Beyond Abstinence-Only: Sex Ed Should Be Sex Positive
Sex Education Should Emphasize Wellness/Pleasure Not Illness/Danger
Posted April 5, 2016
President Obama’s recent decision to defund abstinence-only sex education was a rare event in that it honored two things often at odds: scientific evidence and majority opinion.
From a purely scientific point of view, testing abstinence-only education was not altogether a bad idea. Testing testable hypotheses—even outlandish ones; even counter-intuitive ones; even ones proposed with unsavory intent—is the bread and butter of the scientific enterprise.
Moreover, putting outlandish and risky hypotheses to empirical test is not only sound science, it’s also sound politics: best to examine bad ideas in the open where they can be challenged and refuted rather than let them fester underground, where they often will morph over time into increasingly grotesque versions of themselves and find more dangerous expressions.
A massive, well-funded test of the abstinence-only hypothesis was indeed undertaken in the US, starting in Reagan’s 80s (even if most of its backers were motivated by ideological fervor, rather than scientific curiosity). At the effort’s peak years, between 1996 and 2007, Congress funneled over 1.7 billion state and federal dollars to Abstinence-only education programs.
By the time of president Obama’s decision, the empirical results had long converged on a robust conclusion: Abstinence-only programs were not delivering positive results in terms of reducing risky sexual behavior and negative sex-related outcomes in the teenage population.
Even though it may have merited testing as a hypothesis, abstinence-only sex education has always been conceptually suspect, starting with the program’s oxymoronic name, which is akin to a wealth management program being titled, “poverty-only.” Yet while much of the controversy over this program has focused on the hidden political and ideological agendas animating the ‘Abstinence’ part, the main problem has always been the “Only” part.
Few people have a real problem acknowledging (and teaching) the fact that abstinence from sex is an available and often prudent choice in the effort to avoid STIs, unwanted pregnancy, and emotional turmoil. As Santelli et al., note: “Abstinence from sexual intercourse is an important behavioral strategy for preventing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy among adolescents… There is broad support for abstinence as a necessary and appropriate part of sexuality education.”
However, “Controversy arises when abstinence is provided to adolescents as a sole choice and where health information on other choices is restricted or misrepresented. Although abstinence is a healthy behavioral option for teens, abstinence as a sole option for adolescents is scientifically and ethically problematic.”
One easy way to illustrate the conceptual folly of using abstinence-only education to guide human sexual behavior is to apply the logic it uses to other realms of human experience. One could, for example, liken abstinence-only education to telling young people that the way to avoid car accidents is by not driving.
It is easy to see how such an approach may not suffice to manage accident risk among youths. First, avoiding driving is difficult in the context of a car-happy and car-dependent culture. Second, it is rather obvious that additional measures—such as teaching the principles and habits of safe driving and basic car maintenance—are bound to advance, rather than impede, our overall driving safety goals. Finally, a teenager who has had “Don’t-drive” drivers ed—even one who has managed to reach adulthood without 'cheating'—will be a danger on the road to themselves and others when they finally get behind the wheel.
Yet this kind of analogy, however illustrative, also reveals a fundamental flaw in our thinking about sex: we tend to equate it with trouble and transgression. We still perceive adolescent sexual behavior negatively, as a kind of behavioral, psychological, and moral failure. It is no coincidence that sex education programs in the U.S. —even those that venture beyond abstinence-only—focus mostly on the negative aspects of sex, such as preventing STIs, avoiding pregnancies, and overall harm reduction.
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This negative view of sex has of course deep historical roots. But human consciousness and culture are evolving. There was a time when ideas like democracy (common people have a say in matters of government), equality (all human beings have basic inherent rights), and diversity (different ethnicities can live together in cooperation, equality, and peace) were considered dangerous, unnatural, heretic, incoherent, or untenable. Yet today most of us take them more or less for granted, and see them as both intuitive and aspirational.
Our approach to sex now awaits a similar paradigm shift. After all, in ancient times, puberty meant parenthood. For most of history, sex meant babies. Both are no longer. Our culture has separated puberty from parenthood and sex from procreation, thus making the experience of pleasurable, non-procreative sex safer, easier, and more common than ever. This is a cultural achievement. It should be celebrated like other cultural achievements such as wealth creation. In this context, focusing sex education on the negative aspects of sex is akin to our wealthy capitalist nation focusing its financial education on teaching youngsters how to avoid money or at least reduce the harm having it may cause.
Indeed, a shift toward sex positive education may already be in motion. You can see evidence of it in some European countries, where the pleasures, risks and responsibilities of sex are already discussed candidly with children as a normal part of healthy life. You can see it in the consent debate’s shift from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” You can see it in the increasing recognition that sexual expression itself is not the problem. Rather, guilt, shame, and fear about sexual expression are the problem—just as we’ve come to see that bigotry and prejudice toward minorities are the problem, as opposed to minorities themselves.
All worthy human endeavors involve risk. But the risk is not the point of why we endeavor—and neither is avoiding risk: A figure skater’s everyday aches and pains and efforts to avoid serious injury are not the point of his or her career. A church may go bankrupt, but a church doesn’t exist to avoid money issues. Sex carries risks, but it is not about risk. We need to shift our approach to sex toward a focus on preparing adolescents to deal with what sex is actually about in our time: human connection, transcendence, ecstasy and, at times, wanted children. Sex education reflecting this shift will start early, frame sexuality as a normative and positive part of human experience, and approach the sexual body as part of the human body. It will honor the fact that sex is a gift, not a burden, and acknowledge desire as desirable, not undesirable. It will balance a discussion of sexual safety and health with a discussion of sexual pleasure, curiosity, skill, and creativity.
ATTN: The next president….