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Austin Cline

Weekly Poll: Should Abstinence Programs That Lie Be Used?

By January 31, 2013

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Abstinence programs are popular with Christian Right: if sex is going to be mentioned in schools, it's only going to be mentioned in a manner that discourages it. It's been revealed, though, abstinence programs end up teaching all kinds of lies and myths in order to get the message across. Perhaps some conservative Christians honestly don't recognize these lies for what they are, but I strongly suspect that some also don't or wouldn't care.

It's been made quite clear by some that abstinence-only sex education is about ideology, not about practicality. They don't support this sort of program because they believe it works better than the alternatives, works well, or even works at all. They would support such programs even if it were shown (and it has been) that they don't work because abstinence-only programs are the only ones consistent with their own religious ideology. So if a failed program is worth supporting, why not a lying program?

This, however, undermines the very point of a secular, liberal arts educational system. Teaching lies as well as truths -- and not caring about the difference between the two -- is characteristic of ideological indoctrination, not education. It's something one might expect to find when studying the school systems of totalitarian governments, like in Germany under the Nazis and the Soviet Union under communism. Funny how those two are consistently associated with atheists by the same conservative Christians who have no compunction about using similar standards when it's their own ideology that might benefit.

What sort of sex education program do you suppose Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah Palin (John McCain's pick for Republican Vice-Presidential nominee) was exposed to?

September 11, 2008 at 9:50 am
(1) Ron says:

(What sort of sex education program do you suppose Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah Palin (John McCain’s pick for Republican Vice-Presidential nominee) was exposed to? )
Looks to me like Bristol Palin got her sex education and pregnant at the same time!

September 11, 2008 at 10:07 am
(2) tracieh says:

This is not a well-publicized issue. And when I talk to people who know little about it–in person, not online–what I find is that there is a sort of shut off after “abstinence”–and the “only” part is mentally discarded.

The quick response I encounter again and again is that “it’s fine to teach abstinence.” When I point out that full disclosure is necessary for anyone to make good, informed decisions about their own body/sexuality, I’m told “That’s fine–I don’t see any reason that can’t be included, too.”

The reason that “can’t be included, too,” is the “only” part of the label in “abstinence ONLY.” I think most people would be in favor of a fairly full and open course in sex ed. But they appreciate a bit of “responsible sexual practices” in the mix; and when they hear “abstinence only”–they produce a false dichotomy in their brains that is: They will either be taught that abstinence is an option, or they will not be taught abstinence is an option.

They don’t understand that reality is one that would be in any course. My own doctor has a chart on her wall regarding birth control. One of the columns represents “abstinence,” and it shows 100 percent protection from pregnancy, 100 percent protection from risk of genital STD, etc.–where the contraceptives, no matter how highly effective, do not measure up. (Don’t get me wrong–some are highly effective, that’s not what I’m saying.)

There is risk involved in any behavior, that’s a no-brainer. I risk death any time I strap myself in my car and hit the road. But that doesn’t mean “abstinence from driving” should be practiced in order to avoid auto deaths–although it would be highly effective if everyone practiced it.

But the idea of abstinence until marriage, I’m not sure is a good idea for a school to promote. While it has benefits and drawbacks–like any choice, I support teaching a reality that, for example, abstinence keeps you from getting pregnant, but I wouldn’t presume to instruct someone else about when they should begin to have sex. That’s an individual call.

I don’t think teachers should be telling students when they should start having sex. But I do think it’s fine to tell them the truth regarding percentages and problems with abstinence, pills, condoms, etc. When to actually start having sex, however, is a decision that child will eventually make on his/her own, although they can address it with the people they choose.

Still, I can’t help but believe that the state needs to stay out of promoting to people that they should have sex (or that it’s OK to have sex) at any time in their lives or in any situation. That’s a personal, private decision–not a state decision.

September 11, 2008 at 12:58 pm
(3) Tamar says:

I can’t help but feel that getting school to teach your children (possibly because they can’t talk about pee-pees with a straight face?) about their genitals and how to use them properly seems… very foolish. School is so… “let me tell you how you should feel about this poem.” There is no room for thought, which is sort of necessary when navigating the social / sexual waters that is adolescence.

Aren’t children valuable enough to give them true education? Talk to them rationally? Actually communicate with them instead of letting that “tough” conversation be handled by complete strangers?

Growing up I remember a lot of rules but seldom were there explanations. It was hell and brimstone if you did something “wrong” like masturbation, for example.

People need to talk to their kids, age appropriately. (Actually, people need to try spending time with and talking to them in general.) Explain things. Make it seem like you aren’t completely mortified that they want to discuss their bodies. Perhaps then they would come to their parents if they had questions.

Or perhaps I’m an idealist.

I’m thinking that if parents slowed down and actually talked to their children, lots of things would work out better… sex before kids are ready for it, teenage pregnancies, abortions etc.

Again, idealist.

