tagReviews & EssaysAbstinence vs. Sex Education

Abstinence vs. Sex Education


Author's Note: This is an opinion paper, just my opinion (although like anyone else in the world I'd be thrilled if I actually convinced someone to it)... However, it WAS thoroughly researched. If you ask and leave me an email or email me feedback I can give you the work-cited copy with bibliography. Otherwise, just know that I did research on this topic. Enjoy!


Sex education has become a hot topic in America, with most of the debate centering around whether schools should offer abstinence-only education or comprehensive sex education. A lot of studies have come out recently that compare communities with abstinence-only programs to those which offer comprehensive education programs, adding more fuel to the heated debate. Abstinence-only supporters push an agenda of morality and claim that comprehensive sex education doesn't work. Comprehensive programs push an agenda of "abstinence-first" while claiming that abstinence-only education doesn't work. And through the country young people are exposed to a wide-range of sex and sexuality, everyone acknowledges that it is important to give them some kind of education to help center them, the biggest question is what kind.

The biggest complaint about comprehensive programs, by abstinence-only supporters, is what they feel is a lack of emphasis on abstaining from sex. Abstinence-supporters believe that teaching about birth control is actually encouragement to teenagers to have sex. They want to send the message that sex outside of marriage is immoral, and that the only way to stay disease-free, happy and not be pregnant is to abstain from sex. They also make the claim that there are emotional and psychological after-effects when young people have premarital sex, as well as the risk of disease, making abstinence the only acceptable solution. Their reasoning is backed up by more than the risk of pregnancy or Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), the emotional risk is just as important to them. One program leader says, "We tell them condoms won't protect your heart, that latex won't stop human papilloma virus." They also claim that premarital sex creates individuals who are more likely to be divorced later in life.

The curriculum of abstinence-only programs teaches that intercourse before marriage will have harmful social, psychological, and physical consequences. Controversial topics such as abortion, masturbation and sexual orientation are not discussed. Contraception is only discussed in terms of failure rates and STDs are presented as an inevitable result of premarital sex. They use fear tactics to instill caution, giving the worst-case scenarios so that teens in the programs can see what could happen to them. Many programs involve participants taking a pledge to abstain from sex until they are properly married. These programs present abstinence as the only way to guard against emotional and psychological trauma, STDs, and unwanted pregnancies.

Comprehensive sex education offers an open environment in which to discuss sex, it is accepting of everyone's behavior - both abstaining and engaging. Most comprehensive programs stress abstinence, they "teach that abstinence is the most effective method of preventing pregnancy and STDs, including HIV; discuss pregnancy and disease prevention, discuss condom use and other contraceptives; discuss a wide range of topics including Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Trans-gender (LGBT) people, parenting, sexual abuse, and family diversity, empowering young people to make healthier choices about sex." It also teaches the most effective ways of avoiding STDs and pregnancy if teens choose not to abstain. Comprehensive sex education programs emphasize abstinence as the only way to be 100% sure of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and STDs, but they also acknowledge that many teens will make the choice not to abstain and so want teens to be as knowledgeable as possible to avoid them if they choose not to abstain. Also, comprehensive programs feel that more informed teens will make the choice not to engage in sexual activity as opposed to less-informed teens.

