Bait and Hitch: Abstinence-Only Programs Use Sex to Push Marriage

Martha Kempner

The real goal of abstinence-only programs is not to prevent teen pregnancies or STDs and or even to prevent premarital sex - it's to make sure that all people get married.

When my daughter’s pediatrician
handed me a prescription for an inhaler and told me I would have to administer
it to my three-year-old three times a day for the next week, I almost cried.
This kid does not like taking medicine and I, having recently lived through the
eye-drop battle of the century, knew I needed a plan.  

So on my way out of the pharmacy, I
picked up a big bag of M&Ms.  For some reason, my daughter thinks
these are the most special treat ever.  We don’t really restrict her candy
intake- the girl’s eaten a lot of jelly beans, gummy worms, and lollipops in
her short life-but, if that’s what she thinks, I’m not above using it.  I
dangled that bag of colorful, candy-coated chocolate in front of her eyes, and said,
"Three of these are all yours as soon as you take your medicine."  

My reward system is working so well
that in the coming weeks I’m planning on using it for potty training and
getting her to sleep in her own bed too.  The trick, as any good briber
knows, however, is to make sure the treat stays a treat. She can’t have too
many M&Ms and she can only have them as a reward for good behavior – if they
become too easily available, my plan will fail.

After reading the recent USA Today article "Wait
for sex and marriage? Evangelicals conflicted
," it occurred to me that that
the Far Right has been using the same ploy for years when it comes to marriage
and sex. They want us all to marry (as long as we’re heterosexual, of course),
and like a desperate parent fighting a toddler, posit sex as the ultimate reward
– as if to say, "We know you want this and there is only one way you can have

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Where their plan may be backfiring,
according to the article, however, is that those young people who are taking
this message to heart, notably young Evangelicals, are torn between the "don’t
have sex until you’re married" message they hear from their church and the
"don’t get married until you’re in your thirties" message they hear from, well,
pretty much everyone else.  Some Evangelical leaders admit that this added
decade or so of celibacy may be unrealistic. One even suggested that doing so
was "battling our creator’s reproductive designs."

So, what are some religious leaders
recommending?  Well, they’re not backing off of the prohibition on
premarital sex (that would be like allowing M&Ms on any old Thursday), leaving
them only one choice: promoting young marriage.

As horrified as I was at the
suggestion that it is preferable for twenty-somethings to commit to a life-long
relationship with someone they may not know well than to have sex outside of
marriage with that same person, I was relieved that abstinence-only champions were
finally admitting that the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement is, in fact,
about marriage. For years the leaders of this movement tried to convince
parents, reporters, and politicians that it wasn’t about marriage and it wasn’t
about religion, it was about public health and prevention. 

But, after ten years of reading
these curricula, I can tell you that the real goal of abstinence-only programs
is not to prevent teen pregnancies or STDs and it’s not even to prevent
premarital sex – it’s to make sure that all people get married. Sex is pretty
much just the M&M. Of course, just in case bribery doesn’t work, these
programs also present sex as the scary tiger in the corner that may eat you if
you misbehave-a tactic that I just can’t bring myself to use with my

One curriculum, branded under the
name of A. C. Green, an NBA player who famously remained a virgin until he
married in his thirties, refers to marriage as the finish line.  Another
asks eighth graders to imagine their wedding and write a letter to their future
spouse with descriptions of the bride’s dress, the groom’s tux, the friends who
will stand up as members of the wedding party, and the color of the flowers.
(Reading this one, I did wonder how it is that thirteen year olds are too young
to learn about basic reproduction but the perfect age to become wedding
planners.)  Another, Aspire. Live Your Life. Be Free, asks young people
which future choice is the most important-college, career, or marriage. The right
answer: marriage because "College is for a few years, and you may have a number
of careers. But marriage is for life."  

Others compare sex to fire and have
teachers lead students through elaborate visualizations of lighting a fire on a
cold rainy day in the middle of your living room, instead of the obvious safer
choice, which would be to light it in your fire place – as you guessed, the
fire is a metaphor for sex. The goal is to show how safe and happy the confines
of marriage really are-marriage, according to these programs, is the panacea.

Married people, students are told,
live longer, stay happier, and have better sex.  They never have to worry
about STDs or unintended pregnancy.  And, they certainly raise happier
children, a statement which the curricula "prove" by laying out lists of just
what is wrong with the children of divorced or single parents.  In
contrast, unmarried people are said to be selfish and lacking the character
traits necessary to be a good citizen.  One curriculum even points out
that unmarried people are far more likely to go to jail.

There are many problems with this approach. Let’s put aside for a moment that
as many as half of the students in these classes probably come from single or
divorced parents. Let’s even put aside the fact that this focus on marriage
discounts and discriminates against lesbian and gay students as well as
students whose parents are lesbian or gay. The fundamental issue is a simple
one; unlike getting a kid to take medicine or use a toilet, marriage is not the
only acceptable behavior.  It is one of many relationship options that are
and should be available to adults.

Whether these programs are promoting early marriage or just promoting marriage
early is up for debate, but either way, mandating one lifestyle for all is

For many, including young people
interviewed in the USA Today article, the call to marriage and the prohibition
on premarital sex are deeply held religious beliefs and I respect that. 
The problem, however, is that the conundrum discussed in the article is not
unique to young Evangelicals.  The abstinence-only-until-marriage industry
has spent billions of dollars, most of them courtesy of Uncle Sam, giving the
exact same message to all young people whether they believe in God, organized
religion, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. 

As one young bride explained the
mixed message of waiting until you’re married to have sex and waiting until
you’re settled to get married is unreasonable: " ‘I think that’s just inviting
people to have sex and feel like they’re bad people for doing it.’ " Is this
kind of a guilt trip really the best we can do for our young people?

It’s time to stop using sex as an
incentive for marriage and it’s definitely time to stop using it as a scare
tactic.  Instead, we should find all possible teachable moments and
opportunities to help young people really think about and understand sexuality
and relationships, whether they choose to get married at 20, 50, or never, and
regardless of when they first have sex. 

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