I’m not here to judge any parent. If you feel it’s right to teach your children about sex or provide sex education…great. If you feel it’s right to teach your children about abstinence…also great. You do you. You are in charge of your family’s beliefs and values and no one should tell you the right way to raise your own child(ren).
What does the research say?
It would be irresponsible of me not to point out that beginning in the 1980’s, the government has consistently funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and they have consistently failed to achieve their stated goals. Congress has spent billions of dollars, and years and years of time trying to make abstinence programs successful, and it isn’t working. In fact, analysis of data found that sexual activity among high schoolers changed little during these years, and that there was actually INCREASED sexual activity and increased STI’s and abortion during the funding of these programs. It takes a LOOOOONG time to change long standing beliefs, and abstinence-only education is one of those beliefs. (I still can’t believe the 80s were forty years ago but that’s not really relevant). It can take decades to change our views.
Religion is another factor that has deeply affected our views on teaching children about sex education vs being abstinent. Historically, religious teachings have often taught that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” (Guttmacher Institute). We can see that with these principles in mind, the abstinence-only era was encouraged by faith-based organizations as well as the government. Religion plays an important role in the lives of many children, teens, and adults. Because it can play such an important role, obviously, what is being taught can make a considerable impact. Thankfully, there looks to be some signs of hope for broader education.
There’s a BIG misunderstanding out there…
One of the big problems I face as an educator around this topic is the misconception of the definition of comprehensive sex education (CSE). According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), comprehensive sex education should:
- Be medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate, and should include the benefits of delaying sexual intercourse, while also providing information about normal reproductive development, contraception (including long-acting reversible contraception methods) to prevent unintended pregnancies, as well as barrier protection to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Begin in early childhood and continue through a person’s lifespan.
- Not only focus on reproductive development (including abnormalities in development, such as prevention of STIs, and unintended pregnancy, but also teach about forms of sexual expression, healthy sexual and nonsexual relationships, gender identity and sexual orientation and questioning, communication, recognizing and preventing sexual violence, consent, and decision making.
Notice that nowhere in those guidelines does it say that CSE encourages or discourages sex. In fact, CSE programs teach about the benefits of both abstinence AND sexual health, which is what makes it comprehensive.
Why does any of this even matter?
It matters because, like it or not, the age of abstinence-only education is hopefully being left behind because it is dangerous for these reasons:
- Our bodies are hard-wired (because of hormones) from the time we hit our teens and beyond, to WANT to be sexually active.
- We have become a very sexualized world, with pictures and videos portraying the ideas of sex, sexy, bodies, body positivity, and open communication, to name a few, being seen everywhere these days.
- If/when we only teach our teens to NOT have sex, we are asking them to fight the urges that they naturally feel on their journey to growing up and to “just say no,” while not teaching them how to successfully say no or avoid being in sexual situations.
- We are not adequately preparing our children to one day be a sexual being. This is one of the most important reasons of all. If you believe in waiting to have sex until marriage, you may think that you don’t have to talk to kids about it until they are getting married. The only message they hear cannot be, “Don’t do it.” When that is the ONLY message they get from their parents, teens and parents are missing out on several beneficial teaching opportunities.
- Parents are missing out on some great chances to pass on their own beliefs and values about relationships to their children/teens.
- Teens are missing out on the opportunity to see their parents as a resource for ALL questions, not just the questions that are deemed appropriate to ask.
- Everyone misses out on all of the wonderful things kids and adults need to know, to be a part of a healthy relationship, whether it is before marriage or after.
- IF teens are only taught to wait and they make the choice to engage in sexual activity and they have only learned “Just say no,” they are not equipped with the essential knowledge they need to prevent pregnancies and potentially life-long infections.
The reality of parenting is that we can teach our children all of our important beliefs and values and hope they value the same things we do. We have to prepare our children and ourselves, that they may not always agree with our beliefs and decide instead to follow their own. When we teach our kids about sex in a healthy and comprehensive way, we are giving them the gift of a great education, knowledge, the ability to make healthy decisions, and the benefits of loving relationships.
The facts speak for themselves:
A 2012 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that sex education programs that include instruction on both abstinence and contraception, led to a 40 percent increase in contraception and condom use, an 11 percent decrease in pregnancy rates and a 35 percent decrease in STI rates among young people when compared to those who received strictly abstinence-only instruction.