Abstinence: The Real No Intelligence Allowed

(Cross-posted from my wordpress blog. Originally posted on January 17, 2010.)

I stole the title of an awful movie for an equally awful concept.

The previous Monday began my first day of high school abstinence... I can barely bring myself to call it "education." That would imply that the program is somehow deserving of being called education, that it somehow teaches something. I think I'll just have to get over it temporarily, if only to ensure clarity. My call to arms, so to speak, against abstinence (hurk) education began long before last Monday

I think my greatest blessing in life was, and still is, being born to two doctors: a gynecologist and a cardiologist (the irony of which I didn't miss, but nevermind.). From the beginning, I was granted to a wealth of knowledge at an early age that the majority of other children, particularly in my relatively small, overbearingly Christian Texas town, did not have access to. My parents unabashedly and unashamedly answered any question I had. I knew where babies came from and (if not in a very dry, technical, rod A into slot B way) knew what it took to make a baby. I knew the proper names for genitals by the time I was in second grade, if not earlier, and was never afraid to inform my fellow classmates if the subject somehow arose—which it did more often than most people probably realize. Later, some parents have come back to tell me that I inadvertently forced them to answer (or dodge) some "uncomfortable" questions sooner then they expected.

Not only was I allowed to ask questions, but I was also permitted to discover and learn on my own. I have always loved to read, and the human body was not a taboo subject. I picked up several "growing up" books, the type that dealt frankly with the at the time distant future of teenagerdom, the very not distant present of puberty, and all the matters in between. Never once was I refused, or even given those odd looks that are incredibly discouraging to small children. I'll never thank my parents enough for this.

So, understandably, I had a little more know-whats than the typical eleven-year-old when I walked into my very first abstinence class in 5th grade. It was strange, because it wasn't even a dedicated class or part of a health program (in retrospect, very appropriate, though unintentionally so, I'm sure.) It was decided that one day of the week for several weeks, time would be taken out of our keyboarding class to allow for a speaker to come in to talk to us about "making healthy decisions."

There's a trend in abstinence programs that I've noticed. The speaker walks in, and within the first 5 to 10 minutes, they always say something like "I'm not here to tell you 'Don't do this' or 'Don't do that.'" It's become a very good way to identify even the best disguised of abstinence programs. It seems like an innocuous statement, but many speakers are adamant in insisting that they're not here to "tell us what to do, 'cause that's all you guys hear, isn't it?" It's a convincing sympathetic appeal, I'll admit, and a rather effective tactic to get children and teenagers on their side, so to speak. I heard it six years ago, and I heard it last Monday, and I've heard it in every abstinence program I've ever suffered through in-between.

Then there's usually a spiel about how this program isn't just about sex, but about relationships. That's like hearing "I just want to cuddle." What kind of bullshit is that? But more on that in a minute.
My 5th grade abstinence 'educator' was a recently wedded Asian man who pussy-footed around the subject of whether or not he actually abstained until marriage (which was, I might add, not brought up by us students.) He ultimately claimed he waited until marriage, as has every instructor after him. I think they think it lends credibility to their program, what with the whole bandwagon mentality. However, lying about his own sexual practices is not particularly relevant—it's when he lied about everyone else's is when it becomes personal.

When we weren't muddling through vague, hypothetical situations and frightening, intentionally misleading or scary language, we were fed outright lies. I may have been smarter than the average bear, but I was still impressionable and young. It took a really blatant lie to make me question this hook in my cheek, and not surprisingly, that lie came.

It began with what the instructor claimed was a genuine "scientific experiment" (which I was never able to find again upon research, by the way), in which a group of high school students and all their sexual partners were tracked and documented onto a huge web. I distinctly that it was vaguely implied that these teenagers made a sort of cult-like pact to all sleep with each other; another point for scaremongering. It was a very convoluted, confusing way to say somebody got gonorrhea—except, hey wait a minute. Just a second ago, this guy claimed that none of the teenagers in question slept with anybody else except those that were documented on the web-graph-tangle thing. I wasn't smelling the bullshit yet, but I had to clarify the gaping hole. I'll admit, it took a massive amount of courage to raise my hand. I was a shy girl, the type with big ideas and a small voice, and not enough courage to rock the boat.

"Wait. Okay, all these people, um, had... sex... only with each other. Like, just the people in the web, right?"


"And... you said they were all... virgins... when they started, right? And they were all... clean."

"That's right."

"But, then how did one get gonorrhea?"

"That's a great question, I was just about to get right to that point."

And I shit you not. The next thing out of his mouth was: "You see, because these guys had sex so many times, with so many people, even amongst themselves, they created an STD."