Abstinence-only supporters claim that comprehensive sex education does not emphasize abstinence enough, and actually implicitly encourages premarital sex by informing students of contraceptives. Their logic says "the caveat that says 'and if you do engage in sex, this is how you should do it' substantially weakens an admonition against early non-marital sexual activity." They have also said that these programs give teens a mixed message, both urging them to abstain and giving the know-how and means to begin a life of "casual sex with multiple partners". However, most studies concluded that programs which included discussion of contraception did not hasten, and actually sometimes delayed, the initiation of sexual intercourse. They also do not increase the number of sexual partners, but they do increase the number of teens using contraceptives if they decide to have sex. Contrary to abstinence-only supporters claims, researchers found "that young people who took a pledge were one third less likely to use contraception, when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledge. In other words, pledging can create harm by undermining contraceptive use when young people in these programs became sexually active. The researchers also found that pledgers have the same rate of STDs as their peers who had not pledged. In fact, not only were pledgers less likely to use condoms to prevents STDs, they were less likely to seek medical testing and treatment, thereby increasing the possibility of transmission. Further research found that, among those young people who have not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers are more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers. In fact, among virgins, male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have had oral sex than non-pledgers, and male pledgers are four times more likely to have had anal sex than those who had not pledge." Another study found that, "Abstinence only programs provide these youth with no information, other than abstinence, regarding how to protect themselves from pregnancy, HIV and other STDs. A third, related concern of evaluators was abstinence-only programs' failure to proved positive information about contraception and condoms. Evaluators noted more than once that programs' emphasis on the failure rates of contraception, including condoms, left youth ambivalent, at best, about using them... Abstinence-only programs show little evidence of sustained (long-term) impact on attitudes and intentions.

Worse, they show some negative impacts on youth's willingness to use contraception, including condoms, to prevent negative sexual health outcomes related to sexual intercourse. Importantly, only in one state did any program demonstrate short-term success in delaying the initiation of sex; none of these programs demonstrates evidence of long-term success in delaying sexual initiation among youth exposed to the programs or any evidence of success in reducing other sexual risk-taking behaviors among participants." These studies showed that the stance pushed by abstinence-only supporters is not only wrong, but that they actually have it backward. Because abstinence-only programs do not talk about oral or anal sex, they also do not teach that these are just as good of disease transmitters as regular intercourse or teach the teens how to protect themselves. Dr. Buzz Pruit who directed a study of abstinence only programs said, "These programs seem to be much more concerned about politics than kids..." Comprehensive supporters have found other problems with abstinence-only programs, finding that they give information is that scientifically incorrect. Condom failure rates are reported as being much higher than public health studies have shown, and they give the impression that condoms will not protect against STDs. They also create a hostile environment for LGBT youth, "Many curricula only mention LGBT people and same-sex sexual activity in reference to promiscuity or disease. Abstinence-only programs ignore the fact that same-sex couples exist and as of yet can't legally marry. Students with LGBT, unmarried, or divorced parents are led to believe that their families don't count and are responsible for society's problems. Students are taught that having a child out-of-wedlock is harmful to the child, the parents and society." Comprehensive education supporters are often angered by this narrow view of society and the fact that abstinence-only programs do not allow for differing viewpoints. Students are taught that differing viewpoints are immoral and wrong and that abstinence and same-sex marriages are the only acceptable options. Many comprehensive-education supporters feel that this pushes a religious agenda, rather than trying to actually benefit they students. They are angered that religion has made its way into a school program, and that the government is now funding many of these programs.

For the most part, the articles that compare comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only education seem to be more in favor of comprehensive. They do explain the other point of view, such as the fact that comprehensive sex education can send a mixed message, because it does tell kids to abstain but also gives them the information they need in order to being having sex. However, it is reported by some studies that comprehensive programs do not actually increase the amount of sexual intercourse among teens, they actually demonstrate a decrease because teens are more informed. Other reports say that abstinence-programs have no lasting impact, while still others found that abstinence-only programs resulted in other sexual activity (Such as oral and anal sex) and a greater spread of diseases.

Young people are exposed to a lot of confusing and contradictory messages about sex and sexuality every day of their lives. They see health messages telling them about the dangers of unprotected sex, and at the same time they see the media and TV shows promoting sexual activity as making a person more mature and attractive. A poll found that most Americans wants their children's sexual education to be broad, covering many different topics and preparing them for the world. Of course, there were differences of opinion on when they should be taught about certain things, what's more appropriate for middle school vs. high school, but studies have found that parents want their children to have access to a lot of information. "The most controversial topic - 'that teens can obtain birth control pills from family planning clinics and doctors without the permission of the parent' - was found to be inappropriate to 28 percent of the public, but even there, seven out of 10 (71 percent) thought it was appropriate. The other most controversial topics were oral sex (27 percent found it inappropriate) and homosexuality (25 percent). Interesting, in a separate question about what schools should teach about homosexuality, only 19 percent said schools should not teach about it at all. For the most part, Americans want teachers to talk about homosexuality, but they want them to do so in a neutral way. Fifty-two percent said schools should teach 'only what homosexuality is, without discussing whether it is wrong or acceptable,' compared with 18 percent who said schools should teach that homosexuality is wrong and 8 percent who said schools should teach that homosexuality is acceptable."

