs are both irresponsible on behalf of adults implementing sex education and are scientifically unfounded.

Don’t even get me started on how poorly sex ed. handles pregnancy and female reproductive health. Abstinence-only education tends to ignore birth control, which is probably one of the greatest demonstrations of sexism in public school. Birth control, regardless of your religious beliefs, has had a tremendous impact on women in their quest for equality, acceptance and empowerment. To deny any education on birth control is akin to denying an important chapter in women’s history. Many pro-abstinence educators exaggerate the “low efficacy” of birth control , and pro-abstinence messages are especially targeted towards girls. In addition to denying the efficiency of contraceptives, many abstinence-only curriculums emphasize the value of virginity for girls. Curriculums in various states such as Texas enforce a concept of worth in regards to a girl’s virginity, referring to a student who has had sex as “used”. Mississippi’s recent sex ed curriculum includes comparing girls who have had sex to “dirty peppermint patties”. Can we honestly encourage girls to place their value on their character and abilities rather than on their bodies if we continue to equate their character with their sex lives?  Growing up, many of the pro-abstinence commercials I heard on the radio involved a young girl rejecting a young man’s sexual advances, seldom (if ever) did I hear of girls considering or pressuring young men to have sex.  Abstinence-only education frequently teaches men to control their sexual urges while encouraging young girls not to give in to them.

This type of philosophy adds to the constant bombardment on behalf of the media that encourages feminine submission as optimal and ingrained in their nature. Women are taught to receive and accept, rather than pursue, which increases both low self esteem and lower probabilities of women pursuing leadership positions in their lives.

The worst part is that abstinence-only education effectively distorts the value of abstinence. Abstinence is seen as an imposition connected with your character rather than a conscious, well thought choice as a concious person. It becomes a choice associated with gender stereotypes and alienates women and men who associate abstinence with poor information, inequality and authoritarianism. 

Comprehensive sex education is important because it encourages young adults to make informed choices about their lives while providing reliable information about sex and subsequently lowering teen pregnancy and STD rates. Countries such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands have demonstrated much lower pregnancy rates than the U.S. by implementing comprehensive sex education that treats students as informed, capable adults. Responsible information on sexuality allows students to stop viewing sex as an unrealistic ultimate pleasure/ultimate sin dichotomy. Instead, students will view sex for what it truly is: a broad spectrum that encompasses a variety of social, emotional, and biological factors. I believe that when we inform students on sex, we will be able to form individuals with a clearer sense of what sex, gender and choice means both for them and for their community. 


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I'm a junior in Pasquerilla East Hall and am majoring in PLS and Political Science. I hail from Bayamon, Puerto Rico and as a result I wholeheartedly believe that depictions of Hell should involve snow instead of heat. In my free time I write, watch shows like Doctor Who/Steven Universe, read as many articles from EveryDay Feminism as humanly possible, and binge Nostalgia Chick on youtube.