I attended a public school in rural North Carolina. This particular county had (and still has) an abstinence-only sex education curriculum that is first introduced to a student during eighth grade and is given once a year, every year, until the student graduates. Somehow, we’re approaching 2015 and there are still school systems (both public and private) like mine employing this methodology. Though it’s been proven again and again that abstinence-only sex education does not deter teenagers from sexual activity, there’s still very little funding for comprehensive sex education programs and schools are often allowed to choose how and when these programs are administered to students.
I believe part of the problem is that we aren’t talking about what’s actually happening in these classrooms. It’s not just about promoting abstinence, instead crossing over into misinformation, scare tactics, and lies. If you didn’t go through it yourself, you can’t even begin to imagine how truly backwards it is. In an effort to illustrate some of the problems, I used social media to find others who went through abstinence-only sex education and asked them to share their stories.
Here’s an inside look at some of the things being said inside these classrooms from those who experienced it firsthand:
1. Birth control is not discussed honestly, if at all.
“My teachers weren’t even allowed to talk about condoms and birth control, and as a result, we had several girls getting pregnant. They were then stigmatized, slut-shamed, and outcast, and I believe it’s largely due to poor education.” – Anonymous via Tumblr
“In high school, one teacher taught us that having an abortion would make you infertile and that all birth control forms were abortifacients.” – Lexie
2. Inaccurate statistics are commonplace.
“They gave inaccurate statistics about condoms breaking and the likelihood of getting STDs to scare us out of having protected sex. They also taught that you can only get cervical cancer through having HPV and you can only get HPV by having sex. A quick Google search shows that cigarette smoking and birth control are also risk factors for cervical cancer so while not completely untrue, that statement is inaccurate.” – KC, 23
“Sex Ed (at least where I was taught it) is not required to be medically accurate, so we were shown inaccurate birth control failure rates, inaccurate condom failure rates, inaccurate STD rates, etc.” – Anonymous via Tumblr
3. It’s heteronormative.
“The emphasis on heterosexuality and the conservative Christian ideal of getting married early and having kids also ended up confusing and hurting me. I’m pansexual, and I spent a lot of middle school and high school struggling with thinking my attraction to women was wrong or evil. While these sex-ed classes didn’t outright condemn non-straight, non-cis sex, they never even brought up anything about gay/lesbian existence or sex, or any indication of things outside of gender and sexuality binaries existing. (I never even heard the word “transgender” until I was in college, and it took extensive researching on my own on the internet to learn about the ideas of peoples’ sex not matching their gender and gender and sexuality as a spectrum instead of a binary.)” – KC, 23
“Homosexuality was briefly mentioned, but only because a girl asked an anonymous question (we wrote down a question on a piece of paper and the woman on the stage read it out loud and answered it) about how to have safe sex with another girl. But the woman didn’t really say anything about it except to use a condom (which made all of us think ‘how the hell does that work.’)” – Emma, 22
“AIDS was only ever mentioned in the context of gay people. ‘Being gay was a sin’ and only gay people got AIDS. I’m sad to say that I wasn’t taught any more than that or corrected on it for a long time.” – Emily, 28
4. Victim-blaming is used as a sexual deterrent.
“I remember watching a series of videos in seventh grade about what happens to women when they fail to be abstinent. The videos only showed negative consequences for women – none for the men, which I thought was curious. One of the ‘logical consequences’ of having premarital sex, according to these teachings, was a boyfriend who becomes possessive and abusive. That video sticks out in my mind because the message was clear – if you have premarital sex, your boyfriend won’t see you as a person anymore and he will become abusive; don’t fall into this trap!” – Dianna Anderson
5. It utilizes confusing, often damaging metaphors.
“… If you take a piece of clear tape and put it on a person’s arm and then take it off, it won’t stick as easily to the next person and there will be all this crud on it from the first person. This is supposedly a metaphor for how, if you have sex with someone and then break up, you’ll have a harder time “bonding” with your future spouse.” – Dianna Anderson
“We were taught that sex was like a candy bar, if you split it among multiple people you only get a little piece and less enjoyment for yourself, but if you keep it and only share it with one special person, you get to enjoy it more! (What even. What happened to those sharing lessons as kids?)” – KC, 23
“No man would want an apple that has already had a bite taken out of it.” – Lynette
6. It makes it hard to teach our own children later in life.
“I am having a very hard time deciding on what to teach my own daughter. I want to teach her that her body is her own and she can share it with whomever she pleases, but I can’t help but remember everything I was taught and it is definitely influencing how I think. It’s hard to split what I really feel is true and what I remember being taught as truth.” – Anonymous via Tumblr
