Are You Qualified to Teach Abstinence-Only Sex-Education? April 2, 2009

Are You Qualified to Teach Abstinence-Only Sex-Education?

This is troubling. On a couple levels.

Stacie Murphy, a policy associate at Population Connection, decided to take an online test to become a “Certified Abstinence Educator.”

I have no medical background, no public health training and no teaching certification, but according to the Abstinence Clearinghouse I am now qualified to go into schools across the country and teach your children “everything they need to know” about sex…

A little digging led me to the Web site of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, which, for $50, sent me a password to the online Certification Exam. The site also helpfully suggested that I purchase their publication “Abstinence 101,” which, I was assured, would enable me to pass the test and “fight the war against comprehensive sex education” — for just another $20. Instead, I decided to wing it by choosing for most questions the most absurd answer from the options available.

One question asked me to identify the founder of “Playboy” magazine. Another asked whether premarital sex or abstinence was more likely to lead to “stunted personal development,” and “corruption of character.”

A true/false question read, “Contraception may be appropriate for some unmarried adults and teens.” Knowing my audience, I (correctly, according to my testers) chose “false.”

Finally, I was asked to write a paragraph about why abstinence was so important. I purposely made my statement as vague and inane as possible, just to see what would happen. How did I do? I passed with 89 percent.

This is what passes for sex education in too many places across America. The idea that passing this absurd test makes me or Derek or anyone else a qualified educator is ridiculous. But it’s not as ridiculous as continuing to use taxpayer money to fund this nonsense.

And taxpayer money still pays for this education at many schools. How disturbing is that?

(The machetes bit at the beginning of the piece is funny, though. Check that bit out.)

I would imagine most readers are against abstinence-only sex education. Many of you might be in favor of the ABC method: Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom.

Out of curiosity, is there anyone who would advocate sex education that didn’t include abstinence at all?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t really understand the question… why should sex education mention abstinence at all? It’s supposed to be about sex, not about not-sex. Besides, isn’t abstinence a moral choice? Since when should public schools be in the business of teaching moral decisions?

  • Eric Z

    Growing up, I was taught abstinence only and I held on for quite awhile, but the foundation for abstinence was always God, so when I lost my faith, I lost my reason to remain sexless. Once I became sexually active, I NEVER used a condom. I was lucky enough to not get an STD, but I did get someone pregnant when I was too young…

    I adore my son, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d be a better father if I had been smart/educated enough to wrap-up.

  • Another asked whether premarital sex or abstinence was more likely to lead to “stunted personal development,” and “corruption of character.”

    The latter, obviously! This is a no-brainer.

  • Abstinence is not a moral choice. It can only be said to be a moral choice if you believe that having sex is bad. I don’t believe that.

    In any sex education course it must be mentioned as the only sure way of avoiding STDs and unwanted pregnancy. No other method is 100% effective.

    That said, the above should be presented as information only, with no suggestion that abstinence is, in some way, the preferred course. It’s just the safest.

  • beckster

    I think we shoud be fully honest with our kids and that includes telling them that abstinence is the only way “for-sure” not get pregnant, get someone pregnant, or get an STD. It would be dishonest to not mention abstinence as part of a comprehensive sex education program.

  • izzy

    -Canadian students are less knowledgeable about the facts related to HIV/AIDS transmission than they were in 1989.
    -50% of grade 9 students surveyed did not know there was no cure for HIV.
    And this is from 2004. This is so fucked I can’t believe it.

  • Here’s an account of how sex ed was handled in my daughter’s school in Italy:

  • I teach my daughters that boys are icky and smell bad and I teach my son that girls have cooties and cry a lot. I think it’s for the best that they view the opposite sex as some sort of disgusting aberration whose sole mission is to destroy their lives.


    Seriously though, as a parent, it is my responsibility to keep my children safe and happy. Whether it is riding a bike or making the beast with two backs that responsibility does not change. I wouldn’t formalise this as an ABC or even suggest that they should or should not be having sex. I have told them what the implications of sex are and taught them to be responsible and respecting of themselves and others. The rest is up to them.

