Monday, February 16, 2009

Side effects of abstinence-only programs

I've linked to's "When Rape Culture meets abstinence-only sex ed" post in the last two (or three?) posts, but haven't actually written about it. First of all, because I didn't think I could calm down enough to write about it coherently. Second of all, because the post already says it so well.

Abstinence-only programs are stupid*. They have one thing to say: DO NOT HAVE SEX. By definition abstinence-only programs have to withhold information; since they do not have information to give out, they have to use scare tactics and misinformation.

From Planned Parenthood's site:

Comprehensive Sexuality Education Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education
Teaches that sexuality is a natural, normal, healthy part of life Teaches that sexual expression outside of marriage will have harmful social, psychological, and physical consequences

And don't tell me my source of info is biased, because we see abstinence-only programs outside of health class, and this is what they do. Their message is DO NOT HAVE SEX. Why? BECAUSE SEX IS BAD. PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEX ARE BAD, because SEX IS BAD.

Most of these "bad things" will happen to the girl: pregnancy, obviously, but also girls are more likely to get an STI from unprotected sex than guys. And we are all familiar with the popular double-standard: girls who have sex are sluts (thank you abstinence-only programs for promoting this thought process), guys who have sex are studs. We get this from the media, but abstinence-only programs reinforce the mindset that "if you have sex you are a slut" (and, from what I have seen, they do not do much to shift any of the guilt to the guy).

Nobody puts a scarlet "S" on your chest when you have sex, but you might as well wear it once you start showing. Sadly, the pregnancy only shows in the girl; the guy has no visible symptoms proving him guilty of impregnating a girl. So we blame the person we can point to, the girl.

And she is a whore, because she had sex.


You know what else happens?

When you spend so much time drilling into a girl's head that SEX IS BAD (until marriage), the part of the message in parenthesis doesn't really get across. You can't turn it off. You've spent so much time telling these girls that SEX IS BAD and that if they have sex, well, then YOU ARE BAD, that by golly some of these girls are going to learn their lesson well. So the first time they have sex? They now feel "bad," dirty, whorish. Yes, because we need MORE ways to crush girls' -- and women's -- self-esteem and sense of worth.

I received comprehensive sex ed in school (at least in middle school; don't remember much from high school health class), but I grew up Catholic. So I got the SEX IS BAD message loud and clear.

This did not keep me from having sex before marriage; it simply made me feel like a whore when I eventually did have sex (before marriage). It also made me think, "Dammit, if I'm already a whore, might as well go all out, huh?" In for a penny, in for a pound!

I was already a BAD person for having had sex, regardless of how I felt about the guy, how he felt about me, or how long we'd been together. SEX IS BAD, period. Since it didn't matter, might as well go out and have one-night stands, since, as long as it was outside of marriage, it was all equally bad.

This mindset leads women to make some very stupid choices.

Even now, as a married woman -- when it's "okay" to have sex, because I have a little piece of paper that says so -- the message is still deeply ingrained in my head. Sex should be something natural, something intimate, special... no, it's just something BAD. You cannot undo the programming.



  1. You are overlooking that when teaching girls SEX IS BAD, you are giving boys the best tool possible to get some action. Girls love bad boys.

  2. Not to mention that a lot of the abstinence-only programs teach outright WRONG information, like that condoms don't work. They may not be the best option out there (uh, except for protecting against STIs they are.. b/c they're pretty much the only option) but it's much better to have SOMETHING than NOTHING.

  3. Oh god. I just read the post you linked to. HORRIFYING.

  4. I have a dear friend who grew up in the LDS church and abstained from sex until marriage. Now she has the most horrifying intimacy issues, all because she feels overwhelming guilt that sex is just plain bad, and that the only way in which it becomes a good thing is if it produces children (within marriage, of course). Needless to say that's not really doing a lot of good for her marriage, or her psyche. Sex is wonderful and natural in a safe environment, and everyone has sexual desires, so it's inevitable that women will feel massive guilt for those desires if they've been taught that abstinence before marriage is the only way to live a virtuous life.

    I, on the other hand, was lucky enough to grow up with liberal parents in liberal church, all of whom affirmed that sexuality is a healthy and wonderful part of life, as long as you're careful. I think it's served me incredibly well - I was able to wait until I was comfortable to have sex, and once I was ready to do so, I was really able to enjoy it and make it a positive part of my life.

    I honestly don't understand how anyone can believe that abstinence is a realistic or effective way to teach young people about sex. It might be preferable in avoiding teenage pregnancy and STIs, but it is completely unrealistic. The best thing society can do is make sure that when young people DO have sex they do so in positive relationships and with appropriate protection.

  5. @In The Meantime: I'm sorry about your friend, but I'm not surprised. Sadly, I'll bet her experience is very common.

    (Have you heard of Heather Armstrong, who blogs at Maybe reading her stuff might help your friend. She's a Mormon, but talks very openly about sex and the slew of other things the Mormon church would disapprove of...)

  6. Thank you so much for the suggestion, Criss - that seems like an awesome site and I'm definitely going to pass it along to my friend.