Abstinence-Only Education: Highly Funded, Highly Ineffective, and Very Harmful

| Reproaction

By: Angie Marie Luna

Growing up in a Catholic household shaped the way I was raised, and definitely how I was talked to about sex. When I was in elementary school, my mom gave me an extensive ‘period talk’ that made me feel prepared when that big day finally came. Unfortunately, that is not at all how I felt when I first had sex. My mom didn’t explain what sex was or how one gets pregnant. Instead, she just told me I must not have sex until I am married because boys are evil and just want to use me for sex. My parents decided my mother was to give me ‘the talk’ and my mom’s awkward and very brief ‘sex talk’ ended with, “they will teach you more about it in school.”

When I got to high school, I remember having a health class that focused on drug and alcohol avoidance as well as sexual education. I learned what sex was and how someone gets pregnant, but I don’t remember ever learning about contraception. Instead, I remember learning about many, many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and I remember enhanced images of genitalia with STIs bombarded us from the overhead projector. Needless to say, when I had my first relationship, I didn’t feel like I could reach out to anybody about my sexual questions, nor to anyone who could provide me with contraception. In fact, growing up as a Latina, when I asked about birth control, I was quickly shut down and told it was bad for me and could cause infertility (both are untrue but often-repeated talking points) and that I didn’t need it anyway since I wasn’t to be having sex until I was married. Unfortunately, most of my girl classmates, friend and cousins were told the same. We were all very misinformed and many of us ended up with STIs and pregnancies before the age of 20.

As you can see, abstinence-only education did not work for me and the people in my life. In fact, a study published by PubMed Central states that an increased emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates, even after accounting for socioeconomic status, teen educational attainment, ethnic composition and availability of Medicaid waivers for family planning services.  However, the US government has funded abstinence-only education for more than a decade. It is no surprise then, that the United States ranks first among developed nations in rates of both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases [1]

Table outlining U.S. teenage pregnancy and birth rates are high compared to other developed countries.

Not only is abstinence-only education – sometimes referred to as “sexual risk avoidance” – ineffective because it doesn’t delay sexual initiation nor reduce sexual risk behaviors, it is also harmful. Abstinence-only education violates adolescent human rights by withholding medically accurate information, reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and stigmatizes and excludes many youth, including those in the LGBTQ community. [2] Furthermore, according to a report prepared for staff from the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform in 2004, language used in abstinence-only education often reinforces gender stereotypes evoking women as passive and submissive and men as aggressive in opposite-gender relationships. These attitudes often correlate with harmful outcomes including rape and domestic violence. [3] In contrast, comprehensive sex education programs better equip young people for making informed choices about their bodies and lives. [2]

Abstinence-only education at its core emphasizes the idea that sex is only acceptable in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and that sexual expression outside of marriage will have harmful social, psychological, and physical consequences. [4] It also presents the idea that sexual intercourse is only appropriate once married and the only certain way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STIs. [3] Unfortunately, abstinence-only curricula includes inaccurate medical information and exaggerates statistics regarding STIs, suggesting STIs are an inevitable result of premarital sex, all of which are unsupported by health officials. [4] They do this by rarely discussing other forms of contraception except for condoms, and even then, they focus on condom failure rates. [4] Also, this type of education tends to omit critical topics such as masturbation and sexual orientation and use fear tactics to promote abstinence and limit sexual expression. [4] This is exactly what was happening when I was being shown blown-up pictures of genitalia with STIs in health class. Here is another example on the use of scare tactics regarding STIs implemented by abstinence-only curricula by a questionable group called the “Abstinence Clearinghouse”:

Scare tactics outlined on a piece of paper meant to scare people out of having sexual relations

Abstinence is framed as enhancing self-esteem, providing a higher living standard and condemns sex outside of marriage. This is a great example on how abstinence-only education can have harmful effects. For example, take Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of kidnapping and sexual assault at the age of 14, who remembers being told in sexual education that non-virgins, particularly women, are like chewed-up pieces of gum or used toothbrushes that nobody will want. This imagery is typical of abstinence-only education and can be very harmful. Elizabeth Smart remembers thinking, “Well who is going to want me?,” causing further trauma from her assault. John Oliver commented on this, stating how learning nothing would have been better than this harmful imagery. [5]

Critically, abstinence-only education tends to promote specific religious values. [4] In fact, many faith-based fake clinics called crisis pregnancy centers, such as Human Coalition, are the ones who are creating abstinence-only curricula and then selling them to schools. Reproaction has gathered all sorts of sales pitch documents, sample ‘education’ materials, and guide books used across the country. For those of you unfamiliar with crisis pregnancy centers, they are federally funded, anti-abortion fake clinics, who are often associated with Christian churches or mission groups. They use deception, bad science, coercive information and push abortion stigma. We have written a ton about fake clinics, and you can read more about them here, with many more resources on our website.

Sexual education is one of the most important topics as it can shape the rest of someone’s life. Adolescents presented with abstinence-only education that doesn’t teach them how to have safe sex, but instead pushes the idea that condoms and contraception don’t work and won’t stop STIs and pregnancies might find contraception useless and not use them at all. This could be prevented if they were shown the many, many contraceptive options that are effective and should be used. Why then, are we letting such an important topic be taught to our children by groups who do not truly care about teen sexual health, and instead are obsessed with pushing the unrealistic idea of abstinence until marriage as the end-all, be-all cure? Why do local, state and federal programs continue to fund this bad faith education that has been proven over and over again to not work and is not supported by health officials? Why are we not funding comprehensive sexual education that has proven very effective worldwide?

Everyone deserves accurate, accessible, unbiased information about sexuality and reproduction and that includes abortion and curriculum that is comprehensive when it comes to sexual activity and orientation. Adolescents deserve to have accurate sexual education so that they may be in a position to make informed decisions about their body, and we can’t let anti-abortion fake clinics or anyone else stand in the way of that need.


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