According to sex education classrooms across America, people who have sex are dirty chocolate, used tape, chewed-up gum, cups of spit, roses without petals. Once teenagers participate in sexual intercourse, they somehow lose value and worth, being someone their “future husband” or “future wife” would not want. Instead of extensively discussing the use of condoms, birth control, or other methods of protection and contraception, abstinence-only education aims to protect children from “sexually explicit” lessons, instead only advocating for waiting for marriage. This ideal attempts to shirk reality, however. According to a study conducted by Lawrence Finner at the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 95% of people have premarital sex, and premarital sex is not significantly more common now than in the past. This calls into question the logical reasoning behind abstinence-only education; if it is almost inevitable for students to have premarital sex, often before sex education has begun, children in America need knowledge about protection and contraception.
Yet the number of abstinence-only classrooms in America has increased. Since 1988, the number of classrooms with an abstinence-centered curriculum has increased from 2% to 23% in U.S. public schools. Though the goal may be just delaying sexual activity among teenagers, comprehensive sex education that informs on STDs and ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies has shown to be effective in reaching that goal. Teenagers taught comprehensive sex education have reduced sexual activity as well as delayed its onset. Accumulated research disproves the common argument that informing students on the realities of sex will cause an increase in sexual activity. In fact, according to research gathered from the National Survey of Family Growth, teens who received comprehensive sex education were 50% less likely to experience pregnancy. Mississippi portrays a prime example of the failures of abstinence-only education.
These results are counter to the goals of sex education: sexual activity reduction and teen pregnancy avoidance. Though teen pregnancy has been declining, states like Mississippi and New Mexico which mandate abstinence or no sex education, have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Not only does improper sex education fail to reduce unwanted behaviors and results of sexual activity, it also fails in the way it treats the act of sex.
Kidnapping and rape victim Elizabeth Smart referenced one of the aforementioned abstinence-only lessons when she expressed her discontent with sex education in America. She described the feeling of worthlessness she felt after being raped “‘‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’” The conservative sexual rhetoric on which she was brought up acted to tie her worth to abstinence, and once she was no longer “pure” in that definition, she had no worth. This also contributes to rape culture, where society, including the victims themselves, participates in victim-blaming for sexual crimes. Due to their feelings of worthlessness, victims of sexual crimes may feel that they deserved the rape or assault, and by portraying that they are “no longer as good as everybody else.” Abstinence education aids those false attitudes. There is hope to combat this culture and sex crimes through proper education.
Comprehensive education that teaches kids about their own genitalia in ways that does not act to shame them or silence them helps in the fight against sex crimes and rape culture. When kids use accurate terms to define their body, including “penis” and “vagina” the ownership they have over their body can aid in confidence and self-esteem. This also emphasizes body autonomy, which aids in building support of consent. Comprehensive sex education also facilitates reporting on sex abuse, as kids are able to name locations of abuse. Sex education at a young age demonstrates these benefits, and comprehensive sex education at all ages has far-reaching benefits for the nation.
Abstinence-only education is ineffective, as demonstrated through studies, statistics, and anecdotes. It promotes a culture of purity that is unsuccessful in actually preventing the sexual activity to which it is morally and medically opposed. Conversely, comprehensive sex education programs that equip young people with the skills to adequately combat sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. 23% of classrooms are failing to provide the knowledge necessary for young people to navigate the world of sexual activity, and this problem must be solved through greater awareness and acceptance of the existence of sexuality in young people. Denial will not lead to a solution, only more problems.
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[Image Attribute: Think Progress]