The Abstinence Myth

Jessica Valenti did an amazing job on the Today Show, of defending her book (which I still need to finish reading, but Chapter One was fantastic!) and trying to explain why abstinence only education is not only ineffective, but it actually makes the problem worse. However, this video drives me crazy for two reasons: they didn’t let Jessica speak enough, not nearly as much as Lakita got to speak, and the factual information that Jessica provided was all but ignored in favor of Lakita’s metaphors and anecdotes that favored abstinence only. In honor of Jessica I’d like to compile some of the facts here, as well as anecdotes of my own, to help add to the dialogue about sexual education.


The responses below are in bullet points, and slightly all over the place, because I am attempting to respond to the video at hand, sorry!


* The studies that Jessica quoted (that Lakita likened to being like the KKK doing a study in African Americans) were all but brushed off as Lakita told the viewers to “go to the source, go to the people who promote virginity, what are they saying?” This statement is -of course – ridiculous because abstinence only proponents are going to be just as biased as those on the other side, their bias is simply going to swing the other way. Lets try this, here are the unbiased facts: “Nearly two-thirds of high school seniors said they have had sexual intercourse, and 22 percent said they had been with at least four partners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year. And a federal report in 2007 found that abstinence programs had little effect on changing teen behavior, and teen pregnancies climbed for the second year.” This is information coming from government funded programs that have no agenda within the sexual education debate – the framework we have in place obviously isn’t working and something needs to be done.

* In addition, Jessica said something very important that I feel was really glossed over: the hyper-focus on virginity that abstinence only education creates is damaging to women and girls. What abstinence only education does is sort women into two categories: the “good chaste virgins” and the “promiscuous bad girls.” This means that girls who have already had sex feel pressured to identify with the second category, rather than seeing themselves as responsible women who have value even without their all important virginity. This identification can lead to women selling themselves short, not valuing their sexuality (especially if they no longer identify as virgins), and viewing themselves as having less worth than they really do – neither of these seem like ideals any movement would want to perpetuate. Abstinence only movements puts all of the power into a girl’s virginity, when it should be put into her talents, intelligence, personality, and abilities as most comprehensive programs advocate.

The metaphor that Lakita used about choosing a janitor (for those who don’t want to watch – she implied that she does better background checks on possible janitorial staff for her business than most women do on their sexual partners) is a perfect example of this harmful and misleading portrait of women and girls. Abstinence only proponents would like us to believe that all sexually active, unmarried women are hooking up with random men who’s real names they don’t even know… really? As a teenager myself I can assure you that this is not true; most young women who choose to have sex do so within the context of a relationship and do not take the decision lightly (how can we when so much value is being placed in our “virginity?”) In addition, I’d like to add that the women who do have unfulfilling* sex with many partners do so because they feel valueless, mostly as a result of the fact that they are told without their vigrinity they are simply promiscuous bad girls – they are acting out the role that abstinence only pidgenholes them into.

* Ultimately, the decision to have sex should not revolve around marriage alone – because not all cultures believe marriage is a necessary precursor to sex. Sex education should help women decide when to have sex based on their emotional and physical readiness, not whether or not they have a ring around their finger. Responsible decision making is an important thing to teach, but abstinence only education cannot teach that message because there is no decision in this process, just an edict: don’t have sex until you’re married.

* Another thing that seemed glossed over in this video is the fact that comprehensive sex education programs teach about abstinence. Teens who receive this education are encouraged to take their sexuality seriously and value their bodies and their decisions… they are not encouraged to run out and have meaningless sex, as so many abstinence only advocates seem to believe. In a comprehensive sexual education course abstinence is presented alongside birth control and STI protection options so that teens can feel free to make their own informed decision about their own sexuality.

* Abstinence only education robs women of power. By taking away the choice – of when, how, and why to have sex – and withholding information, you are essentially infantalizing women. This is illustrated beautifully by purity balls which place the “ownership” and responsibility of “protecting a girls virginity” in the hands of the woman’s father, rather than the woman herself. That “ownership” is typically represented by a ring and is symbolically passed over to a woman’s husband in marriage, with another ring. The overwhelming factor here: the woman is never in possession of her own sexuality, it is something that must be gaurded and protected by men. This kind of thinking keeps young women from being truly inependent and strong; after all how empowering is the decision to stay a virgin if its not a decision at all, but rather, an order?

* Ironically enough this movement tends to place undue amounts of stress on young women too by buying into the notion that young men are incapable of resisting sex; it is the job of the woman, and her father, to act as “gatekeeper” to her sexuality and keep her chastity in tact. Thinking like this leads to scores of negative societal influences like victim-blaming in sexual assault cases (young women are constantly picked on for being in compromising postions, yet rarely are the men who actually commit the rape blamed directly) and undue guilt for women who choose to have sex at a younger age.


*Ignorance is NOT bliss. The fact of the matter is some girls and boys are going to have sex, regardless of what their teacher tells them… and that’s okay. What isn’t okay is that millions of these teenagers are engaging in sex without the appropiate knowledge concerning their anatomy, contraceptives, consent, and so on; this lack of knowledge can lead to sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and dire emotional consequences.  Knowledge is power – we should be empowering teens to make the smart choice, not withholding that power in hopes of keeping them “chaste” until marriage.


As a recipient of abstinence only education I can only say it is harmful. I have watched good friends engage in sex without knowledge about protection, because we were never taught. I have watched friends feel totally defeated and worthless after having sex, not because they regretted the act per-say, but because they felt valueless without their virginity… because as a culture we were taught that our value is our virginity. Deciding to make my own decisions about sex, and get my own information has been an empowering journey for me and I do not regret a single choice I have made but it is not like that for many young women. Our education systems need to be empowering women with the information needed to make smart choices about sex, not infantalizing and “sheltering” them from sex.

* I’d like to add that plenty of women have causal sex in a healthy and fulfilling manner. Although it is not the right choice for some women, other women enjoy owning their sexuality in this way and – so long as they are being safe – where is the harm in this?

** As a side note, I am excited to use this post about comprehensive sex-ed to announce that I will be soon be a blogger for a website that advocates for just that, amoung other things! Check out Amplify’s awesome blog , community, and resources now and keep an eye out for my posts (which will also be crossposted here along with my regular posts – I won’t abandon this site either) starting in May.

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