  • What really gets my goat is the notion that engaging in premarital sex leads to corruption of character. Does the term “Catholic Priesthood” mean anything to you? It’s the suppression of natural urges that leads to stunted development.

  • Polly

    If you don’t mention abstinence, some young people who may not want to have sex might get the idea that there’s something wrong with them. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to have sex both from within your own body and from peers. Mentioning ALL options neutrally is the best way to go, IMO.
    And, as some have mentioned, it is the 100% guaranteed method to avoid STD and pregnancy. Why leave it out?

  • Siamang

    Is there actually any evidence that any sex educator in the united states of America is leaving abstinence out entirely?

    C’mon…. let’s not argue against straw here. The problem is “abstinence only”, not abstinence.

    Unless you plan on raising “The 40-Year Old Virgin”, abstinence-only WILL eventually fail. It will fail to teach people what to do when they aren’t under 18, when they are adults, and when they should start taking some responsibility when they do those things adults tend to do.

    There are couched assumptions in abstinence only education. The claim of 100% effectiveness comes with a hidden downside. They should teach this:

    ‘Abstinence is 100% effective (until hopefully these kids are no longer in high-school and then they’re someone else’s problem.)’

    ‘Abstinence is 100% effective (at keeping a girl from getting knocked up until she’s hopefully old enough to force a boy to marry her)’

    Here’s one they should teach:

    Abstinence-only education is 100% effective in increasing the number of abortions in a community.

    Abstinence eventually fails. All people eventually have sex. At that point, married or unmarried, they NEED to know how to choose how many kids they want.

  • Larry Huffman

    Technically, abstinence has no place in the actual teaching about sex. Abstinence does deserve mention and even discussion when discussing birth control methods, of course. So…if we accept that birth control methods are part and parcel to the discussion and teaching of sex, then it does have a place.

    I may be a horrible person…but I did not teach my kids abstinence. I taught them to be smart about who they chose as partners and how they go about it. Of course, I talked about the consequences, and how those consequences should preclude sex at too young an age, and at the very least cause an intelligent young adult to take precautions.

    I was brutally honest with my kids about this…I explained that I fully expected for them to want to regardless of what they have been taught. Which is the truth. I did not want my kids to feel dirty or inadequate simply because they had sexual impulses…I wanted them to know it is perfectly normal…to have them and even to act on them…but they needed all of the facts in order to make that decision, and the subsequent decisions that must follow.

    My most radical philosophy as a parent with respect to sex is I have frankly taught my kids against a policy of abstinence…at least with respect to marriage. In other words, I am against the notion of ‘saving it for your wedding night’. I have taught them on this principle…the goal is not to marry a virgin…the goal is to marry someone you can be compatible with for the rest of your life. I have always found it stupid and irrational to not try your possible spouse out in bed. I mean…is there a worse time than on or after your wedding night to discover a sexual incompatibility? I have taught my kids to discuss sex with their partners, and how absurd it would be to begin making plans with someone before knowing that you are both sexually compatible.

    I did not teach this in a raunchy or obscene manner…I began in clinical terms, then opened it up to slang. I discussed human sex…not vague or even clinical repoduction. I taught them about reproduction too…but sex is a slightly different topic. Everything I taught was based on my kids not feeling bad about themselves because of any impulse they may have. And…terrible father that I am…I even discussed homosexuality at a slightly deeper level than I suspect many do. We have family members who are gay, however, and my kids questions needed honest and contextual answers. (and, since I do not view homosexuality as bad, I also needed my kids to understand the difference properly and not see it as bad themselves…and to know that should they determine they are gay they would not be thought badly of for it by us)

    I know my methods would be quite shocking to the majority of people…but I am quite pleased with the results. I feel like my kids are well adjusted when it comes to sex. They do not have taboos or misconceptions about it. They can come to their parents to discuss it at a level most cannot. How many parents have been consulted when their 17 year old was thinking about having sex? I was…and it was a conversation that to me validated my entire idea of sex education.

