According to the latest research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the proponents of abstinence-only can count one success in altering teenage sexual behavior. No, they didn’t lower the rate of teenagers having sex, which the CDC indicates has stayed steady at around 4 in 10 teenagers (with 18 year-olds having sex at double the rate of those ages 15 to 17, despite media panics about younger teenagers having sex). Ab-only fans weren’t able to convince teenagers to marry younger. Nor did they convince them that condoms are scary items that you should never touch unless you want to get cancer and rabies; most teenagers use condoms the first time they have sex.
But despite all these failures, abstinence-only proponents have had one success. The CDC also found that the percentage of teenage girls who use the rhythm method as birth control (at least some of the time) jumped from 11 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in 2008. It’s high enough of a jump that it might explain why the teenage pregnancy rate is still as high as it is.
Why blame abstinence-only proponents for this? Don’t they just blithely tell young women to “just say no” and leave it at that? Well, yes and no. No one is under the impression that abstinence-only texts or speakers generally push the rhythm method, so much as they push the wedding ring as the cure for all your ills. How you’re expected to control your fertility within marriage is rarely discussed at all in these programs. Still, the rhythm method is associated with the prudish strand of Christian moralizing that also drives the abstinence-only movement, and so the more popular that kind of thinking, the more likely the rhythm method will be seen as a legitimate practice by teenagers.
Additionally, we have to understand that periodic use of the rhythm method usually means telling yourself that you’re in an infertile period so that you can have sex without condoms, and not just abstaining during certain times, which is where the Catholic church tends to focus, due to the obsession with finding excuses to tell people to keep it in their pants. Why would a young woman take the risk of guessing when she’s not fertile in order to skip the condoms? Two reasons come to mind: Shame about sexuality and pressure from a male partner. Let’s take these one at a time, and look at how abstinence-only increases the likelihood of both.
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Sexual shaming can dramatically increase the likelihood that an individual will look for excuses and rationalizations for not using contraception. If you’re ashamed of having sex, every instance of buying a condom can be fraught with fear and shame—fear of being caught, shame of having to admit that you’re having sex, shame at what the cashier thinks of you. In turn, this makes it easier for you to say, “We don’t need a condom this time; I don’t think I’m in a fertile period.” The prevalence of abstinence-only programs only means that your average teenager is receiving a much bigger pile of shaming and fear-mongering about sex. If the only message you’re allowed to receive about sex in school is one of shame, it becomes easier to imagine that every adult around you is judging and shaming you for sex, and thus, more important to you to minimize the amount of time you spend revealing this fact by doing things like buying condoms.
If you know much about sex education, or even if you’ve just been out in the world enough to know much about how people have sex, you probably know that condom negotiation in heterosexual encounters is often a responsibility that falls on female shoulders more than male ones. Which is a nice way of saying that women are far more likely to have to demand condoms in the face of male resistance than the other way around. This makes sense—between biological realities and sexist indoctrination, men are far less likely to be considering the risks of sex when in the mood to get to the pleasure part.
This can make condom negotiation extremely hard, especially on younger women, who often don’t have enough experience to develop the tools to stand up for themselves. Abstinence-only can make this worse. The programs push extremely sexist views about gender roles, and put a special emphasis on how men only like women who are submissive and people-pleasing. When you teach young women that no one will love them if they’re too self-assured, what do you think she’s going to feel when a young man is pressuring her to go condom-less? In many cases, she’ll feel fear that demanding a condom will make the young man not like her anymore, and generally speaking, when you’re just about to have sex is not when you’re at your least vulnerable to wanting to be liked. In many cases, it’s just going to be easier to say you’re probably not in a fertile period.
Why can’t we trust that teenage girls using the rhythm method are simply experts in their own fertility? It’s possible a few are, but let’s face it. To use the method effectively requires more than counting the days in your cycle. You also have to take your temperature and measure mucus levels—all the sort of things that few teenage girls are unlikely to do. Merely counting days is ineffective in women who have regular periods. For teenage girls, who often have irregular periods, it’s basically a waste of time. In addition, the rhythm method offers no protection against STDs.
Abstinence-only is still kicking after being snuck into the health care reform bill after the Obama administration defunded it through other channels. But its impact is softened every time right-thinking politicians strike a blow against it. Hopefully the next time the CDC takes this study, there will be more comprehensive sex education, and we’ll see improvements in contraceptive use amongst teenagers.