For many of us, the debate over abstinence-only sex education programs began to peter out early in the Obama administration, when the president quietly ended the Bush administration’s policy of tying funding strictly to programs that teach that abstinence is the only legitimate way to prevent pregnancy and STI transmission. Since then, the fight over abstinence-only education has flared up periodically, especially in red states. Overall, though, pro-choicers have been able, by marshaling a ton of evidence, to convince much of the public that abstinence-only doesn’t work. So most of us could be forgiven for believing that in places where contraception education has been re-introduced into the classroom, kids were getting, if not great sex ed, at least lessons that acknowledged that it’s normal for most people to have sex without being married first in the 21st century.
That illusion was spectacularly shattered last week by medical historian Alice Dreger, who made a splash on Twitter by posting about her high school-age son’s ridiculous sex education class. Dreger admitted in a piece for The Stranger that she had earlier rebuffed friends who encouraged her to get involved in school board debates over what exactly would be taught in sex ed classes. But it’s hard to blame her for that. Dreger’s son goes to East Lansing High School in Michigan, where administrators have emphasized that they do not teach abstinence-only and that “the curriculum also reviews contraception choices.” Most parents, under the circumstances, would assume that it’s OK as long as it’s not abstinence-only.
Dreger discovered while observing the class, though, that “while this was not technically abstinence-only sex education, it was terror-based sex education.” Abstinence-only educators were and are basically supposed to hold the “don’t even think about it” line where contraception was concerned. Dreger’s son’s instructors, meanwhile, admitted that using contraception during sex is better than not doing so. But overall, based on Dreger’s account, the themes of the class were indistinguishable from abstinence-only education: Premarital sex is evil, people who do it are dirty, and men and women should adhere to traditional gender roles. The tone was still fatalistic, pushing the belief that premarital sex inevitably leads to disaster.
Reading about Dreger’s experience makes it crushingly clear that the big victory over abstinence-only education may not have been as big as some of us hoped. Many people still cling to the ridiculous idea that the best way to teach kids about sex is to shame them about it. The program at this high school was run—surprise, surprise—by a crisis pregnancy center. It may not be “abstinence-only,” but it is the same old problem we’ve been struggling with for more than 15 years now: conservatives using “sex ed” to treat you like a failure if you choose instead to have sex without being married.
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The rebranding effort isn’t limited to local school districts, either. The Washington Times reports that Congress is allocating $25 million annually to programs the Times euphemistically calls “risk-avoidance education,” but which are the same old “If you have sex, your penis will fall off and you will die and no one will ever love you and don’t pay attention to the fact that everyone you know has sex and they seem fine” programs. Or abstinence-only, if you want to shorten it.
Imagine if schools across the country gathered students up and explained to them that owning a pet is a great evil and should be resisted at all costs. To drive this home, they would hold up pictures of ugly dog bites, tell sob stories about cat allergies, and play games where everyone who gets a pet ends up either dead or homeless. They would tell students that even if they managed to survive pet ownership, it would still end in heartbreak, because eventually all pets die. Then they would warn them not to go to the animal shelter or even look at the pages of Pet Finder for fear of giving into temptation.
We, as a nation, would think they’re barking mad. After all, lots of people own pets and it’s fine. More to the point, we would be mad about the pointless hatefulness of the argument. Sure, pets can be a pain sometimes, but they are often an overall positive aspect to our lives. Why not teach kids about the option of responsible pet ownership instead of just hating on pets? No one would mistake that for telling kids they have to own pets if they don’t like them, after all. Just accepting that owning pets is a common and joyful thing.
Non-marital or pre-marital sex is similar: Those of us who have it do so because it’s a positive force in our lives. Sure, there are downsides, but the good outweighs the bad. In fact, only 62 percent of Americans own pets, but 95 percent of us have premarital sex. All kids need some education in responsible sexuality, but overall they should be given positive attitudes about sex.
I fear we pro-choicers screwed up. During the abstinence-only years, the most common rebuke, by far, to abstinence-only was that it “doesn’t work.” Doesn’t work for preventing pregnancy and STIs, of course, but that’s because it doesn’t actually convince anyone not to have sex. I made that argument roughly one million times myself (not an exact estimate).
But while that argument is true, it elides the greater issue of whether or not abstinence-only should work. The implication of the “doesn’t work” argument was, all too often, that we wouldn’t have any objections if it did convince kids to wait—usually a decade or more—for marriage to have sex. Statistically speaking, most of us don’t feel that way ourselves and have zero desire to wait until marriage. But because of widespread social anxieties about teenage sexuality and our own understandable unwillingness to sound like we’re judging people who wait until marriage, we’ve avoided opening up a larger discussion about why premarital sex is often a good thing and why it needs to be taught as a normal, positive part of people’s lives.
Now we see where that’s gotten us. We convinced the public that “abstinence-only” doesn’t work, and so conservatives just tweaked it a little so that it’s not technically abstinence-only and were able to keep the flame alive. Maybe it’s time to change strategies and stop playing defense. It’s time to start advocating not just for contraception-inclusive or vaguely termed “comprehensive” sex education, but to call it sex positive-education—and to call the shaming, religion-based programs what they are, which is sex-negative. Or hell, just call them shame-based. Or, per Dreger’s formulation, terror-based. It’s time to stop arguing technicalities and start arguing philosophies. We want our young people to grow up looking forward to a future of fun, fulfilling sex, not to teach them that it’s a thing that they will probably do but should feel bad about.