The Shame of Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

As you may have heard, the news is all worked up about a study showing that an abstinence-based sex education program is effective at encouraging teens to delay having sex. And, of course, the abstinence-only crowd is jumping on it, too. (Thanks to Feministing for the legwork on digging up the links!)

Of course, there’s a deeper story than most of these folks want you to hear. It’s true that this is the first study to show that an abstinence-only program had this effect, but there’s more than one way to create and implement these programs. According to the Guttmacher Institute, this program wouldn’t have been eligible for funding under the former guidelines for abstinence-only programs, which were:

  1. Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
  2. Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
  3. Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
  4. Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity
  5. Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
  6. Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
  7. Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
  8. Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

(If you’re not convinced that these requirements create ineffective programs, here’s some info that’s worth reading.)

The program that is the focus of all of this attention didn’t fit these requirements. For example:

[T]he target behavior was abstaining from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex. (p. 153)


The intervention did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone. The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected. (p. 153)

Clearly, the effectiveness of this program doesn’t change the body of evidence showing that programs that meet the former A-H guidelines don’t work. In fact, the authors clearly state:

The results of this trial should not be taken to mean that all abstinence-only interventions are efficacious. (p. 158)

I’m not surprised that the people who want to keep ab-only going are trying to use this study to justify it, even when the research clearly contradicts their goals. They’ve been ignoring the facts in favor of their notions for years. After all, that’s the foundation of ab-only in the first place. And yet, it’s ironic that they’re touting the effectiveness of a program that they wouldn’t have accepted under the old rules.

In the midst of all of this controversy, though, there’s an important fact that often gets lost. All of the folks who are being shamed for their sexual desires or activities grow up into adults. Adults who are somehow, miraculously, supposed to be able to have happy, healthy sex lives. As if years of shame suddenly evaporate when they get married.

It simply doesn’t work that way because shame is tenacious. It’s a powerful tool and it does have a place in regulating behavior. And at the same time, that means that it works best when it’s used with care. Too much shame often becomes toxic, with lasting effects on peoples’ lives.

Toxic shame is an unmeasured cost of ab-only programs. We can look at how many teens delay sex for how long, how many of them become pregnant, or the rates of various STIs, and we can see that these programs have harmed people. But the long-term effects of shaming youth for their burgeoning sexuality have yet to be assessed. Sex therapists and educators are going to be dealing with thefallout for years. And that is the biggest shame of all.

One Response so far.

  1. […] monogamy, marriage, and sex have to go together. That’s certainly part of the message of abstinence-only miseducation and purity balls. These messages are usually blended with a whole lot of shame, along […]

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