Laid to Rest: How Abstinence-Only Programs Let Down Millennials

  1. Home
  2. Culture Wars
By Caroline Kent | 5:33 pm, October 9, 2016
Read More

2016 marks the 20th anniversary of a welfare reform law which changed the way that many teens are taught about sex. In 1996 the federal government launched its first major investment in abstinence-only education.

My millennial peers and I were kids when it was implemented, teens when the funding manifested in to classroom experiences. We’re probably the first test-generation for whether well-funded abstinence-based sex education works.

Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t.

With states that push abstinence-only sex-education showing the worse rates of teen pregnancy and STDs, are we failing as educators – indeed as Christians – to protect our kids, if we keep teaching abstinence as the only solution?

Much of my family are in the bible belt, a place where abstinence before marriage is exemplary. At Catholic school in England I saw the trend for so-called “purity” rings from afar, I watched documentaries about dads proudly placing jewellery on the fingers of barely-teen girls who would in return make a promise to stay “pure”. Why, I wondered, was a 35 year man modelling the burgeoning sexuality of a little girl? Was it all as creepy as it looked? And more importantly: did it work?

The funding of abstinence-based sex-ed as its currently known in the USA began in ’81 when Reagan dedicated a small pool of money supporting social programs “promoting abstinence through reproductive health education”. Then twenty years ago under President Bush funding soared to $50 million a year and the rules about what was to be taught grew more prescriptive.

Post-1996, federally funded sex-ed had “as its exclusive purpose: teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. It taught “that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems” and that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.” If contraception is mentioned, it can only be done in reference to its likelihood to fail to protect you from pregnancy and STDs.

Congress dedicated over 1.5 billion tax-payer dollars to this specific abstinence curriculum between 1996 and 2010. Organizations that encouraged teens to sign “virginity pledges” and wear “purity rings” also got federal grants; The Silver Ring Thing, an evangelical offshoot, received more than $1million.

The reform was popular amongst a socially conservative electorate who, for example, berated Bush for suggesting that condoms could help in the fight against AIDS. But abstinence-based sex ed programs were not without their critics, who viewed it as blatant Christian moralism that violates the separation of church and state, and perhaps even the constitution.

Policies have been called paternalistic, even dangerous. Besides the STD risks associated with skipping the info on condoms (people ages 15 to 24 represent 25% of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs at a rate of nearly 10 million new cases a year) the way that organizations such as Advocates for Youth see it “the federal government is supporting education that censors information to youth”.

Obama’s attempts to devolve federal abstinence-based education funding were short-lived, but individual states can reject this sex-ed funding (23 have).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the states who retain it are overwhelmingly based in the “bible belt”. These abstinent states also, according to a significant amount of data, have the highest rates of teen pregnancies.

A 2008 University of Washington study, for example, found that teens who received comprehensive sexual education were 50% less likely to report teen pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.

Furthermore, researchers at Yale and Columbia found that teens who pledged to abstain from sex until marriage were almost as likely to become infected with an STD as their non-pledging peers. Whilst purity pledgees had fewer partners and married younger, they were also more likely to engage in oral and anal sex and not use condoms.

But why is it that those who receive the most fool-proof education on the ultimate form of contraception (chastity) end up getting STDs and giving birth as teens outside wedlock at an alarming rate?

Teens are curious creatures. Their bodies are new and exciting. They are fed an unparalleled barrage of content from the Internet (and given little support by mature adults to unpack and contextualize it), they are susceptible to peer pressure, perhaps increasingly so via social media. They are getting married (if at all) at a later age than ever before. Whilst teens typically lose their virginity at 17, women and men are delaying marriage until around 29; whether you’re on the ‘side’ of church or state, you have to agree that persuading young adults to postpone sex for over a decade is looking more unrealistic than ever before.

Abstinence-based seem to function by locking sexuality in a box and throwing it at the bottom of the closet (and there’s little more appealing to a curious or rebellious teen than Pandora’s box). And sex education (abstinence-based or otherwise) is typically taught in a way that disempowers and disconnects young people from their bodies. It’s based on a language of fear, shame, impurity and guilt. Our education about sex didn’t touch on trust, love, joy, intimacy. Procreation wasn’t posed as an act of love nor a joining of families. It was a worst-case scenario, akin to terminal chlamydia.

I received an abstinence-based educational environment which failed (quite spectacularly) to convince my teenage self that it was worth waiting until my wedding night, but I remain open to the idea that “no-sex-before-marriage” can provide a healthy and secure framework in which to introduce young people to their burgeoning sexual identity. In spite of the statistics, I plan on advising my kids to save sex for a committed relationship. Whilst I don’t expect them to be perfect, I do want to give them something to aim for!

However, I’m realistic. I know that whilst when it comes to preventing pregnancy and STDs, abstinence works 100% of the time but teenagers do not. The aims of abstinence education are noble, but its relevance to today’s young people is weak.

While a reform of the guiding principles behind abstinence education seems unlikely (and perhaps even unnecessary), I think it’s essential to update the way sexuality identity is discussed with teens. If not for their sake, then for the sake of our wallets: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that teenage childbearing costs taxpayers at least $9.4 billion a year.

My generation and I weren’t taught about sex as a special, important, sacred thing. Consent wasn’t mentioned. Happiness and fulfillment didn’t factor. It was vague, awkward for everyone involved. For example the anatomy and function of the various parts of my vagina were not discussed.

The view on sex that I was given by my abstinence-based education wasn’t mature, relevant or remotely empowering. Is it any wonder that the idea of waiting until marriage didn’t seem to stick?