The Morality of Abstinence-Only Sex Education

February 8, 2007

Abstinence-only sex education has not only been shown to be ineffective, it’s also demonstrably counterproductive.

What I want to talk about today is the morality that I believe underlies the political and religious motivations given for abstinence-only sex education (AOSE for short), which has in the last 5 years come to increasingly dominate our country’s sex ed curriculum.

The Science
Over the past 5 years, nearly a billion dollars in federal funds have been poured into AOSE, which typically tells teens and youngsters (up to the age of 29) that condoms are dangerous and unreliable, and they’d be better off using “the only method that is 100% effective at preventing disease or pregnancy”.

There are three problems with this.

1) First of all, condoms are not ineffective
— they are overwhelmingly effective, not only at preventing unwanted pregnancies, but also at guarding against STI/Ds and the transmission of HIV/AIDS. In fact, the only birth control methods with a higher success rate than condoms are intrauterine device (IUD, 99% effective), the progestin mini-pill (up to 99.9% effective) and other birth control pill formulations (99% effective)1.

There are two important facts about these success rate figures: first, they are the success rates if the method is used correctly — and second, they assume 3x a week frequency of sexual intercourse. If you have sex more often with these methods, your success rate will drop; have sex less often, your rate will increase. This is basic statistics, but it will be important for #2:

2) The abstinence-only method is NOT 100% effective. It’s true that if kids don’t have sex, they won’t get pregnant. But this is not how abstinence is sold. It is sold as a “100% effective birth control / disease prevention method.” In other words, every time you have sex, you should employ the abstinence METHOD to avoid pregnancy or disease. But this is clearly crazy talk: it is, in fact, an example of “Heads I Win, Tails Don’t Count” thinking2.

Couples who intend to use abstinence only as their birth control / disease prevention method, and do refrain from having sex, have obviously used the abstinence method with 100% effectiveness.

Couples who intend to use abstinence only as their birth control / disease prevention method but end up having sex have “failed” to use the method — and therefore their “failure” cannot count against AO’s claimed 100% success rate.

This is intellectually dishonest, and that dishonesty is compounded by a simple fact about abstinence that every adult naturally knows, but those teaching AOSE deliberately avoid, and that is —

3) Kids are going to have sex. The average age of first sexual contact in the U.S. is barely 173. Just telling kids not to have sex is a piss-poor way of discouraging them; they are going to have sex anyway. Trying to scare kids into not having sex by telling them that “condoms are unreliable” just means they’ll have unprotected sex, or have anal and oral sex, and be at increased risk of pregnancy and disease. The data show that even kids who go the hardcore route and get “Promise Rings” end up having sex before marriage at a rate of eighty-eight percent4.

The Religion

Problem #3 is partially linked to another big problem with AOSE: religion.

Some, though not all, AOSE efforts are linked to faith-based program like Silver Ring Thing, Free Teens, True Love Waits, some of which have been given generous funding by the U.S. Federal government, despite the fact that this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (separation of church and state).

(In fact, Silver Ring Thing lost a $75,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services after the ACLU successfully sued the DHHS for violation of the Establishment Clause (SRT no longer receives money from the Federal government).)

Bringing religion into the equation conflates religious feeling and public health: kids are encouraged to pledge to abstinence because of religious reasons, not out of enlightened self-interest. This makes it easy for them to renege on the pledge, or even deny ever having made it5; if they stray from the religious values originally linked to abstinence, they will stray from abstinence itself.

The Morality of AOSE

The majority of “promise” or “purity” movements are started by some religious organization — mostly evangelical Christian churches. A good example is Silver Ring Thing, which was started by Denny Pattyn, a youth minister,

…as a way to combat what he saw as rising rates of STDs and pregnancies amongst teenagers, as well as a way to protect teens from what founders saw as American culture’s unhealthy obsession with sex, which, according to Pattyn, was a byproduct of the “promiscuity [of] the sexual revolution of the ‘60s”.

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not that Pattyn and Co truly believe condoms don’t work: it’s that Pattyn and Co have a problem with the 60’s. They’re disgusted by the “free love” movement. They’re reacting against the science and intellectualism that has set biological sex free from its inherent risk, danger, and consequences.

They’re furious at the idea that the intellect can produce free love in a more concrete way than their old social and religious values.

Evangelical Christianity, and the religious right-wing, are not forming these movements for religious reasons; they are forming them for social reasons.

Evangelical Christianity, and the majority of the Religious Right, come from very old Conservative roots. Victorian roots, in fact — the people who built New York City, the same people who got obscenely wealthy in the wake of the American Civil War, the first American robber barons.

The important thing to understand about Victorianism and Victorian morality is that it is social. It is based on a social caste system, in an imitation of old-world European society; it is based on social graces, and it is judged by social perceptions (that is, “What would the neighbors think?”)

That is why so many Evangelical Christians — and Victorians, in retrospect — appear to be so hypocritical. All they care about is surface, appearance, social grace, social cues, status — surface, surface, surface. A Promise Ring is a symbol for society — not a fuckin’ NuvaRing. It doesn’t release hormones, it doesn’t prevent pregnancy, it doesn’t irritate the fallopian tubes into forming scar tissue, it doesn’t do anything except signal to other teenagers and your parents that you “promise to wait”.

The fact that 88% of teens break their promises doesn’t matter. The fact that these kids now refuse to use condoms, and as a result get STDs and pregnant at greater rates, doesn’t matter. What matters is to get these kids up in front of everyone and have them make a public pledge to be pure. What matters is making our society look better.

The Promise Ring is a Victorian idea based on Victorian morals that has been snuck into the modern world dressed up as political and religious value. The only way it could be a more regressive idea is if it were an actual chastity belt.

So promise rings, and AOSE, are really an attempt at social reform. They’re only religious to the extent that Christianity is associated in some vague, threatening way (“God wants you to be a virgin”) and only political to the extent that the vaguely threatening evangelical Christian church is associated with the Religious Right.

Oh, yeah — and the reason America has an “unhealthy obsession with sex?” Because the historical foundation of our country’s morals are Victorian and Puritan — and those folks were hella repressed.