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Should we even mention abstinence in sex education? What does abstinence entail? Is it practical? Is it helpful or harmful? What does abstinence programming teach?

A special thanks to Maureen Kelly and Bill Taverner whose writing in the book Taking Sides contributed in a large part to this episode.

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I'm Dr. Lindsey Doe and this sex-curious show is Sexplanations.


I've probably struggled to understand abstinence more than any other sexually related topic I can think of, even though it should be simple.  It's just the absence of something, in this case, sex.  Why do we call abstinence-only education a type of sex education?  That's like telling someone to stay out of a pool and calling it a swim lesson.  Why has the US government invested billions of dollars, billions, on programs to promote abstinence when we know that it doesn't work?  Most students who receive abstinence education do not abstain.  Instead, they're more likely to transmit infections, more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, more likely to start sexual onset earlier, and more likely to feel shame that impacts their sexuality in the future than students who learn how to make decisions.

Why, why, do we teach students abstinence-only education?  Many organizations of public health professionals don't just prefer comprehensive sex education, they're against abstinence programs.  These include organizations like The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National School Boards Association.  What does abstinence teach?  

According to section 510(b) of Title V, the Social Security Act PL 104-193, the federal definition of abstinence education is "an educational or motivational program which has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity, teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school age children, teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out of wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems, teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity, teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects, teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society, teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity."

So.  Sex should only take place in the context of marriage.  If it doesn't, you're likely to experience harm and your family will experience harm and your community will experience harm.  We'll teach you how to reject sexual advances but nothing about how to abstain, what to do to understand and care for your body without sex, and if it's someone else's choice to abstain, we're not going to teach you how to respect their choice.

There's no space for abstinence as an option within marriage and it excludes the experience of most people, because most people have sex outside of marriage.  I don't get it.  It doesn't work and it doesn't care that it doesn't work.  Did you know that to make sure the funds for abstinence-only programs aren't spent giving information about sex to pre-adolescents, they're targeted for "adolescents and/or adults within to 12-29 year old age range".  There's nothing wrong with not having sex until you're 30 or ever, nothing, but age also bears no significance on a person's readiness, capability, or preparation.

It's like, get married or age out of expectations to have sex, but that doesn't teach you what sex is, how to actually protect yourself if you become sexually active, or what to do if you change your mind.  GRRR  WHAT.  I DON'T EVEN.  Why is the standard of abstinence "education" to abstain until marriage and not to wait until you decide that you're ready.

What about people who don't want to get married?  What about people who couldn't get married or can't now?  What about people who don't or won't have committed partnerships?  What about people who don't want to have sex or asexuals who aren't attracted to it but still deserve knowledge?  If you treat abstinence like it's only a waiting period, when it may or may not be a choice.  Why do you we want people to abstain?

Sex has a lot of benefits and can be a natural and healthy part of development, so what actually constitutes abstinence?  Humping?  Kissing?  Handjobs?  Fingering?  Oral sex?  Masturbation?  In high school, I thought that I was practicing abstinence.  I was waiting until marriage.  My partner wasn't allowed to put his penis in my vagina, but my mouth and my anus?  That was fine.  

Some definitions of abstinence say not engaging in anything where body fluids are exchanged.  Some say anything goes as long as there isn't thrusting.  Have you heard of soaking?  A penis goes into a vagina and just rests there.  As long as there's no movement, no thrusting, it's not sex.  It's abstinence.  What about vulva to vulva contact?  Toys, pleasuring one's own body?  

Clue2000, an abstinence-only program, defines abstinence as, "voluntarily refraining from all sexual relationships before marriage in order to uplift your own self worth and provide the freedom to build character, develop career potentials, and practice true love."   It's all presented like it's for the good of the student, to build self-control, protect oneself from diseases, and ground relationships in love rather than lust, but that's false advertising!  You don't need to hold off on sex to strengthen your character.  Abstaining from sex is great for preventing pregnancy and STI transmission, but it's not the only way and sex and love and lust and relationships are far more complicated than abstinence programs suggest.

Maureen Kelly, in her piece The Semantics of Sex Ed, compares abstinence-only rhetoric to father knows best.  "Teach kids what to think, not how to think, pick yourself up by the bootstraps, stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about, one nation under god, don't have sex until you're married."  She offers instead that a more effective approach is empathy and nurturance, open, two-way communication, honesty, choice, trust, integrity, opportunity, and freedom.  There's actually a really great chapter in this book, Taking Sides, written between Maureen Kelly and Bill Taverner about teaching abstinence.

Should we even use the word 'abstinence'?  How do we build upon the idea and include it as a choice rather than the standard?  How do we heal the damage from phrasing like 'good cowgirls keep their calves together'?  This book is great.  Learning is often really helpful for understanding the world.  It doesn't mean that I'm going to put myself at risk or do things before I'm ready.  It means that I'm prepared to make informed decisions and seek out resources when there are new variables to consider.

"The more we take the shame and taboo-filled mystique from sex and help it assume a normal, natural, spoken about and human part of our lives, the better off we all are."  Stay curious.