Why Abstinence-Only Sex Education Does Not Work

Keeping kids in the dark about sex isn’t helping anyone

Having sex is all about making choices. Who to have sex with, how to have sex, where to have sex – these are all decisions that can be mixed and matched for a wealth of different experiences.

But before making any of those choices, it’s also important to take a moment and think about the ‘when’. When are you ready to start having sex? When is anyone?

In an ideal world – and the world Fumble believes in – that type of intimate question should be up to the individual to decide, based on when they feel the time is right

But this idea is not accepted by everyone, which is why some young people end up being taught a kind of sex education where there is only one choice: abstinence-only.

Abstinence simply means that you don’t have sex – and on its own this is by no means a negative thing.

But like anything sex-related, abstinence is a choice that should be left up to the person making it. Some individuals have different definitions of what abstinence means to them, and people choose to remain abstinent for a number of reasons: such as wanting to wait for the right sexual partner.

These choices are all totally valid.

The difference between abstinence and abstinence-only sex education, is that abstinence only sex-ed is an educational programme. According to American non-profit youth charity Advocates For Youth, abstinence-only sex education:

“Has, as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realised by abstaining from sexual activity.”

It also teaches that:

“Abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children.”

In other words, abstinence-only sex education teaches young people that sexual activity is only permitted once someone is married, meaning that having sex outside of marriage results in harmful psychological and physical side effects.

It claims that waiting until marriage to have sex is the only moral and safe option for young people, and that no children should be conceived outside of marriage.

Abstinence-only also has a strong focus on teaching people how to say no to sex.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing on its own.

Learning how to use your voice and speak up when you don’t want to have sex is a powerful tool to have to make your feelings heard.

But abstinence-only programmes ignore the reality that many people do not want to be abstinent, or wait until marriage to have sex. Some people don’t want to get married at all – and depending on where they live, members of the LGBTQ+ community may not legally be allowed to marry.

Because abstinence-only programmes push so hard for people to always say no to sex, they do not provide helpful information about protection such as how to use condoms or other forms of birth control like the pill.

Preventative measures are typically only discussed to highlight instances when they fail to prevent sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. This lack of information does not help the young people the programme is focused on.

It’s also worth understanding that abstinence-only sex education fails to do the task it sets out to achieve. Studies show that young people who are exposed to abstinence-only education are no more likely to abstain from sex, or have fewer sexual partners, than their peers who don’t experience abstinence-only education.

The programmes can’t even be attributed for recent drops in teenage pregnancy rates: these are the result of improved contraceptive use. 

Despite this, abstinence-only programmes seek to control by not providing any information that goes against their message of “just don’t do it,” then cruelly shame the individuals who do.

These harmful messages do not merit being taught in schools or receiving government aid (in America, Donald Trump sought to invest $277 Million in abstinence-only education) when they pose such real-world risks.

Young people deserve access to accurate and balanced sex education. Having information about contraceptives, consent, and STDs will help prepare them to make their own decisions about their sex life: decisions that are their right, and no one else’s.

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