    My older two kids, who are 20 (male) and 18 (female) have made the observation that almost all of the kids they knew in school who got pregnant or got other people pregnant, were either devoutly religious or came from devoutly religious homes. And, they can back this up with names and stories. It would appear that, in the unscientific discussion about unsupported and yet honestly observed facts at my kids high school concerning teen pregnancy, that the reliigous and sheltered kids are the ones who are having the problems.

    Abstinence is bad, though. Human beings are sexual creatures…religion has caused us to deny this unsuccessfully for centuries. Life is short, and real pleasures are already far too few. Instead of raising our kids to deny basic impulses…which are primal and stronger than almost any other we have…we should raise our kids with a knowledge of how to use these impulses. when and how to act on them. How to be smart and responsible while not denying for themselves that pleasure which every single human…pious or not…craves desperately to have.

    Anyway…no, I am probably the least qualified person to teach abstinence.

  • Anon

    I’m coming at this from an international public health perspective, where there are often big power differentials between teenage girls and their first sexual partners. I’m a big fan of ABCD, where D is delay of sexual debut (abstinence refers to people who have already had sex but are choosing to abstain as well as virgins).

    Physically, it is easier for a female to catch an STI from a male than a male from a female in penetrative sex, so I think that A and D protects girls. Even in the US, STI rates, including HIV, are growing fastest among non-white adolescent girls.

    So it’s not a “moral” issue for me, but a health issue, plain and simple.

  • Brian C Posey

    On a semi-related note:

    I love it that the people who harp on the ‘abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy’ also believe that 2000 years ago a virgin got pregnant.

  • I agree with Polly… abstinence should be included in the discussion, simply because it IS an option. It just shouldn’t be the ONLY option. And I disagree with Larry on his last point, although I think that the rest of his sex talk(s) with his kids sound pretty damn good. Wish my parents/school had given me that kind of information up front.

    I’m sure that I’d be qualified to teach abstinence-only, as I was taught it myself at my Catholic grade/high school. By the time we hit high school, few people took it seriously… which is why we had so many girls with babies/toddlers/pregnancies at graduation. I didn’t start having sex until college, and thankfully my boyfriend was MUCH better educated than I was.

    Some of the attitudes about sex were kind of hard to shake, though, and I think that’s another troubling aspect of abstinence-only that people don’t discuss. The health problems are significant, of course, but the lingering feelings of shame and guilt are hard to lose. I still have a difficult time even talking about sex with my boyfriend, and I know it’s because of the attitudes ingrained in me over the course of my Catholic school career. Sex is something dirty and shameful that you shouldn’t talk about. I’m getting better about it, but it’s definitely been a challenge.

  • So in other words: If you know nothing, you are qualified to teach nothing?

  • vanessa

    Nah, the teacher does at some point need to tell the students that abstinence is the only 100% way to not get pregnant or get an STI. Teach the kids what outercourse and selective abstinence is.

  • Larry Huffman

    Look…when I say I am against abstinence…it means I am against a no-sex mind set.

    This does not mean that I want kids to have sex. I do not…but my reasons for not wanting them to is not because it is wrong or immoral…but because the consequences and maturity levels may pose real and substantial problems.

    I just believe that rather then tell a kid not to do something…and this is true with anything, not just sex…you give them the reasons for not doing it…and make it a rational discussion.

    So…when I say abstinence is bad, what I mean is having a mind set that sets sex up as bad and wrong and immoral…and that can only be practiced within a marriage…is what is bad. Kids refraining from sex until they are ready, is a good thing.

