Abstinence (Sex) Education

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These programs designed to educate children, especially teens, on the value and use of abstinence are viewed very differently depending on contrasting values about sexuality. Many conservatives cherish abstinence education not only for its value in keeping children safe, but also because it communicates the values of self-discipline and sexual abstinence until marriage, embraced as central virtues particularly in the conservative Christian community.

By contrast, many on the left deride these programs as naive, unrealistic, and ineffective – sometimes using a variant of this term – abstinence-only education – as a pejorative to describe the common teaching that abstinence is the only sure method for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  While these critiques are often framed as purely scientific, many conservatives see in them a broader cultural derision of sexual abstinence or chastity - which has become increasingly mocked within larger secular society as alternatively silly, unrealistic or lamentably naive.

Like most contested interventions and programs, strident debates happen over which kind of sex education program is effective. Although often framed as a purely scientific question of effectiveness, it seems clear sharp contrasts in philosophy around “healthy sexuality” play a role in the conversation about effectiveness - including in what studies are done - and how they are interpreted.  Each side comes to different conclusions about whether abstinence education (or comprehensive sex education) is effective, in part, based on different criteria of success and measurements that also reflect competing values.

While a polarized campaign has been common, some have begun exploring whether effective compromise positions might exist. Some have offered “abstinence-plus” as a viable middle ground. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has, since the late 1990s, pursued what it claims to be a “non-ideological,” evidence-based approach to unplanned pregnancy that embraces abstinence as the most effective strategy for teens while also urging contraception education/availability for those who are not abstinent.  

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

-Does a viable middle ground position exist - a win/win that might be supported by multiple sides?  -If not, why?  

-Why are people on both sides seemingly fearful of compromise or middle ground positions? What are the dangers of doing so?

-Social conservatives often perceive liberals as embracing an “anything goes” mentality about sex. If that is not true, why does the perception exist? 

Conversation Catalysts: 

8-Point Definition of Abstinence-Only Education: Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, P.L. 104-193

Advocates for Youth

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Contributors: 

John Backman

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