7. STIs are not discussed truthfully.
“… I remember being in college and someone gave a speech on safe sex and how condoms could protect you from STD/STIs, and until that point I’d never known that condoms could actually do that. I remember being suspicious because I’d literally just viewed them as a method to not get pregnant that only people who were having sex when they shouldn’t be used.” – Emily, 28
“I thought I could develop an STI if I slept with too many people. It was a long time before I learned that the person had to have it already and that I had to have unprotected sex with them in order to contract it.” – Jane, 25
8. It perpetuates rape culture.
“Boys and girls were definitely taught differently… heavy emphasis on “boys are visual and can’t control their thoughts” and “girls have to help boys not be lustful by dressing modestly.” – Emily, 28
“I was told that girls were responsible for curbing boys’ urges by dressing modestly and not ‘leading them on’ because boys can’t control themselves; once they start, they won’t be able to stop.” – Anonymous, 25 (via Twitter)
9. Issues of consent are ignored.
“It’s wasn’t ever clear what sex really was other than that it happened when boys touched girls. We weren’t taught anatomy, prevention, masturbation, or how it actually worked…I think that if I had been taught exactly what sex was and what the thing between my legs did, I wouldn’t have been taken advantage of by my father…” – Lou, 25
“I felt like if I started something with a guy I had to finish it regardless if I really wanted to or not. Just due to being taught that giving guys blue balls made me a tease.” – Kriste, 38
10. It teaches sex in terms of morality not biology.
“I was taught when you have sex with someone before marriage it was a sin. That when you have sex with someone, you form an emotional and spiritual bond that stays with you forever even after you are married or in a new relationship.” – Kriste, 38
11. Scare tactics are used to demonize sex.
“[They showed us] pictures of the diseased genitals. It made me think that you could only get an STD if you had sex before marriage and made me never want to have sex.” –Emma, 22
12. Students learn nothing about their bodies which leads to confusion.
“The one thing that sticks out in my mind was when we took a True/False test and one of the questions was, “a girl cannot take a shower during her time of the month” and several of the boys saying true.” – Emily, 24
13. Religious doctrine influences the curriculum.
“We have a unique situation here; one major Baptist church carries political clout that influences school voting ballots… I am not joking. In my high-school days one of the two high-schools weren’t even allowed to teach it. The parents opposed it vehemently.” –Ryan, 37
“I went to a public school but they still used Bible passages as part of the sex ed curriculum. We were told abstinence was one of the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not commit adultery). And there was a verse from Hebrews we had to memorize. I still remember it: “Let marriage be held in honor among all. Let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” – Sarah, 24
14. Though it’s great for safe sexual exploration, masturbation is criticized or ignored completely.
“Masturbation was mentioned, but it was something one should never do. It was just as bad as having sex.” – James, 23
“As a lady your first ‘pleasure peak’ was supposed to come from your husband. It was his job and his alone. Touching yourself was dirty and not something ladies did” – Lynette
“The day we got the letter from the school that said they were going to be teaching us about sexual education, I was reading the letter aloud to my mum. I came across a funny looking word that started with an ‘m’ that I couldn’t pronounce. That word turned out to be masturbation. The letter clearly stated that the school would not be going over masturbation at all. Obviously being curious about what it was, I naturally asked my mother. And she told me that “it’s a horribly perverted thing when people touch themselves for pleasure”. To this day, that is the only time I was told anything about it from a source other than the internet. And that was it. A sentence that made it strictly taboo and disgusting. I thought it was something that people like rapists did. I remember the first time I masturbated, I cried. I felt guilty and dirty that it had felt good. What kind of education leaves kids with so many questions and very few answers?” – Elizabeth, 19
15. It’s sexist.
“In 6th grade one day the class was divided between the boys and girls for the purpose of a sex talk. Or, at least, the girls were given a sex talk; I found out from a male friend later that boys were taught about business, balancing a checkbook, and other life skills that the school thought were only for men.” – Lily, 21
“I’ll never forget the guest speaker that came (I wish I remembered his name) and stood over our (male) gym teacher’s privates with a brick in hand. He acted like he was going to drop it (I think I saw my teacher’s life flash before his eyes) and said that every time [girls] had sex outside of wedlock, we could threaten a guy’s health and wellbeing.” – Lexie
“One thing that was used often was that it was very bad to be “used.” I was taught to remain pure until I was married. Special emphasis was always put on the female. She had to remain pure because she would be letting down her future husband. If a boy ended up having sex, it was more of a slap on the wrist.” – James, 23
It’s time we started exposing what’s really going on behind these closed doors so that we can enact change. Our youth deserve detailed, truthful information about sex so that they can make informed decisions into adulthood. Sex is not something they should learn from the internet, the media, or porn because these outlets offer unreliable information and warped views of sexuality. Medically accurate, comprehensive sex education should be the standard in our schools. The stories shared above have no place in an educational setting.
Thank you to all the contributors who were willing to share their stories. For more information about the benefits of comprehensive sex education, please visit Advocates for Youth.