  • I advocate sex education that doesn’t include abstinence. I don’t have a problem saying to teens that they don’t have to be in a hurry to have sex. I don’t have a problem saying that there’s nothing wrong with people who aren’t currently having sex. But ABSTINENCE is a program, a method, a capital letter, italicized thing, which is different from just “haven’t had sex yet”. Not having had sex yet means that you’re 100% protected from STDs and pregnancy until you do, and hopefully by then you’ve gotten a good education about such things. ABSTINENCE may also be 100% effective at preventing STDs and pregnancy while it lasts, but it doesn’t last, and when it fails, those teens are less likely to use protection than those who didn’t get pushed onto the abstinence bandwagon.

  • beckster

    I completely agree with Larry’s take on this topic. I wish my parents had been as upfront with me about sex. They relied on my high school, which made me take an abstinence-only class. I remember being shown pictures of penises with various diseases and also being “required” to sign an abstinence pledge card. My teacher instructed us to put on the card that we would remain abstinent until marriage. I wrote down “tomorrow”. I think it was the only F I ever received in school 🙂 She did not appreciate my sense of humor. To her, sex was a naughty word and no laughing matter.

    I think the most important thing is to be honest and open with your kids. They need to know that sex is a natural thing that humans do and there is no need to be ashamed. They should be taught how to protect themselves from unintended consequences(medical and emotional) and I think a mention of abstinence is appropriate, not as some sort of ideal standard, but as one neutral option of many.

  • cathy

    I think it is okay to include ideas that you have the right to choose not to have sex until you are ready (or not at all if it is truly what you want) and that you are not inferior for being a virgin (nor are you superior for being a virgin). I hate the word abstinence though. Its connotation is that sex is bad and people are taught that “abstinance” makes them superior, less immoral, and cleaner than other people. It is not that choosing to not have sex yourself is wrong, but having the idea that this makes you morally superior to others is absurd.

  • Indigo

    The main problem with abstinence programs, as I see it, is that it assumes kids are dumb. They’re not. Often naive, often misled, often not yet practiced in critical thinking – but not dumb. Teaching abstinence presumes to tell teenagers that they are incapable of making their own decisions properly, even when equipped with good information, so some adult stranger in an education centre somewhere will tell them what to do instead. And once teens catch onto that – and they will – it’s no use running after them saying “Wait, wait, I mean it this time!” Too many adults assume that trust is something young people are going to extend unconditionally and can be abused without consequences, to which I can only say they clearly don’t know many teenagers.

  • Alasdair

    Out of curiosity, is there anyone who would advocate sex education that didn’t include abstinence at all?

    Sure, I don’t think there’s a place for this at all. Sexuality is a normal and healthy part of life. Abstinence is a choice that people can make if they insist (and actually I can think of a couple of reasons why one might legitimately do so, but neither of them are because “the bible told me so”), so I guess it merits a mention. But it wouldn’t be an entire section of the syllabus, more just an ‘aside’!

    In the UK we’re having discussions about sex ed right now, moving towards a model based on current Dutch practice (not that I think we’ll ever go that far, which is a shame).

    I want my kid to get properly educated about sex – what it is, how it’s done, how it feels, what it’s implications are, what the other sex looks like & how they work, what happens if you get turned on by your own gender, how babies develop, how STIs are spread, how they’re avoided, what the commons myths around sexuality are… the whole nine yards.

    And I don’t want them to be told this when they’re 14 or 15, that’s too late. It needs to start much earlier… perhaps when they’re 8 or 9? Sure, they’ll think it’s all a bit icky and wonder why grown-ups ever expect them to look at girls that way… but then they’ll grow up thinking it’s not more odd that anything else they’re taught in school.

  • zoo

    beckster: At least you had some sort of education (even if it really sucked). I learned about sex from the medical encyclopedia (what little it says about that) and have picked up bits and pieces over the years by osmosis (along with a whole pile of mental issues I have yet to work through).

    I tend to agree with most here that abstinence should be presented as an option with pros and cons, just like any other option would have.

