Abstinence-Only: Abstaining Education and Raising Shame

Abstinence-only education has been a staple in American sex education for decades. While the primary culprit has been religious schools, it’s a thought process that has seeped into our very culture: remove the education and inject fear in order to ensure that children avoid said activity. However, this lack of education is leading young people to further ignorance; a fear of their own bodies; and even the belief that their sole worth is in their purity and virtue. This type of education needs to be changed in order to promote a healthier mind-frame regarding bodies and sexuality for young people; to educate them properly on how their bodies function and how to protect themselves during sex; while encouraging them to wait until they feel ready and providing a safe place for them to voice their questions and concerns. All of these have the potential to help young people develop a better relationship with themselves and those with whom they form intimate relationships, which should be a goal for parents and educators alike.

The term “abstinence-only education”—or as noted in an article by the Washington Post, “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education” (Santelli, par. 3)—refers to a type of sex education that focuses exclusively on abstinence and enforces the belief that teenagers cannot engage with any sexual activity outside of marriage. The act of abstaining can only come to a conclusion upon marriage, whereby sexual activity is permitted and encouraged. The intention of working to persuade young people to delay sexual activity is good. At the age of puberty, when hormones begin to change, many young adults may not be ready for the consequences of a sexual relationship, even if their bodies tell them otherwise. Further, protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teenage pregnancy is laudable as well.

Lack of Education

But these programs regularly come under fire as they do not provide accurate medical and health information for young people. According to the Washington Post, in an article written by professor of pediatrics, John Santelli, “these programs fall short of the standards of medical ethics by limiting access to important health information” (Santelli, par. 4). He goes on to say that earlier abstinence-only education programs “often contained medically inaccurate information” (Santelli, par. 5). The focus in abstinence-only education can be found in the name itself: abstinence only.

Many of these programs concentrate on ensuring that young people avoid sexual activity while removing information regarding their bodies, their partners’ bodies, and how to protect themselves—because if the intention is to dissuade young people from engaging in sex, then why should they need to protect themselves? According to the New York Times:

By 2014, half of middle schools and more than three-quarters of high schools were focusing on abstinence. Only a quarter of middle schools and three-fifths of high schools taught about birth control. In 1995, 81 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls reported learning of birth control in school. (Carroll, par. 3)

Judging by the above statement, what young people are learning in regards to sex and protection is decreasing. This means that there are more young people who do not know or understand the risks involved in sexual relationships and who haven’t received the education on how to protect themselves. Considering many of these young people either have or will be experiencing puberty, and thus will be managing the influx of hormones that come with the development, not educating them on how to protect themselves is simply not an option.

Fear-Mongering and Shaming Young People

There is also evidence that these programs can cause harm to young people by teaching them that their value and worth relies on their virtue and purity. Often, fear is the tactic used to reinforce this belief. Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted at age 14 and repeatedly raped by her abductor, described an analogy that she heard in her own sex education courses growing up. Statements like these deterred her from seeking help as she believed she was worthless.

“I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence,” Smart told the panel. “And she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’ Well, that’s terrible. No one should ever say that. But for me, I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum.’ Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.” (Hess, par. 2)

The above quotation by Smart is not uncommon. Others who underwent abstinence-only education report being compared to used bubblegum; beaten-up sneakers; a bottle of Coke that everyone has taken a sip from; or Scotch tape that has lost its stick. All of these are demonstrations are meant to illustrate to young people that engaging in sexual activity before marriage will remove their worth and trustworthiness to their future marital partner. This type of education invites both fear and shame to young people who are seeking out an education. As Smart herself attested, it has the potential to lead young people to feel they only have value if they maintain their virginity outside the bonds of marriage.

Further, many studies prove that abstinence-only education is failing at preventing young people from engaging in sexual activity until marriage. A 9-year study found that “[t]eens in abstinence-only education programs were no more likely to abstain from sex than teens that were not enrolled in these programs” (KFF, par. 12). If abstinence-only education is failing in this goal, while also not providing sound health information to young people and encouraging fear and shame in regards to bodies and sex, then surely there needs to be a change in how we’re educating children and teenagers.

Comprehensive Sex Education

Comprehensive sex education has been present in the United States for years, but is regularly pushed to the background when abstinence-only programs are being promoted. A comprehensive program “[p]rovides medically accurate age-appropriate information about abstinence, as well as safer sex practices including contraception and condoms as effective ways to reduce unintended pregnancy and STIs” (KFF, table 1). These types of sex education programs provide accurate and helpful information to young people regarding bodies, sex and sexuality, and protection. This often translates into young people making better decisions regarding when to engage in sexual activity than abstinence-only education does.

For example, one study shows that when given contraceptive information, teens in comprehensive sex education classes were at a 50% lower risk of pregnancy than those in abstinence-only courses (KFF, par 14). Another example shows that programs that offer information both on abstinence and contraception saw a delay in teens engaging in sexual activity (KFF, par. 14). Further, “more than 60% of the programs reduced the incidence of unprotected sex” (KFF, par. 14).

All this evidence proves that young people make better decisions when they receive a proper education, rather than when they are left without vital information. Moreover, putting our focus on comprehensive sex education means removing the stigma that abstinence-only programs often put on sex, which leads to young people feeling shame about their bodies and sexual urges. Those are not feelings that should be fostered, especially if parents want their children to grow up and have normal, healthy sex lives.

Finally, comprehensive sex education programs do not need to remove the promotion of abstinence in order to be effective. These programs can promote teenagers using abstinence as an option to prevent unwanted STIs and pregnancy, rather than forcing it onto young people without providing further information. Doing this offers the benefit of educating teenagers on what abstinence actually is and how to practice it, while also providing advice and information on how to protect oneself during sexual activities. This removes confusion for young people regarding what sexual practices can lead to STIs and pregnancy and remove the shame surrounding sex and bodies that is often promoted by abstinence-only education.

With more comprehensive focus in sex education, young people are treated as growing adults who need to learn to make good decisions for themselves, rather than fostering fear that can stay with a person for years and hoping that those conflicts resolve once one is within the confines of marriage.

If parents want the best for their children’s education, that should also include for their sex education. Young people deserve better and need to actually learn about their bodies and their sexual health. Otherwise, the risks of harm continue to increase, leading to far worse results. Sex education needs to be mandatory and it needs to require accurate health information. To continue down the path of abstinence-only education that’s been paved with shame, fear, and inaccuracy is to do a disservice to young people all across the country.


  1. Carroll, Aaron E. “Sex Education Based on Abstinence? There’s a Real Absence of Evidence.” The Upshot, The New York Times, 22 August 2017, nytimes.com/2017/08/22/upshot/sex-education-based-on-abstinence-theres-a-real-absence-of-evidence.html
  2. Hess, Amanda. “Elizabeth Smart Says Pro-Abstinence Sex Ed Harms Victims of Rape.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 6 May 2013, slate.com/human-interest/2013/05/elizabeth-smart-abstinence-only-sex-education-hurts-victims-of-rape-and-human-trafficking.html.
  3. KFF. “Abstinence Education Programs: Definition, Funding, and Impact on Teen Sexual Behavior.” Women’s Health Policy, Kaiser Family Foundation, 01 June 2018, kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/abstinence-education-programs-definition-funding-and-impact-on-teen-sexual-behavior/
  4. Santelli, John. “Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. We’re still funding it.” PostEverything Analysis, The Washington Post, 21 August 2017, washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/08/21/abstinence-only-education-doesnt-work-were-still-funding-it/