Let’s talk about sex: the United States of abstinence 

5 Mins read

As abortion access becomes more restrictive across America, is it time for schools to teach a more comprehensive sex education?

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends got a diagnosis that sexually active people fear: chlamydia.  It came one week after she found out her long-term boyfriend was cheating on her. She was definitely not having a good week.  

As we began talking about STDs, she said something that blew my mind: “I thought only gay people could get STDs?!”  

I was stunned, how at 23 years old could someone think STDs were exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community?

We both grew up in different states, her from Texas and me from New York, but I thought our sex education couldn’t have been that different. I was wrong. Throughout her schooling, she only learned about abstinence, no mention of condoms or other forms of contraceptives. 

As access to abortion continues to become more restricted in the United States, it’s important, now more than ever, to teach a comprehensive sex education in schools which includes contraceptives, STDs and how to properly care for your sexual health. 

With over 50% of teens having had sexual intercourse before the age of 18, learning a comprehensive sexual education in grade school is crucial to helping teens be prepared when they choose to engage in sexual activities. 

The history of sex education in the United States 

The teaching of sex education in schools has been a controversial topic from the very beginning. A public school in Chicago first began teaching sex education in 1913 but was quickly met with resistance by the Catholic church, forcing the superintendent to resign.  

After the return of World War 1 veterans in 1918, an outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) gonorrhoea did not ease the debate on sex education. The outbreak persuaded Congress to include education on gonorrhoea and syphilis in the controversial 1918 Chamberlin-Khan Act.

This act also allowed the government to quarantine women who tested positive for an STD – but we don’t need to get into that. 

By the 1920s, 40% of schools had sex education programs. The programs got so popular that, by the 1950s, the American Medical Association compiled a sex education series to create standardised teaching for schools. 

The progress made over the course of 30 years is impressive, and one could only wonder what our sex education standards would be like today had it not been for the pushback against sex ed in the 1960s-1970s.

Despite the sexual revolution taking place which encouraged sexual exploration among young adults, many religious conservatives fought against sex ed in schools claiming that it would lead children to an immoral lifestyle. 

The current state of sex education 

Today, only 20 states require information on contraceptives and HIV to be taught.  

If that is not alarming enough, 27 states require lessons that stress abstinence with 18 states highly pushing a “waiting until marriage” curriculum, failing to educate their students on other options in case they choose not to do so. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the Federal government spends nearly $110 million (£88m) annually on helping fund schools that promote sex abstinence until marriage. These programmes require schools to instruct students on waiting for marriage until engaging in any form of sexual activity.  

Not only is this a seemingly unrealistic initiative but is also rooted in religious beliefs which defy (especially for public schools) the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for the separation of Church and State.  

Though local governments and school districts have the final say on what gets taught and what doesn’t, many states still emphasise the notion that all students should practice abstinence instead of providing a detailed curriculum of what should be taught. 

Montana’s guidelines, for example, state that public health is meant to “support youth who have not had sexual intercourse to continue to postpone the initiation of sexual intercourse and help youth who have had sexual intercourse to re-establish abstinence.” 

To sum it up: the school’s responsibility is to make sure those who haven’t had sex never do so and that those currently having sex stop.  Rather than trying to help students make informed decisions in their future sexual endeavours, the curriculum aims to control student’s sexual habits.

That makes sense, right? 

The issue with abstinence 

Theoretically, remaining abstinent is the only way to 100% avoid pregnancy or having to deal with an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection). Though that may be true, telling teenagers to wait until marriage is as impossible as telling a dog not to beg for food.

Of course, we all know how much teenagers love to listen to what every adult tells them, but those who do not practice the “waiting until marriage” lesson being forced upon them are ultimately left helpless. 

A study conducted by the Mathematica Research Institute suggests that students who took virginity pledges – meaning vowing to stay celibate until marriage and eventually broke them, were less likely to use contraceptives and visit a doctor to check for STIs.

One of the many flaws in an abstinence – only education is its lack of inclusivity. Abstinence-only education typically caters to religious values which can be especially harmful to the members of the LGBTQ+ community, a group often marginalised by religious communities. 

Members of the LGBTQ+ community statistically engage in sexual activities at a younger age than their heterosexual peers, and are at a higher risk not just for STDs but for being victims of sexual violence. Schools that follow a strict abstinence-only education tend to demonize same-sex relations and discourage any such acts.  

“Classes must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public,” according to the Alabama Sexuality Education Law and Policy.

It also states that if schools were to teach sex education (which they are not required to do, aside from the federally mandated teaching on AIDS) they must emphasize that “abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons.” 

How has this strict abstinence-only programming worked out for them? 

Alabama currently ranks eighth in the country for the highest rates of chlamydia, STIs in those aged 15–24 years old have steadily increased the past couple of years and according to the 2015 Center for Health Statistics, Alabama’s pregnancy rate per 1,000 girls aged 15–19 is 40.1 compared to the national average of 22.3. 

The next steps in sex education 

Implementing a comprehensive sexual education as a part of health classes is the only way to ensure students are receiving proper tutoring on the matter. What exactly does a comprehensive sexual education entail? 

In an ideal world, a comprehensive sexual education would go above and beyond by including discussions surrounding family life, and relationships, and would teach young people to be advocates for their sexual health. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund, it includes “scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health, as well as information about contraception, childbirth and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.”  

Opponents of implementing a comprehensive sexual education curriculum in schools claim that it may make teens want to have sex at a younger age. Countless studies have proven this wrong. In fact, highly effective sex education programs prove to lower the number of partners a person has, as well as the pregnancy and STI rates, and/or lower the pregnancy rates. 

Talking about sex can be uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of everyone’s education. Giving young adults a space to discuss their sexual curiosities and qualms openly and comfortably will make them more responsible if, or when, they choose to start having sex. 

Featured image by WannaPik Studio.

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