Abstinence Only - A Quasi-Defense from a Former Teacher

Sometimes I'm blissfully unaware of things buzzing around the internet, especially in the more Catholic intellectual circles.  What with diaper changing and dinner making and lesson teaching, I don't have the ability or the calling to be on the up and up with every discussion (even if part of me wants to).  I recently learned, though, that there's been discussion regarding the use of abstinence only methods for teaching sexuality, mostly as a response to Elizabeth Smart's statements.  Elizabeth Smart suggested that she can understand why someone being abused and in captivity would not run if they had received the message that any compromise of their virginity leaves them dirty and used.  She criticized the abstinence-only message she received that likened sexual activity before marriage to used chewing gum.  

I haven't been privy to every comment section or blog post on this topic but as a former abstinence-only teacher, I thought maybe I could weigh in on the subject.  I worked for a year and a half as part of an federally funded abstinence based program for youth implemented through Catholic Charities.  Our primary activity was going into schools, community centers, and youth groups and presenting a program that focused on character building as a tool in preventing sexual activity before marriage and I taught students from 5th grade to 12 grade.  The intention of the program itself was to provide positive reasons for avoiding extramarital sexual activity rather than merely being consequence driven, though out of necessity, consequences were not ignored.  It was an incredibly formative experience.  There were aspects of the program I was less than thrilled with and there are things about it that I now regret but one thing I did not take issue with is the need to inform many of these kids of the very real consequences of sex outside of marriage.

The problem with Elizabeth's statement and the blog posts that have followed is that they paint all abstinence only educators with an extremely broad and unfair brush.  I am so sorry that Elizabeth experienced the horror she went through.  It breaks my heart that she felt dirty and filthy because she had been raped.  From the training and reading I have done, this is a common experience for victims of rape and abuse regardless of what kind of sex education they received.  (For now I'll ignore my belief that rape, kidnapping, and abuse are in an entirely different realm than consensual premarital sex and that most students can naturally see the difference.  No teacher I've met would ever equate the two.)  Reading some of these posts you would think that all of these teachers are using shame-based methods and repulsive analogies to gross kids out of premarital sex.  One would be led to believe that the crux of these programs depends on shock value and that students are taught that they are "ruined" if they have sex.  Maybe some of them do teach that, I don't know.  Our program, though it had its faults, focused on character (admittedly a lesser substitute for virtue) and a positive, worth-based approach to sexuality (admittedly a lesser substitute for chastity).  As a federal program we were not able to bring religion into the discussion, though inside I squealed in delight when a student brought it up because then it could be a part of the discussion.  Our hands were tied when it came to diving deeper into chastity and virtue so without doubt, that limited the quality of the program, at least from a Christian perspective.  It is impossible to have a healthy and whole understanding of sexuality outside of Catholic teaching, however, we did our best despite those limitations.  And while the program wasn't the perfect Theology of the Body based program and I do not believe sexual education should be taught in schools by default anyway,  I still believe it did much good and in many cases was very needed.  At the very least because these kids were worth it and deserved something more than the animalistic approach of Planned Parenthood that relegates these teens to the status of a dog in heat.  

Our objective was to focus on character and goal setting.  We did, however, talk about consequences.  Because it is impossible to teach a healthy approach to sexuality in the current culture without talking about consequences.  Let me tell you something.  It is incredibly hard to convince teenagers who have been brought up in a sex-obsessed culture and in a secular setting that sex outside of marriage might not be a good choice without discussing the consequences of the undesired behavior.  It just is.  Try uttering the word chastity in a room full of angsty teens from broken homes in a crumbling classroom in the middle of the city.  I did my best and I implored them to view themselves as worthy and good.  It sure would be nice if they subsequently desired to refrain from sexual activity out of pure virtue and desire to offer themselves as self-gift to their future spouse so that I never needed to discuss what could happen if they didn't.  That would be awesome.  But it would also be grossly unfair to these children to NOT give them information about the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage simply because I didn't want to make them feel bad, especially when I knew that some of these kids were that very day, week, or year going to be making that decision.  Sometimes we weak humans are motivated not by purity of intention and perfect love of the good and are kept out of harm's way by a valid fear of the consequences of that action.  Or maybe that's just me.

The consequences of sex outside of marriage are real.  It's certainly not pleasant for anyone that sin has consequences and that those consequences often remain even after the sin is forgiven.  That's one of the reasons why sin sucks.  It's unhealthy for us and can affect our souls, our bodies, our relationships, our children, our health, our temporal and eternal future.  Many of us have experienced the far-reaching effects of premarital sexual activity within our bodies, our souls, our minds, our marriages.  Here's what these kids deserve to know:  Sex has incredible power and one of those powers is that it bonds us to our partner...for good or ill.  (Improperly used it can also leave us with diseases that can affect us the rest of our lives and that was discussed as well.)  The release of oxytocin as an agent of emotional bonding is biological fact.  Children (and adults) who are already engaged in or are inevitably going to have to decide on premarital sexual activity deserve to know that sex is more powerful than they've been led to believe.  And whether or not they view premarital sex as sin they deserve to know that it has far reaching consequences.  And, yes, they also deserve to know that Christ can heal all things and that grace is infinitely more powerful than nature.  But outside of the realm of faith and forgiveness where federal programs and public schools dare not tread, these children still need to know that there are natural consequences to sexual activity outside of marriage.  

