"Abstinence-only" is a high school sexual education curriculum which focuses on the consequences of premarital sex, and emphasizes that the only acceptable form of sexuality is between one married man and woman. The teachings of such programs ignore discussion around birth control, condoms, sexual health and identity; Some programs encourage that only negative information about sex and sexuality may be distributed. Many people support abstinence-only education because they believe that abstinence is the only way of preventing pregnancy and that teaching teens about sexual health sends them the message the message that is acceptable for them to have sex.
Supporters of an abstinence-only approach to sexual feel that abstinent teens are more healthy than their sexually-active counterparts. Supporters often point to “studies” that suggest:
Abstinent teens report, on average, better psychological well-being and higher educational attainment than those who are sexually active. Delaying the initiation of or reducing early sexual activity among teens can decrease their overall exposure to risks of unwed childbearing, STDs, and psycho-emotional harm (Rector).
According to these reports, abstinent teens are superior to sexually active teens, which consequently is the exact reasoning for the justification for abstinence-only programs being taught in schools. Sadly, such studies are untruthful and unfounded. As a matter of fact, an actual study from Johns Hopkins University discovered very little differences in the health of teens who were taught abstinence-only education and those who took part in comprehensive sex education courses. The only variation between the two groups of students was that the abstinence-only groups were less likely to use contraception and had an overall negative and inaccurate view of sex (Roffman). Clearly, the claim that abstinent teenagers are more healthy than sexually-active teens is invalid because there is no sufficient scientific evidence proving this view.
Likewise, allies of abstinence programs believe abstinence-only sex education is beneficial to society because they feel teen sexuality is “costly.” This belief is clear in the article “Abstinence Education Programs Are Effective”, where it states:
Teen sexual activity is costly, not just for teens, but also for society. Teens who engage in sexual activity risk a host of negative outcomes including STD infection, emotional and psychological harm, lower educational attainment, and out-of-wedlock childbearing (Rector).
This claim is valid, considering having sex obviously puts one at risk for pregnancy and STD transmission. However, the claim that abstinence education will actually prevent teens from having sex is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true:
From the 1960s through 1990, increasing involvement in sexual activity by teenagers in Western Europe and the United States was accompanied by sharply lower teen birth and pregnancy rates in most countries, due to greatly improved contraceptive use. Today, better use of contraceptives is the major behavioral difference between European and U.S. teenagers (“New York Court of Appeals Strikes Down Condom Distribution Program as Unconstitutional”).
That said, the opposing claim that abstinence programs are better for society is false because such programs ignore all discussion around contraception, which is proven to drive down teen pregnancy rates, and that in turn benefits society. Furthermore, the rate of STD transmission in teenagers are the same, no matter what education they received (Beh & Milton).
While some believe abstinence-only sex education should be taught in schools because these programs produce healthier teens and benefit society, there is overwhelmingly more evidence which proves that these programs are completely ineffective when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy, and discouraging teenagers from having sex, and that the nature of such programs is fear-based and prejudiced. In conclusion, abstinence-only education is a far cry from real sexual education, but a relic from the sexually-oppressed and misguided history of America.
Image Credit: Dat L., Worcester, MA
Teen pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) are a huge problem for the country. The financial and emotional strain of a pregnancy is too much for many teenagers and even those that are able to handle it have a hard time providing a quality life to their offspring. STIs are just as large of an issue, with many people dying or having to endure treatment for the rest of their lives due to these infections. The weapon on the frontline to try and stop these issues is sexual education, and it has been for a while now. However, Sex ed is not getting the job done like it should. There are many concepts that, in much of the country, are not covered in a school’s health class. If these ideas were touched on by the school and a trained professional, the fight against problems such as teen pregnancy, STIs, and more would be greatly benefited. Sexual education should be broadened and increased in the schools of America to better prepare and equip students for the future.
