They’re Baaaaaack: Abstinence-Only Programs Rely on Scare Tactics and Humiliation to Spread Misinformation

Martha Kempner

On October 15th, 2009, SIECUS – the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States – held our seventh annual Back to School briefing on Capitol Hill. We use this moment to remind policymakers that a “just say no” approach is failing our kids.

Throughout October 2009, young people and their allies are engaging in advocacy efforts in communities across the country to raise awareness for the need for REAL sex education. The Sex Ed Month of Action will engage young people and their allies across the United States in showing their support for comprehensive sex education.

On October 15th, 2009, SIECUS – the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States – held our seventh annual Back to School briefing on Capitol Hill.  Each year, we review some of the more popular abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and use this briefing to share our findings with policymakers. 

We use this moment to remind policymakers that a “just say no” approach is failing our kids.  After all, 47% of all high school students have had sex and when you look at it by grade that number goes up each year, meaning over 60% of seniors have had sex.  Our efforts to bury our heads in the sand may be in part responsible for the negative trends in sexual health that we’ve seen over the last few years.   After years of decline, the teen birth rate is rising and an especially disturbing report from the CDC found that 1 in 4 teen girls has had a sexually transmitted disease.  This is less of a surprise when you look at data on condom use – after years of progress condom use among sexually active teens has gone down in recent years.  For seven years now, we have  presented worse and worse statistics and argued vehemently that a change away from these ineffective programs is needed.    

Thankfully, this year’s briefing felt a little different.  The fall of the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement seems imminent (unless it has actually already occurred).  Whereas in years past it seemed we were screaming into the wind, this year everything – from funding to policies to public opinion – is trending toward a more comprehensive approach. 

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And while others at the briefing were able to talk about how this
approach will work, I was there, as always, to provide a word of caution. Unfortunately, despite all of these
positive trends, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not going

These programs were being taught in public schools long before the
influx of federal money turned the mom and pop abstinence-only-until-marriage
organizations into a billion dollar industry and they will be around once that
money dries up.

This industry is remarkably adaptable and will continue to re-market
and re-brand its merchandise to fit the popular thinking and the available
federal funding. They have done it
before – by taking away blatantly religious message (like the suggestion that
young people take Jesus Christ on their dates for protection) and ridiculous
medical information (like the idea that young people who have had sex should
wash their genitals with Lysol to prevent STDs) – and they’re doing it again.

Today, the industry is scrambling to stay relevant and, in doing so, is
describing its programs as holistic and even comprehensive. But if you really read them (we
reviewed the entire Choosing the Best series and a new supplemental curriculum
from Wait Training) they are no different. They are the same fear- and shame- based programs they have
always been.

Premarital sex is bad. The
messages in these curricula are pretty much as simple as that. There are inevitable physical and
emotional consequences.
Worse though, the message is clear that people who have had premarital
sex are also bad. These curricula set
up a dichotomy between abstinent young people who are portrayed as honest, hard
working, and likely to succeed and their sexually active peers who, well, are

To prove this, the curricula turn to some experiential activities and
some props. Let’s start with a
peppermint patty

If we were to do the “Mint for Marriage” exercise which appears in Choosing the Best PATH, I would pass
around this peppermint patty and ask you each to hold it, examine it, maybe
smell it, and then pass it to your neighbor. Then when it made its way around the room and came back up
to me, I would offer it to you and see if anyone in the class wanted it. You would undoubtedly say no because it
would be gross and I would ask:
“Why is this patty no longer appealing?”

The answer: “No one wants food that has been passed around and
neither would you want your future husband or wife to have been passed around”

Or we could use a rose.

This one, also
from Choosing the Best PATH, is
called “A Rose with No Petals.” If we were a class doing this one, I would hold
it up, say how beautiful it is, pass it around and have each of you pull a
petal of it until it comes back to me with nothing but a stem.

Then I would
ask: “How much value does the rose have now?”

The curriculum
suggests that the teacher, “Share that the rose represents someone who
participates in casual sex. Each time a sexually active person gives that most
personal part of himself or herself away, that person can lose a sense of
personal value and worth. It all comes down to self-respect.”

The spit game
(that’s what we call it) from WAIT Training actually has as its purpose showing
teens how STDs are spread. This
game has a row of boys stand opposite a row of girls holding cups of water. They put some water in their mouths,
swoosh it around a little bit (possibly after eating cheese doodles), and then
spit it back into their cup. Then
they go through a process of pouring water into each other’s cups. Some of the
cups are labeled with names of STDs.

The messages of
shame come in at the end of exercise when the students pour their spit-water
into one pitcher. The teacher then
puts a pitcher of clean water next to it and asks students which pitcher they
would rather pick their future spouse from.

So we’re getting
the idea right, kids who have had sex – which by the way is 47% of all high
school students or 63% of high school seniors – are the equivalent of used
candy, a petal-less rose, or spit.
They’re no longer appealing, they lack value.

For years we
have been criticizing these curricula for lessons like these. It is wholly inappropriate to tell
students who are or who become sexually active that they are worth less than
their abstinent peers.

Lest we think no
one pays attention to our critiques, WAIT Training made an interesting change
to its lesson. Instead of a rose, the lesson called, “How Valuable is This?” uses
a crisp, new $20 bill. The teacher offers it to students. Then she is supposed to wad the bill up
and stomp on it and ask again if anyone wants it. Then, she is supposed to accidentally spill soup or soda on
it and ask again. Finally, the
teacher is supposed to pretend to sneeze into the bill and ask once more if any
students want it.

The curriculum
tells the teacher to “discuss how just because it has been treated poorly,
abused and worked over, it hasn’t lost its value. Twenty dollars is still $20, even though it’s ‘been around’”

This is a feeble
attempt to fix the horrific messages in these exercises. Young people who have had sex are not
the equivalent of a battered, stepped on, sneezed on, twenty dollar bill and
suggesting they are is not any better than suggesting they are spit.

Such messages of
shame, though designed to make young people avoid premarital sex, seemed
destined to simply make them feel bad.
We have to remember that the prohibition on premarital sex is not a
universally held value – in fact most adults have had sex at some time before
they marry. But, even if young
people wait until marriage to have sex, how can it possibly be good to
associate sex with guilt and shame?

This blog is the
first in a series in which we will also explore how these programs perpetuate
age-old gender stereotypes and promote marriage.

We have a lot to
be thankful for as the paradigm in sex education shifts away from these fear-
and shame-based programs. Still,
we cannot let our guard down or let ourselves be fooled by new marketing
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs still exist and they still
provide young people with damaging messages.

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