September 11, 2008 at 1:11 pm
(4) Phidippides says:

What you say falsely equates all abstinence programs with lies. I’m not sure what the source of your comment was where you say “abstinence programs end up teaching all kinds of lies and myths in order to get the message across” and by leaving it at that you create a foundation-less impression. Your subsequent, tenuous comparison of abstinence only programs with Nazism and Communism further devalues your argument.

So should lies be taught? No, they should not. But mis-characterizations about abstinence only programs are hardly beneficial to society, either.

September 11, 2008 at 2:49 pm
(5) tracieh says:


Harvard Law Record article that might help.

“Experts Challenge Abstinence-Only Programs” about “the September 28 panel, ‘Sex, Lies and Silence: The Harm of U.S. Abstinence-Only Policies at Home and Abroad.’”

I saw a fantastic lecture on public health and the negative impact of abstinence-only education. It not only does no good, it actually causes measurable harm. If a kid thinks a condom doesn’t work, they’re less likely to use one while engaging in sex–not more likely to abstain.


I understand your view. In a perfect world, that would be great. My parents would have rather been skinned alive than talked to me about sex. They were thrilled to sign the form allowing me to take sex ed in high school–before abstinence only education. In fact, they both had such awful attitudes toward sex that I’m very glad I got unbiased facts than the colored version I’d have gotten at home.

But I agree with you, if the parents have a good attitude and are educated enough to give good information, then it’s nice to have the parents do the talking on the values end. However, I still think that basic function and reproduction information should be a standard part of any human biology course at a high school level. I see no reason we can teach kids about their lungs but not their genitals.

September 11, 2008 at 4:36 pm
(6) absent sway says:

I think that loving, involved, well-informed parents teaching their children about sex would be preferable to school curriculum about it. That said, these adjectives do not describe all parents, and even many of the loving and involved ones are not well-informed. Because of STIs, the sexual choices people make can be a matter of life or death. I say give these children every opportunity possible to know what they’re getting into, and if they’re already hearing it at home, no harm done. Encouraging abstinence is fine but not at the expense of an accurate, thorough introduction to biological sexual function and the process of pregnancy (and pregnancy and STI prevention).

September 12, 2008 at 7:06 am
(7) richard says:

Here in the UK, the government have just introduced innoculation against cervical cancer for schoolgirls. Along with this they are given information and advice on contraception, as the assumption is that the innoculation will stop them getting pregnant.

The Roman catholic schools have had to be forced into giving the innoculation, but have refused to give the contraceptive advice as it ‘offends their faith’.

Will the incorrect assumption be made by the catholic shcoolgirls and lead to a rise in pregnancies? Quite probably! I thought schools had a duty to look after the best interests of their pupils, but i guess ‘the higher authority’ is working in the traditional mysterious ways??

September 12, 2008 at 8:17 am
(8) DaveQ says:

I take a lot of online teaching courses, and the refrain of let the parents teach sex ed or any ethics is often given. I always give a response that is not very popular. I say that letting the parents teach ethics is not working. If the parents are not taught ethics, how are they going to teach their children? Most Americans see Abstinence Only as an easy way out mainly because they do not know how or what to teach. In the 21st century teaching is a professional responsibility. America has a second rate educational entity, because we have not kept up with the times. Our children think that they are going to become some kind of celebrity when they grow up, so they do not have to learn the hard subjects like math, science and foreign language. Sex education is just the tip of the iceberg, and America is the “Titanic” heading strait for it.

September 12, 2008 at 10:37 pm
(9) John Hanks says:

Masturbation is a natural form of birth control, and it can be more loving than the usual fixation on genitalia. Anal intercourse is wrong because it is inherently a form of disrespect.

September 13, 2008 at 8:58 pm
(10) Kenneth says:

I’m all for abstinence and I believe it would be great if parents were equipped and took the time to teach their children anything any more. If they can’t master the TV remote and a cell phone, how can the master and then teach the nuances of abstinence and contraception. They are both choices that used to be made, often poorly, by adults. Now it isn’t unusual to hear of pre-teens being pregnant by another pre-teen. I don’t know if anyone will ever bring the Roman Catholics (I am Roman Catholic) into the 21st century, but for the people and religions willing to take on the sexual education of children, I say full speed ahead. It can’t be any worse than what we have now. Religions talk a great game, but they can’t seem to deliver on what they promise. A saying from my youth comes to mind. “If you aren’t in the game, don’t try to make the rules”.

September 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm
(11) Bon says:

Hey, anal sex is awesome. So is masterbation. I don’t know how you’re doing it, John Hanks, but I’ve never seen any inherent disrespect/shame in either.

As for the article… people seriously assume that abstinence hasn’t always been taught as part of sex ed? I remember those charts too, the ones that list abstinence as the only %100 percent deal, when other things are %98 percent or lower. The more you know, the more you question the intelligence of those around you.

September 13, 2008 at 10:50 pm
(12) Kenneth says:

I am not an advocate of abstinence, but only because it hasn’t worked. If it worked, I wouldn’t be. I wouldn’t care who taught it as long as they were qualified and got verified results. What did catch my eye was a comment by John Hanks. Because I don’t desire or have anal sex, doesn’t make me want to deny it for others. I don’t understand why anyone believes they have the authority to decide what goes on in any bedroom but their own. To me, doing that is inherently disrespectful and disgusting.

