Unexpected Consequences of Abstinence-Only Zealotry

Amie Newman

Willful Ignorance is Courtney Martin's insightful analysis of the true consequences of abstinence-only zealotry (because abstinence-only "education", once and for all, is NOT education). Martin's hypothesis states, "If we want to change the toxic sexual culture on our nations' college campuses, we need to start looking at the sex education our high-schoolers receive." And it's got progressive bloggers buzzing. But is Martin's theory enough to explain away some of the more vicious offenses on college grounds?

Willful Ignorance is Courtney Martin's insightful analysis of the true consequences of abstinence-only zealotry (because abstinence-only "education", once and for all, is NOT education). Martin's hypothesis states, "If we want to change the toxic sexual culture on our nations' college campuses, we need to start looking at the sex education our high-schoolers receive." And it's got progressive bloggers buzzing. But is Martin's theory enough to explain away some of the more vicious offenses on college grounds?

Martin argues that lack of proper sexuality education in our public schools is essentially disabling communication about sex and sexuality between young college students. Because we are not giving our young people the information they need to navigate these discussions about sex and their sexual needs, campuses are teeming with repressive young adults. Which, in Martin's opinion, can lead to violent crimes like sexual assault and rape.

College students are essentially receptacles of raging hormones and spotty sexual information. Throw in the fact that most of these young people are living independently for the first time – and young women and men are paying too high a price for society's fear of sex.

Of course the ways in which this lack of sexual knowledge manifests itself in young women and men is not surprising. As Courtney writes, "One study found that 75 percent of the males and 50 percent of the females involved in college campus acquaintance rapes had been drinking when the incident occurred."

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Clearly, young men raping women on college campuses are not just "having a difficult time articulating their own sexual needs" and respecting "those articulated by their partners" as Martin writes. I absolutely understand her hypothesis that alcohol plays a definitive role in young people's abilities or lack thereof to handle their own sexuality. But when she talks about rape on campus, she says: "All parties involved can be hurt by a failure to properly delineate and stick to boundaries."

Well, Courtney, yes that's true. But there are vast differences between the way a man is "hurt" when he chooses to rape a woman and the way a woman is hurt when she becomes a victim of rape.

Will a more comprehensive curriculum for high-schoolers, one that goes beyond the simple science of sex to address a much deeper level of sexuality discourse, help dilute the toxic soup?

One reader of Campus Progress – a blog for the college crowd – notes:

"But I think the general idea of making sex less taboo in schools and opening up honest discussion about the complexities of situations many teens have or will be faced with is a good idea, as well as making it a focal point to discuss how to have not just consentual (sic) sex but sexual relations that are built on respect. …Abstinece (sic) only programs or even programs that push abstinecne (sic) too hard often make it so many kids are not comfortable talking about it with adults or each other in a mature way. I think a lot of teens almost see sex as some act of rebellion and that's how it starts becoming degrading and in some cases, harmful, so finding a way to change the way kids percieve (sic) sex and those they may want to be sexually involved with can make big changes."

Progressive blogger "Pinko Feminist Hellcat" says,

"Martin asserts–and I do agree–that sex education has to go beyond the mechanics and talk about the ethics. There is a desperate need for teenagers to learn about true consent and enthusiastic participation, true respect, and all of the responsibilities that come with sex. These responsibilities don't just end at putting on a condom and making sure you took your pill. It is, as Martin says, listening to your partner, knowing what you want, and treating each other with basic dignity and respect."

If we are to counteract violent crimes like rape on college campuses, is developing a more comprehensive sexuality-education curriculum that focuses on how to talk about sex the only answer? Certainly teaching our young people how to have an open, honest discussion about sex is necessary to creating a healthier sexual environment on college grounds. But our society must grapple with the not-so-hidden sexism and sexual repression that permeates abstinence-only zealotry and society as a whole, in order to have any hope of defeating vicious crimes like sexual assault and rape – whether the aggressor is a nineteen-year-old college student or a 59-year-old blue collar worker.

As Feministe remarks about the article,

"Abstinence-only education is problematic not just because it doesn't deal with how to articulate desire (that is, how to say yes and no, and how to hear that), but because it emphasizes unhealthy and patriarchal sex roles."

Our college campuses' "toxic sexual culture" is simply a reflection of our nation's same culture. And "unhealthy" and "patriarchal sex roles" can be found everywhere – from Bratz dolls on the shelves of Target to Hollywood movies and popular television shows. Willful Ignorance does an excellent job of showcasing how abstinence-only zealotry is woefully negligent in its job. Not just because of its utter lack of depth when it comes to information and knowledge about sex and sexuality and how to communicate about them, but because of its insistence on reinforcing damaging gender & sexual stereotypes. Ms. Martin's article, and the provocative analysis it's generated in the blogosphere, is more fuel for the fire as we attempt to burn down this abstinence-only house of logs.

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