  • Jen

    I can’t even imagine why Hugh Hefner needs to be covered in a sex ed class. On the other hand, I almost want to not cover abstinence, and just tell the kids that everyone has sex except losers, and they don’t want to be losers, do they, just to bug the religious right, who clearly thinks that is what happens in sex ed, right after we give vibrators to kindergartners. Perhaps it would be subversive in a way that bugs them to also mention Hef, right after I call the kids losers.

    In my ideal sex ed class, we would cover sex in a way that mentions that it is natural to have these feelings, that sex feels good but can be emotional, that masturbation is awesome, that birth control is awesome too (but hardly fool-proof), and that people can be gay, lesbian, bi, pan, omni, or asexual, that gender is a not a binary, and that abstinence ed educators are the only creatures that don’t deserve sex (though the kids in my class can reject sex under whatever circumstances they want). Informed consent will be covered in great detail. I think the most important part to cover is the idea of pleasure- not Girls Gone Wild stripping, but orgasms- which weren’t even mentioned in my sex ed class. They should know that sex should feel good, and if it don’t, stop and take stock of what is happening. The final exam will involve finding the clit.

  • miller

    Sex is fun, If its all safe let them have it.

  • When I had sex education at school in the late ’70s (actually, I got it twice – in science AND in a class called ‘health & personal development’), I think abstinence may have been mentioned very briefly, but that was it. The point was education about sex and contraception (the fact that – once you knew about reproduction – if you didn’t have sex you wouldn’t get pregnant being regarded as completely obvious may have had something to do with it). There was some discussion in a different health&personal development class about not being pressured into sex, but to me that’s an entirely different (and important) point.

    I’m not sure that abstinence necessarily merits anything more than a mention as a reasonable and sensible choice. Kids need real information about sex and contraception, and necessarily that’s going to focus on what it is. Moralistic lectures have the problem that they’re unlikley to be listened to, so save the moralizing (if you must do it at all) for the end.

    Contraception is far from problem-free (in various incarnations it can range from awkward to having distinct health consequences), but sex without contraception (outside of being in a position to seek pregancy) is such a terrible idea that in that context abstinence becomes a good and sensible option, and can be presented as such.

    I have no problem with explaining the consequences of sex in clear detail (and I don’t just mean pregnancy or disease here – prtected sex has consequences too), but that can be done without getting all judgemental.

  • Christophe Thill

    “Out of curiosity, is there anyone who would advocate sex education that didn’t include abstinence at all?”

    Of course. It should mainly include objective information. Concerning what you should or shouldn’t do, it should limit itself to prevention of STD and unwanted pregnancy.

    “Abstinence education” is nothing but an attempt by old people to control the sexuality of young people. I know, it sounds very 60s-ish. Which in itself doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

  • I agree 100% with everything Larry Huffman said, and I plan on raising my kids the same way.

  • False Prophet

    Abstinence should be mentioned for the reasons above, as an option, not a superior position.

    But what also needs to be stressed, emphasized and double-underlined is that anal and oral intercourse are still sex, and just because there isn’t the same risk of pregnancy involved, doesn’t make them any safer, and protection is still important. That’s something Ab-Only education is clearly failing to impart.

  • Ashley

    I agree with telling kids the facts and that abstinence is the only way to be sure that you will not receive an STI or become pregnant.
    I am a bit surprised that no one has mentioned the psychological consequences of sex. Having sex with someone can connect you to them in a way that causes you to overlook incompatibilities in other areas. When someone has an orgasm, the same “connecting” chemicals in the brain are released as when a baby is breast-feeding with its mother. Psychologists believe that this happens to make sure that a child stays close to his or her parent and ultimately stay protected. I think that teens and young adults need to be aware that sex can trigger an intense emotional connection. If this connection is formed with someone who is not committed to them, it can cause long-lasting effects and feelings of abandonment. In a society where so many young people are already dealing with having only one parent, do they really need to add another emotional variable to the mix?

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