Studies have also found that students often being experimenting with sexual activity before they have any classes in sex education, probably because most of the programs concentrate on high schoolers. Looking at all the programs available, it becomes apparent that "Although sex education programs in schools have been around for many years, most programs have not been nearly as effective as hoped. Schools across the country need to take a rigorous look at their programs, and being to implement more innovative programs that have been proved effective. Educators, parents and policy-makers should avoid emotional misconceptions about sex education; based on the rates of unwanted pregnancies and STDs including HIV among teenagers, we can no longer ignore the need for both education on how to postpone sexual involvement and how to protect oneself when sexually active. A comprehensive risk prevention strategy uses multiple elements to protect as many of those at risk of pregnancy and STD/HIV infection as possible." Many health officials feel that sex education should be more comprehensive because they have a higher success rate of protecting teenagers who are involved in sexual activity, as well as possibly postponing that involvement. Right now there are no universal guidelines for the country on what should be taught in schools, some states severely restrict sexual education; in other states, sex education is encouraged but there are no clear guidelines about what should be taught to students.

Arthur Caplan, PhD feels that abstinence-only education does not work, not just because of the lack of information but because of parents, "Parents attitudes seemed to change when these same kids went away to college or went off to get a job. A lot of these very same parents stopped preaching that sex before marriage was wrong. A fair number of them would whisper that sex before marriage might be a good idea, especially if the sex was with someone their son or daughter was thinking about marrying. Many of these parents had lived with someone before marrying and all of them who had done so had sex before marrying. The message that sex must wait until marriage is not the right message to send to a young person. The people sending the message almost never lived up to it in their own lives and nothing turns a kid off like hypocrisy. Furthermore, most kids themselves just don't believe it. And lastly, regardless of what someone's age is, it makes much more sense to talk about maturity, love and mutual respect than to send an absolute message that sex is unacceptable outside marriage - a message that gets nullified the day a person graduates from high school. Science and common sense, not wishful thinking and hypocrisy, should guide what we teach kids about sex." He outlines some of the most basic ideas behind comprehensive sex education: recognition that teenagers will experiment rather than denial, abstinence isn't going to happen for all of them, and the mixed-messages that are a day to day part of every teenager's life.

Comprehensive sex education is more beneficial because it allows an open environment in which to discuss sex and is accepting of all behaviors. It teaches safe ways of protection and does not increase the amount of sexual activity, in fact it is fairly adept at decreasing that amount. Most studies show that abstinence-education doesn't work, and most studies that say it does are backed by religious or Right-wing political groups. Most articles about abstinence-only education seem to be more religiously based than anything else, endorsing Christian articles and ideals. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, and some abstinence-only programs will work for some teens... but America is not just made up of Christians and abstinence-only programs do not accommodate those teens who will experiment anyway. They are a good idea in theory, but there isn't any concrete evidence to show that they benefit anyone, and much more evidence to show that they don't.

Comprehensive sex education teaches more about the reality of the world and what is available, offering knowledge and protection. It utilizes common sense in recognizing that not all teenagers are going to abstain, no matter what they're told, and arms them against disease and unwanted pregnancies. These programs allow for discussions on controversial issues without making judgements on ethics or beliefs, allowing each student to place their own belief system in conjunction with their education. Students can ask questions and get factual answers, rather than answers tinged with a moral or religious agenda. Abstinence-only programs are based on nothing more than fervent hope, not very useful when students are faced with the realities of life. As G.I. Joe says, "Knowing is half the battle."

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