When I was a college freshman unsure of my major let alone future, I spent a lot of time at the on-campus Women’s Center. A huge wicker basket of colorful, and sometimes flavored condoms and various lubricants greeted visitors and passersby. I spent most of my free time there and those experiences in the Women’s Center sparked my passion about sexual health. It also made me see that women and girls are often left out of conversations about safer sex, even though we’re most impacted by the consequences of abstinence only education. My first job after college was as a sexual health educator for an organization called C.H.O.I.C. E. That job took me all over the city of Philadelphia, to schools, group homes, and even juvenile facilities. I enjoyed teaching kids about safer sex and harm reduction. I later worked as a certified HIV counselor and tester, a disease surveillance investigator, and medical case manager for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. What I’ve learned over the years is, abstinence only education is not only ineffective, it’s wholly damaging. There is so much shame around sex, and that shame is mostly reserved for young girls and women. And that shame prevents us from teaching young girls and women about their bodies and teaching them sex is normal function. Instead we have taught them to wait. And while there is nothing wrong with waiting, there is harm in sending a message that waiting is the only education they need around sex and sexuality. Teaching girls to wait is not a substitute for accurate, well-rounded sex education. It’s inadequate. It’s dangerous—especially for those who don’t want to wait.
This isn’t just my biased opinion. The United States leads the world in teen pregnancy and birth rates. There have been several studies that show abstinence only programs have not produced enough evidence to show they are effective at preventing sexual activity, pregnancy or the spread of STIs. And studies show that those who have taken purity pledges have far worse reproductive outcomes than those who haven’t—including higher rates of pregnancy and higher incidences of HIV and HPV infections. Purity pledges are more often than not for parents, and not necessarily for the teens. Although there are some teens who truly believe that abstinence is the answer—until it isn’t. And let’s be honest, purity pledges are mostly aimed at young girls. Our society idolizes purity. And we all know that purity and innocence is something we shame into young girls. During my time as a HIV counselor and tester, I encountered many girls and young women who were open about their sexual history, but admitted to me that their parents believed they were virgins. There was stark contrast with the boys and young men I counseled. Because of this contrast it was my duty to teach them about safer sex and harm reduction as well as provide them with free resources and referrals, as needed, even when their parents didn’t approve. The information was needed and desired. It was more important than ever because research shows that of the states that do provide some sexual health education, only 13 of those states, provides medically accurate and verifiable information. This means many of those who are responsible for providing information to teens are not qualified and have virtually no education or training in providing sexual health education. Often, these conversations are had in a religious context; the education is often incorrect, limited, and fails to include those teens who are not heterosexual.
A recent study shows that although teen pregnancy dropped to its lowest level since 1946, state-by-state statistics show rising pregnancy and STI rates among teens in those states with abstinence only education. Of those states, Texas is the biggest offender. Texas has one of the highest budgets for abstinence only education—spending 1.2 million on an abstinence website alone, yet, the numbers show it isn’t effective in preventing teenage pregnancy. It’s also important to note that Texas recently passed Texas House Bill 3994, which restricts minors’ access to abortion services from places such as Planned Parenthood. HB 3994 essentially states that anyone seeking an abortion should be considered a minor until proven otherwise and must provide proof of age before being counseled on abortion services and before receiving abortion services. Now, I don’t care what your opinions on abortion are; comprehensive sexual health education and resources are not comprehensive and balanced unless girls and young women are provided information about abortion. Not everyone who is able to get pregnant wants to become a parent. After all abortion is a legal and safe medical procedure. It’s also important to teach girls that sexual health education and their responsibilities to their bodies and sexual well-being doesn’t begin and end with waiting. Marriage is not a barrier. Marriage is not contraception. Marriage is not always a goal. Teaching girls about their bodies has to include unfiltered conversations around ovulation and menstruation to understand how pregnancy occurs, and not just the ways to prevent pregnancy. Providing contraception to anyone, without giving them detailed understanding on how and why it works, is as irresponsible as not providing it at all. And let’s face it, abstinence only education has a deeper impact on girls, especially black girls because we are denied a proper education around sexual health, denied effective resources at higher rates than others—and bear the consequences alone.
We are failing young girls and women and it is time we teach them that their worth isn’t tied to virginity or their ability to wait it out. But most importantly, we need to stop shaming those who choose not to wait. We don’t own their bodies or their sexuality. How many studies do we need to finally understand how damaging and ineffective abstinence only education is? Studies show sexual health education reduces risky behavior such as unprotected sex. Teens are having sex. Pregnancy and STI statistics prove that they are not waiting for marriage. They are not waiting for permission. They are not waiting for accurate and useful information. They are not asking for our approval, but even worse, they aren’t asking us anything. And that’s not acceptable. We must move on and learn from our mistakes and misconceptions about abstinence only education. Not only are we responsible for teaching teens about available resources such as condoms and hormonal birth control and IUDs, we have a responsibility to provide those resources. Telling teens to not have sex will never be as effective as providing them with knowledge and access to those resources that prevent pregnancy and STIs. Once we admit comprehensive sexual health education is the only education worthy of our energy and money; we will not only see a reduction in teen pregnancy and STI rates, but also a shift from blaming young women and girls to empowering them.