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 Garrick McElroy on June 4, 2010 at 11:35pm
This is great. I loved reading it and I, too, had to recently go through an abstinence-only program. I attempted to go to my principal, but it didn't work out. I think you should do the same thing. This kind of sneaky, conniving (sp.) religious teaching, worming it's way into school, sickens me to my core.
Comment by Piper on June 4, 2010 at 10:53pm
I've actually never considered that, though I suppose I probably could. I'm not entirely certain just how interested the local papers would be in carrying something like this, but that's not a bad idea at all. Thank you for the suggestion.



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