My courage for the day had been spent just asking that question to begin with, so I just nodded dumbly like I understood, like my question was somehow answered. But I knew he was wrong. I went to my mom that night, uncertain and maybe a little sick. I doubted myself; surely I was wrong. There must have been something I missed. So I did what I always did when I had a question, and asked my mother. Her responsible, in retrospect, was completely predictable: "He told you what?" It introduced me to the idea that teachers, people that I trusted to impart good knowledge, could lie, or at the very least, not be as knowledgeable as I had believed.

Eventually, after a week of much deliberation and convincing, I called our instructor out on his lie. Quietly. In private. In the hallway. Where nobody else could hear.

He denied it. He said he never said anything like that, then he claimed that I must have understood what he said. Of course, he never explained to me what it was he actually did say, if he didn't say what I thought he said. If I misunderstood so badly though, surely other people did to, and in my quiet, unconvincing way, I suggested maybe he should clarify for all his classes and make sure nobody else misunderstood. Surely he, as an educator, would want to correct something that was so blatantly wrong. He never did, and from then on, I became a skeptic of everything he said. A light skeptic, of course, as I was still forming my convictions and my world views, but a skeptic nonetheless.

I could go on for another week about every horrible, incorrect, misleading, frightening, scaremongering, damaging, unhealthy thing I've been told in various abstinence programs and never once run out of something to say. For a short while, I thought maybe I was just unlucky, that I just ended up in bad programs, but after a little research, I discovered I was not alone. No More Money's page In Their Own Words does an excellent job in cataloging just a few quotes from real programs, and I have heard every single quote on that page, or a variation thereof. The other pages have great arguments and information about the farce that is abstinence education.

After six years, at 17, I've finally cultivated the proper outrage to all this. I, and millions of other teenagers, are being deprived of real education that could reduce teenage pregnancy, unexpected and unwanted pregnancy at any age, and STDs/STIs. And for what? Misplaced moral outrage, unfounded religious conviction, politics. If things like abstinence is what I get, I want fewer morals and more science. I want less religion and more fact. I want less knee-jerk emotion and more rational thinking. Teenagers are sexual. Teens have sexuality, and it's not going away. I have no desire to make it go away.

Last Monday, our instructor, a middle-age white woman, told us that she didn't like to focus so much on the sex part of this program, and preferred to focus on relationships (right after she claimed that she didn't want to tell us "Don't do this" and "Don't do that," of course.). It made me clench my jaw until it hurt. As teenagers, we don't need classes on how to be friends, or how to be family members. We need real, honest, comprehensive sex education. Not relationship education, not abstinence education. Sex education.

This post turned out to be far larger than I ever expected, but this as been fermenting for six years, and there's still plenty to say. This will not be my last post about abstinence.

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Comment by Gary Huckleberry on June 7, 2010 at 5:57am
I once was given a video about abstaining, ... took it to a friend's house, then did some editing. Added shots (about half a second each) of various people enjoying sexual orgasms, and placed them about 3 minutes apart throughout the video. It was great hit with high school kids. The editing caught teens by such surprise, they wouldn't be sure what they saw, or why it was in the preaching, until about the fourth shot and then they couldn't wait to see more!!! Hilarious... Wish I still had it... perhaps my friend who did the editing has another copy, .. it would be great on utube!!!
Comment by Olga Spelts (Human Bean) on June 6, 2010 at 3:42pm
Wow, that is horrible. In Colorado they have laws that explain that you have to teach sex ed but they arent followed. Instead, typically Christian organizations (but they hide that fact) go to schools and give lectures about ab only. I interviewed one director of a local CPC (fake reproductive care centers that stand for crisis pregnancy center) and she told me that when women are pregnant they are too emotional to make decisions for themselves. I played that comment to a couple of students in my journalism class and they were offended. According to the new CDC report (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_030.pdf) reports that more teens are using the rhythm method (up to 17% from 11%) and reported that an increase in teens dont even care if they get pregnant. It said that 14% of females and 18% of males would be "a little pleased" or "very pleased" if they got (a partner) pregnant. Its also disgusting how they refer to females who have had sex as 'used toothbrushed.' Like women have some expiration date on them or something? Love the double standard! Teen pregnancies have also risen as well as ignorance of sex ed! Thanks ab only!
Comment by Prog Rock Girl on June 5, 2010 at 4:10pm
"No intelligence allowed" is right. Why bother having a class if they're just going to NOT teach you something. The quotes really made me puke. They're as biased and untrue as the edits in Texas schoolbooks. Now that I remember, I had a sex ed class like that with one test question being "name 2 alternatives to abortion". (I should have written "infanticide". Technically, it's an alternative!) I also remember being told that AIDS goes undetected for years and years, and thinking it was true.

