Opinion: Abstinence-only sex education should be abolished

“Schools need to stop treating sex as something dirty and shameful.”

By Yasmin Sara Merchant


I grew up in the Bible Belt of the southern United States. For those unfamiliar with the term — it’s the southeastern and south-central area of the country where Evangelical Protestant Christianity (in particular, the Southern Baptist denomination) has an inescapable presence. Its values are ingrained in society and in politics; in some ways it is obvious, in others it’s more subtle.

Now I want to start off by saying I don’t necessarily believe this is inherently negative. Faith can inspire wonderful things, like charity, selflessness, and kindness. But unfortunately, when it is mixed with politics and policymaking, I feel that it is often used as a tool of repression.

One of the places I felt this the most was in sex education. Or rather, the lack thereof.

I attended high school in Texas. Some of the stereotypes people believe about the Lone Star state are exaggerated, but one of them is absolutely true: our sex ed is the worst.

In the 2015–16 academic year, a whopping 83 percent of the school districts taught abstinence-only or no sex ed at all. And believe it or not, that is actually an improvement compared to about a decade ago…when it was 96 percent.

Abstinence-only sex ed maintains that the only way to prevent the issues of teen pregnancy and STDs is to have no sex at all. There is not really a set lesson plan other than “wait until you are married.” It does not need to teach students about birth control or how to be safe. In fact, they often discourage birth control methods by downplaying their effectiveness. They often do not teach accurate information about abortion. Most of the time it’s very gendered and heteronormative — very few districts even acknowledge the existence and needs of the LGBT+ students. Abstinence-only sex ed largely relies on scare and shaming tactics to spook kids out of the idea.

I vaguely remember a presentation in the ninth grade that included a slideshow of graphic STD images. And there was also an odd exercise illustrating why we should wait until marriage. A group of students were called to the front and given signs with names to wear, representing characters. There was the main girl and the main boy of the story, let’s call them Mary and John. Then there were a couple of side characters who represented the pair’s sexual partners before they met each other and got engaged. When Mary and John were standing at the altar facing each other, all of their past partners were standing behind them. Because they didn’t wait until marriage, they were bringing all of those people with them into holy matrimony. Their union was “tainted.”

I honestly do not remember anything else about that lesson. I must have blocked it out of my memory. And other than that, I received no formal sex ed whatsoever in high school.

Unsurprisingly, the abstinence-only method of sex ed does not work. Texas has the fifth highest teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. as well as the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies in the country, the latter might have something to do with the fact that minors cannot get birth control without their parents’ permission even if they have already had a child. In some sections of the state, the rates are twice the national average. This impacts teens from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. On a larger scale, in 2011 the U.S. topped the list of developed nations in teenage pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted diseases. One can only conclude that abstinence-only education is a complete and utter failure, and yet it persists.

Some seem to believe that if we do not talk about the problem, it will all go away. The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund once called it a “conspiracy of silence.” In 2009 the Texas Legislature voted to remove high school health classes as a graduation requirement, allowing schools to cut sex ed out of their curriculum entirely.

Those who support keeping sex ed out of school argue that it should be up to the parents to educate their children on these issues. But even the most well-meaning parents are hardly qualified and often pass down myths and old wives tales, which we would then all spread to each other; such as: the hymen is supposed to “pop” and bleed the first time, that penetrative sex is supposed to hurt and a woman is supposed to be “tight,” a tampon will take away your virginity, and that pulling out is an effective birth control method. These beliefs are harmful and dangerous.

Moreover, my family is Pakistani Muslim and, though it was not said as directly, that community has a similar outlook on sex. It was just kind of an unspoken assumption that every Muslim girl was going to marry a Muslim boy. When you’re ready to start a family is when you should start having sex. No one thinks to ask if that is what you want out of life. What if I don’t want to get married or have kids, then what? Am I supposed to be celibate forever?

Schools need to stop treating sex as something dirty and shameful. Stop centering the curriculum on marriage and instead focus on teaching teens how to have fulfilling and safe relationships. Its current form is failing an entire generation.

Yasmin Sara is a New York City based journalist whose areas of interest range from global political, economic, and social issues to DC comics. You can follow her terrible sense of humor on Twitter @yasminsmerchant and on her Tumblr blog batglare.com.