The National Education Association first promoted the idea of sex ed in 1892. Even with the backing of this association, the federal government gave no regulations, guidelines, or funding to the program. This led to the teaching of sexual activities and their repercussions to fall to the States and eventually to individual county’s or schools. The national government finally allotted funds for sex ed in 1996, and also provided suggested guidelines for the programs (Advocates for Youth). At this point the goal of sex ed was to battle STIs, while also attempting to stop teen pregnancy cases. The methods utilized in these early classes came with one main message, stay abstinent until married. The programs did not include talk of any other methods to prevent infections or pregnancy. This way of teaching sex would become known as the abstinence-only method (Greatschools).
Today, the topic of discussion has shifted to an almost fifty-fifty split between teen pregnancy and STIs. This is due to a rise in teen pregnancy and new government outlines on what a successful sex ed program should do. These guidelines unfortunately, are just guidelines and there is still no nationwide standard for sexual education. This has led to poor education in many states with more than half of all programs not covering what is recommended by the United States and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (St. Louis Dispatch). Beyond a low bar, only twenty states actually require sex ed, and nearly all give parents the option to opt their child out (NBC News). Abstinence-only curriculums are still a favorite by many states throughout the country, but some competition is brewing. A new type of sex ed has become popular in recent years, it is known as comprehensive sexual education. These new programs strive to teach about sex in a progressive, mature, and secular manner. While still promoting abstinence as the only one hundred percent effective birth control, a comprehensive curriculum strives to touch on topics abstinence-only chooses not to (Greatschools). It is currently unknown if these types of classes will grow in popularity or if traditional abstinence based classes are here to stay.
The future of sexual education is not completely unclear. As teen pregnancy and STIs do not seem to be leaving anytime soon, it is not likely the removal of sex ed programs will happen in many places. The nature of these classes is a different story. On one hand, the abstinence-only classes that have been around since the beginning are an option. On the other, new comprehensive programs could take the lead. Abstinence based curriculums are seen by many to be highly based in religion, especially Christianity. This is because the classes follow many traditional Catholic and other Christian rules. These include lack of discussion about contraception and LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, etc.) lifestyles (Greatschools). While seventy percent of the United States identify as some form of Christian, this number has dropped about a point a year for the last seven years (Washington Post). This decrease in Christian families and lifestyles may lead to an opening for comprehensive programs. Whichever technique is adopted, there are signs that the country may soon be given national funds and guidelines for these classes (Advocates for Youth). Choosing which type of program to go with may just be the most important part. When comparing the two types it is a necessity to first look at what makes them different.
The first place the two program types differ is in the realm of religion. Religious supports of abstinence classes argue that teaching children about sexual topics that their religion does not support is a violation of their freedom of religion. Comprehensive supporters respond by addressing that religion has no place in a public school to begin with (McGovern). Many abstinence-only advocates agree with this sentiment, but they say that if religion does not belong in schools then neither does sex. Those holding this point of view believe that sex is truly meant to be learned at home where religious ideals can be observed and explained. The opposition to this point says that while that could be true, it is unfair and dangerous for parents to arbitrarily decide which parts of sexual education should be taught to their kids. The kid’s welfare is thought to be at risk if all of the topics possible to be covered are not (Secular Coalition of America).
Comprehensive programs also clash with their abstinence based counter parts in the realm of LGBT+ lifestyles. These ways of life are not discussed in any form in abstinence based classrooms. Nuclear heterosexual relationships are portrayed as being the most natural and socially accepted relationships. The comprehensive program takes a completely different approach in this area. LGBT+ sexual activities are described and discussed as often and with as much importance as straight acts of the same kind. This approach is supported by the federal guidelines for sexual education, as a growing number of youth are identifying as one form or another in the LGBT+ community (Isadora). It is becoming increasingly important to educate these students on their body and the types of risks they face that may differ from the risks a heterosexual classmate may face.
