Commentary Sexuality

Busywork to Keep Teens From ‘Getting Busy’: High School Students Asked to Sign an Abstinence Contract

Martha Kempner

One Utah program makes students choose to promise to uphold several flawed statements on abstinence. I would love to believe that the students would be brave enough to challenge what’s written on the page, but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don't make sense.

A picture of an abstinence-only-until-marriage workbook distributed in a Utah high school is making the rounds on social media, thanks to PopSugar. As the apparent homework for students on Day 12 of a so-called sex education program, the assignment asked them to choose their top five (or more) reasons to remain abstinent out of a list of 28. Students were then told to write those reasons neatly on the next page and sign it as a “contract.”

There are many reasons that I hate this activity, including how closely it resembles virginity pledges—which, though they don’t often go through the same trouble of outlining reasons for abstinence, we all know don’t work. Research has shown that 88 percent of young people who take those pledges end up having sex before their wedding night. And worse, according to those studies, once pledgers become sexually active, they are one-third less likely to use contraception than their non-pledging peers.

What upsets me the most, however, is the degree to which young people are supposed to accept the premise of the 28 so-called justifications for abstinence without question. If they were allowed to think critically about what they are being asked to sign, they might notice that the statements are based on the assumption that all premarital relationships are unhealthy, morally wrong, and overwhelmingly likely to lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unintended pregnancy. The statements are also based on the flawed idea that abstinence until marriage would be the only way to fulfill the promises they’re putting in the contract.

I would love to believe that the students in these classes would be brave enough to challenge much of what’s written on the page but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don’t make sense. Maybe my arguments can help other kids faced with homework like this challenge assumptions or, even better, help adults realize why this kind of program does not meet the needs of students.

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#1. I refuse to use others for my physical needs.
#2. I refuse to be used by someone else to satisfy his/her physical needs.
I suppose we can give the authors credit for acknowledging that teens have physical needs, but they lose those points for assuming that all teenage sexual relationships involve using each other purely for physical intimacy. Sure, some teens enter into unhealthy relationships in which one person is being used, but this is true of adults as well. Teens can and do have sexual relationships that are based on mutual love, trust, and respect. And some of these relationships include mutually pleasurable sexual experiences. Instead of assuming such relationships can’t exist, we should be teaching teens what is and isn’t healthy, and why mutual consent and pleasure is important. This understanding is critical even for teens who decide to stay abstinent in high school or until they get married, because they’ll need it in adult relationships as well.

#3. I refuse to risk getting pregnant or a girl pregnant.
Awkward phrasing aside, this is a good risk to avoid. But while abstinence is the surest way to ensure that no one gets pregnant, there are other ways to do so. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Yes, some teens use them wrong, but the most common mistake is leaving it in their purse or night table drawer. Teaching teens the importance of consistent condom use could allow them to keep this piece of their promise even if they end up having sex before marriage, which the majority of Americans do. Or, we could teach about (and give them access to) contraceptive implants and IUDs, which are over 99 percent effective without any effort on the part of the user and last for at least three years. These methods are a near-guarantee that teens will keep the promise of avoiding pregnancy whether or not they choose abstinence.

#6. I refuse to live through the trauma of an abortion.
First, we have to question the premise that abortion is traumatic. A recent study of women who’d had abortions found that 95 percent believed they’d made the right decision. Moreover, the most common emotion of the women after their abortion was relief. The study found no evidence that “post-abortion trauma syndrome”—a scare tactic frequently used by crisis pregnancy centers—exists. But #6 is flawed for another reason as well: It assumes, again, that sex before marriage is going to end in pregnancy. As I just discussed, a teen can refuse to live through abortion and can do so by using a highly effective form of birth control.

#12. I refuse to lose my self-respect.
This one really galls me because it goes back to the dichotomy set up by many abstinence-only curricula that says teens who are abstinent are model citizens and teens who have sex lack character, dignity, and self-respect. Abstinence programs have compared teens who have already had sex to things like used tape, to a cup full of spit, a mushed-up Peppermint Patty, chewed pieces of gum, or a rose with no petals. A person’s value is not wrapped up in their virginity. And teens who have had sex should know that they are no less valuable than any of their peers.

#16. I refuse to disrespect other’s physical boundaries/limitations.
This is a great promise that all teens should make. It is the basis of a lesson on consent. Teens need to learn that everyone has the right to make their own choices when it comes to sexual activity and they must respect those choices. Such a lesson, however, has little to do with staying abstinent until marriage. It’s about respecting an individual’s own boundaries, whatever they may be. So if your partner doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, then yes, you have to abide by that decision. But it’s equally important to abide by their decision if they tell you they don’t want to have sex until, say, next Thursday.

#18. I refuse to enter into marriage with unnecessary baggage from past relationships.
Abstinence-only curricula often focus on the idea that all sexual relationships outside of marriage leave memories and scars that will haunt you forever. You may lose your ability to bond (again, think about the tape game) or you may have flashbacks of prior partners during sex with your spouse. The average adult between the ages of 30 and 44, however, has had between four and eight opposite-sex sexual partners. Although I can’t tell you what images were going through their heads the last time they made love to their husband or wife, many seem to manage marriage without daily PTSD flashbacks of the ones who came before. While some people might consider past relationships as baggage, others see them as opportunities to learn the communication, negotiation, and emotional skills needed to be a good life partner.

Though this assignment might seem extreme, it is actually the kind of thing kids have been made to do in abstinence-only programs for years. Making young people blindly adopt tenets like these and then promise to follow them for years is not going to help them learn to protect themselves against STIs, pregnancy, or even heartache. Nor is it going to help them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make responsible sexual and relationship decisions as they mature. Good programs aim to educate young people rather than indoctrinate them. These teens would be much better off with one that let them think for themselves and question the basic premise that all sex before marriage is wrong.

This contract, as they say, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

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