Abstinence-only re-education

Why quality education is more effective than purity rings

Photo Caption: While many schools advocate for purity pledges, statistics indicate them to be ineffective at deterring premarital sex.

Nigel Sumerlin

Confined to a small desk in a familiar classroom, he hears the health teacher warn against the horrors of STI’s: HIV, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, Herpes.

“One mistake can drastically change your life forever,” his teacher tells the class. “Sex is a sacred gift from God intended to be experienced by a man and a woman who have made a life-long commitment to each other.”

He fidgets in his chair, his teenage body telling him he has been sitting for too long and it’s time to be active.

“Sexual promiscuity defiles your body for your future partner,” his teacher continues.

In the desk next to him his girlfriend takes notes.

“An unplanned pregnancy can ruin your future. Raising a child is expensive; in order to pay for these expenses, teenage parents are often forced to drop out of school, to abandon plans for college and to spend years living paycheck to paycheck just trying to make ends meet.”

He aimlessly doodles in a notebook containing few notes, and even she is starting to check out because this all familiar education to both of them.

“The only real way to respect God’s plan for marriage and avoid these consequences is abstinence,” the teacher concludes. “Sex is sacred. Remaining pure before marriage is essential to the success of your relationship with your future spouse and to your health.”

As the young couple leaves class, they grasp hands and he feels her purity ring pressed against his fingers.

Meanwhile their bodies are sending them different messages than their health teacher. Hormones chaotically fire as the two teenagers transition into adulthood. Their reproductive systems awaken, and a battle rages between what their parents and teachers have taught them and what their bodies demand of them.

A battle also rages in the American educational system between advocates of three different forms of sex education: comprehensive, abstinence-based and abstinence-only.

Abstinence-only sex education is described in the example above. Abstinence-based sex education stresses abstinence but does not teach it as the only option to stay sexually safe.

The third option, comprehensive sex education, is described by the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States as "age and developmentally appropriate sexual health information that is medically accurate, informed by scientific evidence, and sensitive to the needs of all young people.” These programs teach young people a variety of ways to stay sexually safe, including birth control, condoms and abstinence.

Proponents of abstinence-based and abstinence-only sex education programs hope that teaching teenagers abstinence will delay sexual activity and reduce teen pregnancy. Unfortunately, a federally funded evaluation of abstinence-only education found that youth enrolled in these programs were no more likely to delay sexual initiation, to have fewer sexual partners or to abstain entirely from sex than those not in abstinence-only programs.

An example of this is Mississippi, a state where strong traditional values guide a policy that does not require sex education, but insists that when it is taught, abstinence must be stressed as the best method for sexual protection. Mississippi holds the position of having the highest teen birth rate in the US, with 55 births per 1,000 teenage girls.

New Hampshire, the state with the lowest teen pregnancy rate (16 births per 1,000 teenage girls), requires comprehensive sex education that includes information on abstinence, condoms, and contraception.

One reason abstinence-only sex education is less effective may be that it is often plagued with inaccurate information. According to a study conducted by the Committee on Government Reform to the U.S. House of Representatives, many abstinence-only programs distort information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, misrepresent the risks of abortion, blur religion and science, treat gender stereotypes as scientific fact and contain basic scientific errors.

An unintended consequence of providing inaccurate information is that teens lose faith in the credibility of everything they are being taught. I experienced this as a teenager when my high school health teacher stated that condoms should not be used because they have been proven to cause cancer. Our skeptical response was verified by a study conducted by the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. The German study that ignited paranoia about dangerous levels of carcinogens in condoms has been thrown in the same waste basket as the study linking vaccines and autism. After hearing a few statements like this, we began to doubt everything she said.

In October, Abner Campos published an article in the Religion column of The Clocktower discussing sexual abstinence from a Christian perspective. His conclusion was that those who choose to save themselves for marriage should do it for personal reasons and values, not because their church, family, or community told them it is the right thing to do. Not only do I believe this to be true, it is also important that as we make the critical decision of when and with whom we will have sex, we have been given the accurate and complete knowledge that comprehensive sex education strives to provide.

The results of comprehensive sex education compared to those of abstinence-only education show that as teenagers are taught how to safely navigate the sexually charged years of adolescence, all methods are not equally effective. While parents, churches and communities hold the responsibility of instilling sexual values in young people, schools have the duty of providing clear, scientifically-based information about STI’s, pregnancy, contraception and sexual safety.

As Abner wrote, the only person who can truly decide whether and how we will be sexually active is us. And it is of paramount importance that we are properly educated when we make that decision.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.