The stupidest quote was the "if you don't have the self control to abstain from sex, you won't have the self-control to remember contraception". Kind of like saying "if you don't have the self-control to avoid eating pizza you definitely won't have the self-control to get regular exercise". But the "women are now being culturally conditioned to be interested in sex" was right up there in stupidity...they were culturally conditioned to be ashamed, but I've known girls from every culture who had an interest in sex of all kinds!

The thing is that most real sexual educators (Planned Parenthood for example) will agree that abstinence is the 100% effective way to avoid pregnancy/STDs but that most people at some point will want to have sex enough that they're willing to take a calculated risk, so it's important to learn about it. I think sex ed classes should make it clear that kids shouldn't give in to sexual peer pressure if they don't want to or aren't ready, but also should educate people because they will probably want to have sex at some point in their lives. Why do people think that just b/c someone wants to wait for marriage, that they don't need to be educated about sex anyway?
Comment by Jared Lardo on June 5, 2010 at 2:51pm
I really do hope that this won't be your last post on the subject. I wasn't exposed to this tripe--just a few minutes of scare video of a very hairy woman giving birth--but these lies others are being fed seem like just the thing to explain some of the goofy ideas that some people in high school seemed to have--like that AIDS gets invented whenever a man touches or is touched by another man's penis in a sexual way. Reading this post has given me a bit of education in this disturbing field of manipulative indoctrination, and I'm fascinated.
Comment by Piper on June 5, 2010 at 2:46pm
I don't have one prepared, but I may have to make up a laundry list of the silly things I've heard. WAIT training was the most recent program I went through; their FAQ has a few gems.

Like I said, though, it took me six years to gather up enough spine and nerve to start openly questioning the information abstinence programs shovel out. I realized it wasn't enough to just roll my eyes and think to myself how stupid it all was; not all of my classmates have the same information or at least rigorous fact-checking standards that I do. I've not gotten any overwhelming sort of reaction from my classmates. Most just tell me they think it's funny when I butt heads with the teacher and that I at least make it all interesting... it's not the ideal response, but at least I know they're listening.
Comment by Loren Miller on June 5, 2010 at 2:16pm
If that isn't the MOST ridiculous thing they attempted to lay on you, I think a laundry list (if one exists) would at least be fun to read.

I should mention to you, too, that you're not alone. In Parma, Ohio, not far from where I live, a couple high school students got up in front of the Parma School Board and called them on the woefully lacking sexual education their school was promoting. This was reported by Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer some time back, and you might enjoy reading it.

I also think that John D's idea of editing your original post into an op-ed piece would be a laudable idea ... though it would very possibly draw more than a little flack as well. Still, that you continue to put these putative "educators" on the spot speaks well both of your knowledge and your nerve. I'd be interested to hear what the reaction of your classmates has been.

Again ... BRAVA!
Comment by Piper on June 5, 2010 at 2:03pm
I'm sad to say, Loren, that that wasn't even the most ridiculous thing I've ever been told in an abstinence class. I'm glad that I know science, and the facts about sex, but I feel sorry for all the teenagers who are being told lies to scare them into stifling their sexuality.

Anybody who wants to sell my classmates bullshit has to withstand being centered in my crosshairs first. I have to give it to the most recent abstinence 'educator'; she was a nice woman, but I had her on the run, or on her toes at the very least.
Comment by Loren Miller on June 5, 2010 at 7:35am
"You see, because these guys had sex so many times, with so many people, even amongst themselves, they created an STD."

Pardon my french, but UNBE-FUCKING-LIEVEABLE!!! That one is right up there with the RC church claiming condoms spread AIDS! THIS is what happens when you let religious BS into the classroom in ANY form!

Brava, Piper, for the post and for your stand!
Comment by Gary Huckleberry on June 5, 2010 at 7:23am
I TOTALLY agree with abstinence!!! And you'll be pleased to note.... that I AM telling you what to do! So, here it is... ABSTAIN from "system brainwashing". The most important things a student can learn are 1. The first purpose of public (and most private) schools is to get you to "believe" in the political system. 2. The first purpose of these schools is a SCAM and if effective, will result in the elimination of all decent people (and much of animal and plant life.)
Every action a plant or animal takes ... is due to pleasure, sex and intimacy included. Someone once said that "Abstinence is the most perverse of sexual perversions." I agree.
Comment by Jaume on June 5, 2010 at 3:55am
Very impressive. It's obvious enough you're smart, but what strikes me more is you're also insightful and wise way beyond your years. And very articulate to boot. Kudos to you.

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