September 17, 2008 at 11:45 pm
(13) victoria says:

pardon my ignorance, but what lies are they teaching in the abstinence only programs??

i am 52, i had sex ed in the 4th and 5th grades. don’t they teach kids anything these days???

in my humble opionion, anal sex is not normal (except for gays, they have no other way). it is bad for the anal orrifice and can cause future problems and can transmit diseases faster (because there is more tissue sloughing). i say, ‘wear a condom, guys’, or get fixed.

February 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm
(14) M says:

No, they should not be teaching lies. Aside from being dishonest, most of those students (I hope) will eventually find out that they are lies.
It would have been helpful if you had specified what lies are being taught and whether they are really intentional lies or just differences of opinion or issues that need more research in order to reach a definite conclusion.

February 2, 2013 at 2:58 am
(15) Borsia says:

Abstinence is a great theory that hasn’t, and never will, work since the dawn of man.
Even those who so vehemently preach it can’t manage to (not) do it, hence all the sex crimes in the church. I don’t know of any small town or large that doesn’t have some sexual scandal talked about because the religious leaders couldn’t keep it under the robes or in their pants.

Telling teenagers with raging hormones that abstinence is the only way to go is laughable. When I was in high school at least 80+% of the students were doing it.
The saying was “if you really want to get some action date the girls from the Catholic schools” and it was true from my experiences.

All their fixation on sex and abstinence really seemed to make the kids more curious and egger to experiment than those in public schools where we had sex ed.

The same thing is true of drug education nothing but lies and wild exaggerations in the endless lectures and films. So when kids tried pot and found out that they had been lied to they instantly assumed that they were lied to about LSD, cocaine, heroin and everything else. Those misguided approaches to teaching the evils of drugs probably caused more drug use than anything else.

Once you lie and get caught in that lie you have lost all credibility and the kids won’t believe a word you say from that day on. It is near impossible to get that credibility back.

Sex-ed came into the schools because the parents couldn’t or wouldn’t have that talk with their kids and STDs and teen pregnancies were so prevalent that the government felt something had to be done. Mostly because when parents did talk about sex at all they preached abstinence only, and their kids couldn’t wait.
We learned about sex on the street from tall tales told by friends and older kids who didn’t have a clue but told a good story.
Sex-ed wasn’t taught until the 9th grade back then and by that time the kids knew more than the teachers.

February 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm
(16) John Thomson says:

@Bon: “As for the article… people seriously assume that abstinence hasn’t always been taught as part of sex ed?”

This strawman begs the question at hand: does abstinence only sex ed work? Not abstinence itself but the education of it. The clear and compelling answer is no.. Google teen pregnancy rates in the Bible Belt for yourself.

I graduated in 1967. Health class spent about ten minutes on sex ed.
The three main points were: abstinence was the only 100% effective way, masturbation was sinful/bad for you and what was referred to as third base(naked touching) could get a girl pregnant.

You’re right about the last part of Mr Hanks remark as it is judgmental and disrespectful. To each their own.

@Victoria: No I won’t pardon your ignorance. I’ll just answer your question. The biggest lie is that abstinence only sex ed is effect. It’s not. Teenagers are hormone driven mammals with a natural urge to procreate. If you don’t like anal don’t do it. If others,there are many of both sexes, that do it’s their business not yours.

February 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm
(17) Joan says:

Something needs to be done. When I taught high school, some of those kids thought drinking Mello Yello or Mountain Dew was a form of birth control. They thought the yellow dye was the birth control!!!

February 4, 2013 at 2:30 am
(18) C Woods says:

I agree, for the most part with Borsia, especially about the lies.

The same thing is true with religion. Once I realized that most of what my parents taught me about religion was total BS, I figured the rest was probably hogwash, too.

In 7th grade I learned how the sex act was done and that one didn’t have to be married to become pregnant —which I didn’t know at that time —from another student during lunch.

I figured that when my mother explained sex to me, I’d have to act like I didn’t know anything —but it never happened —not one word from her. She couldn’t even say the word “sex” above a whisper. (In her 80s she finally opened up to tell me about a preditory minister in her youth —perhaps that’s what turned her off on sex, but strangely not on religion.)

We had all-girl health classes in our senior year. That was the first time anyone even mentioned sex, but there were no details, just what could happen if you “did it.” By that time I already knew. Four girls in my eight-grade class had been pregnant. As far as I know, though, no one else in my class was pregnant throughout our high school years. Those four pregnant girls wprobably shocked everyone else into abstinance or perhaps abortions, even though they weren’t legal at the time.

From that experience, I always thought sex education should begin far earlier than 8th grade. And really, what is too early for very basic information? Kids that grow up on farms learn the realities of breeding at an early age and as far as I know most of them haven’t turned into sex-crazed adults. They probably have a much healthier attitude toward sex than those of us whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it.

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