I originally was going to lead this with a whole long spiel about Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice-President candidate, whose daughter has just announced she’s pregnant out of marriage, but you know what, while that’s a big deal in the States I can’t quite work up the excitement. So let’s cut straight to the topic: Abstinence-Only Sex Education!
Abstinence-only sex education is the following approach to sex education: “KIDS: DON’T HAVE SEX WITH YOUR PEERS. OR ANYONE ELSE. UNTIL YOU MARRY THEM.” Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that, but that’ll have to wait for a second. The reason abstinence-only sex education is such a big deal is that there are a whole bunch of grants in the States for agencies who are promoting abstinence-only sex education. Consequently abstinence-only sex education seems to have become the de-facto national curriculum of the USA in some states. And that curriculum runs something like the following:
- Has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
- Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
- Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
- Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
- Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
- Teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
- Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
- Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
(These are official guidelines.: agencies who take certain money from the US government have to abide by.)
So far, all so good, (enough, -ish). Within a certain range of definition I’m not sure I’d disagree with teaching any of those things. So is this something we should try and copy in this country, where this style of sex education is relatively unknown? After all, if we believe sex is designed for marriage (which we do, or at least I do, and you should too) surely teaching abstinence outside of marriage is the correct thing to do? Well. Yes. Abstinence never seems to get taught in the British system and that’s disastrously awful, however the other way of doing things seems just as bad. The massive flaw with abstinence-only sex education is that it teaches abstinence-only sex education That means you can’t teach how to use or access any form of contraception. That means you can’t say “but if you are going to have sex, here’s how to use a condom” or “but if you are going to have sex here’s how to access support to various services” or “but if you are going to have sex here’s how’s to tell your mum that you’re pregnant”. That means if you’re not one-hundred percent convincing with your don’t have sex spiel you’re going to be seeing rather young parents rather more frequently (or worse; you’re not).
People of the world; I’ve asked around and done some research, and it turns out teenagers want to have sex. It also turns out that they’re not very good with being told not to do stuff. It also turns out that if they’ve made a promise not to have sex till they are married then they’ll see no reason to carry around condoms or be on the pill, but they’ll not be the most reliable at keeping those sort of promises. But that’s not the only reason abstinence-only sex-education doesn’t work, here are the two other more Christian ones.
The reason Christians advocate saving sex for marriage is because they believe that God has designed it for that relationship. And there is no problem with telling this to people who aren’t Christians, in fact you should, but when you then start expecting people to follow your advice which is based upon a God they don’t believe in, you shouldn’t be too surprised when they don’t take it. Why should they trust that the God they don’t believe in has designed sex for marriage and that it is better to wait for it? And hey, without the Holy Spirit helping out if they do decide to go down that route it’s going to be pretty hard.
The second reason though is probably the kicker. Trying to make people follow the commands of Jesus without first knowing Him is not a great way of teaching people about Jesus. It’s a great way of teaching legalism. “If you obey these rules, then God will save you!”, “Don’t have sex with your boyfriend and then you shall know heaven”, “you can save yourself with virginal purity!”. That’s not Christianity, that’s every other world religion. There is a correct way to teach young people the laws that God has set out, and in all honesty I haven’t quite cracked it2, but it’s not in teaching them to obey it outside of knowing Jesus. Teaching those who aren’t Christians that they can keep God’s law is foolish (as indeed is teaching those who are Christians). “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:23)
A better sex education approach would contain something like this:
- Sex is a grace. It is a gift from God for a man and wife to teach us about intimacy, about Christ, about his Church, and to be generally awesome.
- Sex is a law. Sex outside of marriage is disobedience to God. Sex can be an addiction and a master of us. Sex is a god in today’s society. Our attitude to sex shows us how sinful we are, how much we cannot save ourselves and how much we need a good saviour.
- Kids; here is how to use a condom.
1 (On this Wikipedia has the best things to say earlier in the afore-linked article; “the fact that complete abstinence itself (even within marriage) is the most effective preventative measure against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases has never been in dispute.” NO. WAY.)
2 This is my current big deal in youth work. How do you effectively discipline young people and teach them what is right, while at the same time teaching them that they cannot be good and need Christ to be reckoned good.
3 Yeah, yeah, not great exegesis I know. The passage is aimed at Christians, not non-Christians, but I think the point stretches.