Abstinence-only Education Puts Students at Risk

Photo Courtesy of Bryan Calabro, Wikipedia

“PENIS / VAGINA:” Those words were largely written in bright red marker on the whiteboard of my freshman sex education class. My teacher smacked his hand dramatically under “PENIS,” looking out to the blushing, giggling faces of his students. As casually as one could, he said, “Alright guys, we are going to yell these words at the top of our lungs to get all the giggles out now.” As if we were monks performing a sacred ritual, we all chanted in sync about the male and female anatomy.

While that was definitely an unconventional way of starting off our sex education class, I’m lucky to say I even had a class. As of March 1, 2016, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that there are only 24 states (and the District of Columbia) that require sex education as part of the curriculum.

The fact that more than half of the U.S. does not require sex education is astounding. Some of these states do have schools that end up having a sex education course regardless. However, some states, like Mississippi, will not teach a sex education course unless it is required. In order to understand why it is so important that schools have sex-ed in their curriculum, sex-ed itself must be defined.

Advocates for Youth, a website that champions an awareness of responsible sex practices, states, “Comprehensive Sex Education teaches about abstinence as the best method for avoiding STDs and unintended pregnancy, but also teaches about condoms and contraception to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and of infection with STDs, including HIV. It also teaches interpersonal and communication skills and helps young people explore their own values, goals and options.” Basically, this means students should learn about reproduction, how to take care of one’s genitalia, how to practice safe sex, learn about STIs and learn about methods of birth control.

Unfortunately, many schools do not teach about a majority of those subjects. Rather, some curriculums have a heavy focus on only certain aspects. Personally, my high school curriculum had us focus on the biology of our genitalia and STIs. While it is definitely important to know the parts of the body and about possible infections, there were a lot of key things that we were never taught. For example, are there any soaps or washes that can irritate genitalia? How do you check yourself for irregularities, like lumps? What are warning signs that something may internally be wrong (that isn’t an STI)?

The fact that many have not learned about this is by no means the fault of the sex-ed teacher. Teachers must follow curriculum verified by the school itself with little-to-no wiggle room. The issue is that schools and districts tend to make a curriculum that is influenced by members of the community, more specifically religious members. Some religions believe that engaging in anything sexual before marriage is a sin, and therefore believe that students should not even learn about birth control or STIs. Rather, some religions believe in teaching abstinence-only sex education.

ABC News reports that around 23 percent of high schools teach “abstinence-only” sex education. Abstinence-only education means that these facilities do not teach students about forms of birth control such as condoms, pills or shots. While there is nothing wrong with teaching abstinence as a form of birth control, it should not be the only method taught. Students are being put at risk of contracting an STI or becoming pregnant because they do not have the proper tools to protect themselves.

There is a vicous cycle that occurs when only abstinence is taught. The problem is: teen pregnancy rates in states with abstinence-only education are sky- high. For example, in Mississippi, the LA Times reports that “[a] third of all babies born in Mississippi are to teenage mothers.” Mississippi has a reputation of being a conservative, deeply religious state, and many schools in Mississippi teach abstinence only. Focusing only on abstinence means that these teens have no idea about how to practice safe sex, leaving them at a higher chance of pregnancy or contracting an STI. It is due to these abstinence-only teachings that Mississippi “has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, with 50 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19,” according to the LA Times.

There needs to be a more set curriculum when it comes to sex education. There needs to be a curriculum where students not only learn about their biology, but also how to take care of themselves. All methods of birth control should be talked about. This can include abstinence, however, abstinence cannot be the only birth control method discussed. Personally, I hope for one last addition to sex education: I hope they require students to yell about genitals, just like I did.