Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Why should I care about abstinence only education?

Written by Bronwen Pardes
Illustration by Hannah Hooper
Ever take a driver's ed class? Just imagine if your teacher taught you about safe driving by telling you the following: "Here's your seat belt. It's supposed to make driving safer, but it will often fail. Even if you wear it every single time you drive a car, you could still get into an accident. You might get whiplash, or some other injury, or you might die, or kill the person in the other car. So seat belts are basically useless. It's better to just refrain from driving completely. If you need to go somewhere, have your parents take you." What would you take from that lesson? Would you still want to drive? If you did, would you bother putting on a seat belt?

It may sound a little ridiculous, but that's exactly how many junior highs and high schools teach sex ed. Students are given exaggerated statistics on condom failure (the truth is, if used properly every time, they're about 99 percent effective), taught about all the bad things that can result from sex, and told that their best bet is to keep their pants on until they're married.

Programs like this became federally legislated in 1996 when Congress enacted a fifty-million-dollar-per-year program to fund abstinence-only education programs in public schools. Since then, billions of federal dollars have been spent teaching young people that, and I quote, "abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the expected standard for teenagers today."

There are some obvious and not-so-obvious flaws in this plan. First, the obvious: teenagers are horny. Their bodies are ready for sex, and their minds can focus on little else. And telling them not to do it is like telling a five-year-old to stay away from a cookie jar.

In fact, research has been done on abstinence-only education programs, comparing them with what's known as comprehensive sex education programs, which discuss the benefits of choosing abstinence while also teaching about methods of birth control and STD prevention. What's interesting is that these studies show that both types of programs result in teens waiting a little longer to have sex than they would have if they had had no education. That's a pretty good outcome—it's rare that I've heard anyone say they wish they'd started having sex sooner than they did. Waiting is usually not a bad idea.

The trouble is this: most teens are going to have sex eventually. When they do, the ones who've learned about condoms—how to put them on, where to get them, why they're important—are going to use them. Those who've learned that they'll probably fail will not. The bottom line is that young people who only learn to wait to have sex are more likely to get pregnant or get STDs when they finally do.

But here's a less obvious problem with telling kids to wait until they're married to have sex: some people can't get married. In most states in this country, couples of the same sex are denied legal marriage rights. If we are supposed to wait until marriage to have sex, do gay and lesbian people have to abstain forever?

Gay or straight, the idea that anyone is expected to wait until they're married to have sex is at best unrealistic, and at worst a lie. We live in a culture in which the vast majority of people have sex before they're married. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. People are getting married later than they were even fifty years ago. If they all waited until they were married to have sex, there'd be a lot more forty-year-old virgins around. Not to mention that sex is an important part of marriage—is it really best to wait until your wedding night to find out how things are going to go down in the bedroom?

But perhaps the most disconcerting thing about abstinence-only education is that it’s not actually education. Education should be honest, unbiased, and informative. Abstinence-only programs lie—exaggerated condom statistics, misinformation about how easy it is to get pregnant—and preach. They don't give young people comprehensive, accurate information about an extremely important part of life. They only show one side. What kind of fair, equal education is that?

The truth is, sex can lead to some serious, life-altering negative consequences (incurable viruses, unplanned pregnancies), but it can offer some life-altering positive ones too (intense intimacy, planned pregnancies). There's so much to learn—STD prevention, birth control, how to make good, true-to-yourself decisions and communicate with partners—and so few people are comfortable enough to talk about it.

As if that isn't bad enough, schools have actually been legislated out of telling it like it is. While teachers are only showing youngsters the scary side of sex, they all know the truth—that it can be one of the greatest pleasures life has to offer. By only teaching the bad stuff, schools lose credibility, and miss a great opportunity to help young people make sure that this most basic of human acts can bring them as much joy, and as little suffering as possible.

So what can you do if your school isn't offering good, honest sex ed? You can find out the answers to your questions on your own. Some ideas:

—Find websites and books that have the answers. But be careful—there's lots of bad information out there, especially online. See the list below for some trustworthy resources.

—Talk to people who have more experience than you. If you can't talk to your parents, try other grown-up relatives, teachers, or any adult who you trust.

—Go to a local clinic or Planned Parenthood if you have questions about sexual health that you don't want to ask your doctor.

—If you want to go the extra mile, get some friends together and demand from your school (or community center or other local youth organization) that they offer a comprehensive sexuality education program. You deserve to learn the facts!

Scarleteen ( "Sex education for the real world."

Planned Parenthood ( Information from the leaders in reproductive education.

TeenWire ( Planned Parenthood's website especially for teens.

Sex Etc. ( By and for young people, featuring FAQs on all aspects of sex, and weekly live chats with sex experts.

Advocates for Youth ( Strives to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about reproductive and sexual health.

Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex,
by Bronwen Pardes (Visit me on the web for honest answers to your questions at

Changing Bodies, Changing Lives
, by Ruth Bell. From some of the same people who brought you Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Deal With It
, by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald, and Rebecca Odes. From the women at
Illustration by Hannah Hooper

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