By the time I was 21, I’d had intercourse with two people: my first husband, and my (eventual) second husband. That may seem a bit strange to some of you; that, and the fact that I was first married at the young age of 17. But when you grow up in the Bible Belt, and purity culture is crammed down your throat from the time you understand the concept of private parts, you’re conditioned to believe that non-married sex is bad sex. And, that if you have that “bad” sex, the only way to become absolved of your guilt is to marry the person you’re having sex with. There are SO many problems with this train of thought; not limited to teen pregnancy or the purity culture that entices people to get married to the wrong person. I’m going to argue the problem of abstinence-only education from a health standpoint, as well as a sex-positive one.
First, let’s look at the health aspect. If you’re only being taught what not to do, how can you know the correct way to do the things you’re not supposed to be doing? That is, how do you know how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy? If teens aren’t learning it from those in charge of teaching, they are learning it somewhere else…which likely includes their peers, and pornography. And states where abstinence-only education is the sole curriculum have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. In truth, abstinence-only education tends to include lots of “save yourself for marriage” talk, and very little “these methods can keep you safe from STDs and unwanted pregnancy” discussions. Let’s face it. Teens are having sex with or without their parents or pastor’s permission, and they need accurate information in order to be safer while doing so.
So what kinds of information should be included in sex Ed class? Can we at least start with basic human anatomy? As a vagina nurse having cared for literally hundreds of women, I can tell you that sizes and shapes of genitalia vary from one woman to another. That, and you might be shocked at how many women are ignorant of their own basic anatomy; including that urine comes from a different hole than the vagina. Basic genital anatomy should be taught to our adolescents at the least. Otherwise they grow up learning about their bodies and sex from unreliable sources, such as pornography and pop culture. And what better way to breed shame and guilt over ones body than to keep children- when their bodies are changing in such profound and awkward ways- in the dark about it?
We could also talk about consent, which is obviously not a widely understood concept, as 18% of women in the U.S. report having been raped. It seems like common sense and decency to so many of us, but for some it’s not. In fact, there are probably many more grey areas to what constitutes consent and sexual assault. For example, if both partners are drunk and they each seem to consent, is it truly consent in the presence of intoxication? If not, who decides who consented and who did not? These grey areas are some of the reasons there are apps made specifically for consent.
The other problem with abstinence-only education is that it goes hand in hand with purity culture, and that it is so profoundly against sex positivity. And imagine, if you went through the horrible ordeal of being sexually abused as a child in some way, and then you went to church or school and were given the message of being damaged goods because you were no longer considered a virgin. As if our intrinsic value is tied to the state of our genitalia. Think about how insane that seems. But that philosophy is so prolific in this Puritanical culture. Elizabeth Smart talks about that in her memoir, which you can find out about here. Long story short, she was abducted, held captive for months, and raped repeatedly. As if that ordeal wasn’t traumatic enough, after she was recovered, she was made to feel as if she was damaged by her church because she was “no longer a virgin”. That’s purity culture for you, and in my opinion is more of an abomination than being a teenager and having safe sex.
So why are we working so hard to convince teens that no sex is the only sex, and that they should marry the first person they have intercourse with? That is the nature of abstinence-only education. Can you imagine marrying the first person you were in like with as a teenager? Unfortunately, their impulsive nature and immature brains can lead to some very poor decision making. Shouldn’t we at least arm them with good information to give them a better chance at making better decisions? Knowledge is power, and we should be empowering our youth with as much information as possible to give them a great start in life.
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