The final major split between the types of education center around the topic of birth control. Following the trend, the abstinence-only programs once again choose to not provide any information on birth control to the students. A company that runs an abstinence-only program in West Texas is known as The Life Center. An argument against birth control from The Life Center is that by giving teens a way to perform sexual acts then the acts are being encouraged. Under this philosophy The Life Center has been able to boast higher rates of STIs, teen pregnancy, and dropouts from high school in the two counties that it serves, compared to the rest of Texas (The Atlantic). The comprehensive programs say that teens are going to engage in sexual activity whether or not they are introduced to birth control. This leads to the idea that giving teens access and knowledge of birth control is the better choice when preaching of safe sex behaviors.
After reviewing the differences between the two types of sexual education programs, one can clearly see the choice that would prove more effective and informative. Comprehensive sexual education is the way that the nation will soon see to be the smarter option. Abstinence-only curriculums simply do not do the job that is required of them. Sex ed is more than just sex, it encompasses topics from sexual activities, to gender identity, to healthy relationships (Planned Parenthood). Some will argue that the reasons for switching to comprehensive programs do not outweigh the reasons to stick with the traditional method, but this is just not true. The United States needs comprehensive sexual education to lower rates of teen pregnancy, STIs, and to help teens develop healthier relationships.
Kansas currently has a very in depth and comprehensive sexual education. These classes talk of birth control, contraception, and more that abstinence-only classes simply would not. This has resulted in a drop of fifty percent of teen pregnancy in the state since 1990, with a lower rate being present every year (Associated Press). Alongside birth control options, the lower pregnancy rate may be a result of the programs willingness to discuss and inform about LGBT+ relationships, unlike most of the United States. This is essential to a sex ed program’s success, because in this country teen girls who identify as lesbian or bisexual have a higher chance of becoming pregnant than their straight counterparts (Center for American Progress). These statistics are frightening to a lot of people in the USA and the only way to have any change is with comprehensive programs. The abstinence based courses simply do not cover ways to prevent teen pregnancy, the way a proper program should.
By not covering LGBT+ lifestyles in the classroom, abstinence-only education is also neglecting to control the STI rate in the US. Two-thirds of all HIV cases occur in men that are sexually active with other men. This can be directly traced to the fact that same sex activities are not discussed and the risks of such acts are not taught (Center for American Progress). In an attempt to promote religious rhetoric, abstinence-only programs also cause higher STI rates by not talking of birth control such as condoms. Comprehensive programs cover every way to protect from a sexual disease and that is what needs to be done to stop the pandemic of these infections. Teens need to know all of the options that are available to them both now and in the future (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
Sexual relationships may seem as though they are a given for sex education, but comprehensive education also strives to include other types of relationships within the curriculum. Having a healthy relationship in many different ways is important to the health of teens. In a romantic relationship, comprehensive programs cover the ways to spot and to get out of an abusive or unhealthy relationship. The classes also try to point out ways in which relationships can be unhealthy even if they are not romantically based. Familial and friend based relationships are also covered in depth and ways to improve or eliminate unhealthy ones are provided (Advocates for Youth). This is essential to lowering teen pregnancy rates, as females who are in some sort of abusive relationships have a higher likelihood of becoming pregnant (Associated Press). Besides stopping pregnancy, teaching the ins and outs of how to operate a relationship in the most productive way possible can be extremely beneficial to many people as they develop new relationships later in their lives.
Converting the U.S. to a comprehensive form of sexual education is vital to equipping teens with the tools and knowledge they need to lead happy and healthy lives. As abstinence-only sex education programs are being proven to be inefficient, it is the logical choice to change how these serious subjects are taught. Including talks of topics that may be seen by some to be inappropriate or anti-religious, is in fact exactly what should be done. Religion and opinion should not be dominating the discussion of a fact and information based class and school system.
Curriculum that covers all necessary areas, as in comprehensive programs, should be spread about the country if one wants to have the healthiest teens and future generations as possible.