I used the tape demonstration.  A piece of packing tape stuck to an arm to show the power of oxytocin to bond us to our partner.  And why it can hurt so badly when a sexual relationship is broken off.  It's meant to be forever.  Was this demonstration "shaming" those who had either beforehand or in the future decided to be sexually active with someone outside of marriage?  I don't think so.  I think it impressed upon them the power that our sexuality holds and I think it was a creative way to teach a biological fact.  Many of these kids had never thought about sex in this way before.  Many of them had never been told that their sexuality is, in fact, incredibly powerful.  Many of them had that aha! look in their eyes as I explained this to them because now it made sense to them why they hurt.  They weren't crazy.  In many ways it validated the fact that they were worth something and that their hurt was real and justified.  I pray that not one of my students ever felt that it demeaned them and I ask mercy from God if it did.  I know that I emphasized the importance of there always being the opportunity to start over despite their past and I hope I impressed upon them their inherent worth no matter their choices...I tried very hard to do that.  I also pray that my words and time with them saved even one of of them from the heartbreak and disease and the many many consequences of sex outside of marriage.  I do know that upon receiving their post program surveys I often read that the tape demonstration was powerful to them and that they had never thought about sexual activity in terms of being that important.  Maybe that demonstration actually played a part in them realizing their worth.

Any demonstration or abstinence only instruction that intentionally shames a young person or instructs only from a place of fear and leaves no room for redemption is misguided, repulsive, and dangerous.  It is not Christian, that's for sure.  Perhaps more needs to be done within these programs to address abuse and rape.  But to categorically deride any abstinence only education is not fair.  To be sure, a comprehensive chastity education (preferably taught primarily by the parents and NOT the school) is far superior but in its absence, a loving, character-based abstinence program can be the opportunity for these young people to rise above cultural norms and seek the best future for themselves, often giving hope where there was none.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  I'm certainly a fallible person and open to changing my mind if I'm wrong on any or all of this :)


  1. How horrible that she (and other victims) feel that way! You're right though-abstinence ed is truly needed if they are going to be having sex ed in schools.(which I don't think should be there anyway either.) Thanks for sharing your experience

  2. Foze- this was good. Weirdly enough, I just read this article and was going to share it on facebook tomorrow (I only take up one cause at a time on the ol' social network, and currently, it's the dignity of the homeless). I wanted to see your take on this article.


    I also shared your blog with the person who posted the above article. I find the whole thing fascinating and timely, as right now Michigan is discussing the value of abstinence only education. I guess, seeing as though I don't see why any sex ed program belongs in a public school system (I just don't) I am finding this whole discussion fascinating. Not really sure where I stand on it frankly. Because, like, abstinence only is not going to be what I teach my children. I'll be teaching them chastity as a lifestyle...which is very different. Again, why I wish the schools would just stop overreaching on their responsibility. Anyway, giver 'er a read and lemme know what you think

  3. Yeah, that's one of the articles that prompted the post. Without turning this into another essay (because you know I could :) I agree with a lot of what she says but there are way too many sweeping generalizations. To me it's like saying that all youth ministry is bad and needs to be done away with simply because there's some crappy methods of youth ministry going on in some places. I *think* I'm seeing where some of the issue might lie when I'm reading the comments. The term "abstinence only" refers to a method where contraception and birth control are not taught as part of the curriculum. It does NOT mean that only abstinence is taught to the exclusion of chastity and character...as if the curriculum begins and ends with do not have sex. At least, that's what it meant when I was part of the gig. I think that might be where people are confused? Abstinence by necessity is part of chastity...especially when you're talking to single people but it's not like these programs AREN'T teaching something beyond "just say no."

    However, I most definitely agree that our kids deserve better. For what it's worth I won't be teaching my own children the way I taught in the schools. They're getting life lessons in Theology of the Body from day one (at least in theory ;) And I don't think that sex ed belongs in most schools either. At the same time I was okay with the fact that at least these kids were getting chastity-in-disguise from me because many of them just were not hearing that anywhere else. Maybe that's pretentious of me. Some of the schools I was in literally had just had presentations from Planned Parenthood so at the very least maybe they were hearing another viewpoint. But how sad is it that in my entire time there I received ONE parent phone call responding to the permission slip they had to sign for some random stranger coming in to teach their kids about sex?? Out of thousands? I DIDN'T like that our program went to Catholic schools (though those kids were usually more receptive!). Those schools should've had their own Catholic based curriculum and what we were offering was a poor substitute for real Catholic teaching. I just don't see an answer in any of the posts of what we are supposed to be doing in its place (at least in the public schools). Nothing? Trying to get a Theology of the Body-esque thing into them? Not saying I have the answer but just slamming all abstinence based programs doesn't seem to help things much in my little opinion.

    1. Interesting, interesting perspective. I guess I don't really have an opinion on it, except to say it's okay to criticize abstinence only education, but like you said, not to make sweeping statements about how awful it is. I just so hate that it is in schools at all. This coming from the girl who's parents made her sit in the hallway during that section in health class (they wouldn't sign the form). Truthfully, I think it is one of the coolest things they did for us! I flt pride knowing my mom and dad were talking to me about all this stufff and it taught me early on that daring to be different is A-ok.

  4. Mary - Well said! If I had time, I'd take this on, too. I appreciate some of the posts I've read, but they're missing the essential points you've made here. There are real costs, sometimes life-long costs involved. And there's always redemption -- for sexual as well as all other sins. Behold I make all things new! Thank you for balancing some of this discussion.


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