Sloppy Seconds Sex Ed


Last week, the conservative circles of the internet were abuzz in disapproval over Elizabeth Smart’s recent criticism of abstinence-only sexual education. Speaking at a forum on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University, Elizabeth said that the abstinence-only education she received left her feeling “so dirty” and “so filthy” after being repeatedly raped.

The reactions to this were infuriatingly predictable. Good people, people who have proven to be thoughtful and compassionate, immediately shut down in the face of any criticism of abstinence-only sex ed. Their responses to Elizabeth Smart were irrational, ignorant, and stunningly condescending. From accusing her of “casting blame” to snarkily suggesting that we teach “bestiality (oral, anal, etc…) as an alternative to those worthless, dirty, filthy feelings”, there was a mob-like mentality on display. People stubbornly defended her religious parents and reminded each other how she had held on through her captivity so she could get back to them, without bothering to explain what that had to do with the point she was making. People insisted that the shame and unworthiness she felt was solely the result of the abuse she suffered, and by making her emotional trauma about abstinence-only education she was doing a disservice to other forms of abuse. People claimed that she was using her platform irresponsibly, and should have thought through the impact her words would have on the abstinence-only sex ed movement.

What almost no one did was hear what she said. No one was horrified at what she had been taught in her abstinence-only sexual education. No one acknowledged that the direct, logical result of such an education is a sense of shame and unworthiness after having been “used.” No one showed even a hint of sympathy for how she had suffered, not only at the hands of her captors, but at the hands of a degrading philosophy of human sexuality. Such a callous indifference to human suffering is appalling. It shows that too many Christians, too many proponents of abstinence-only education, have put their concern for the welfare of a quasi-political movement above their concern for the welfare of a human being, of human dignity itself.

For some time, I have thought that the reason more people aren’t speaking out against this “purity culture” is that they are unaware of it. After last week, I’m not so sure. The mainstream message of abstinence-only education got press far and wide with Elizabeth Smart’s denunciation of it, yet I saw no shock, horror, or disgust.

Let me be clear about the particular type of abstinence-only education Elizabeth Smart is referring to. I’m not entirely convinced that there is another type, but just in case, this is the abstinence-only message that Elizabeth Smart received as an adolescent:

“Smart said she grew up in a Mormon family and was taught through abstinence-only education that a person whose virginity was lost before marriage was considered worthless. She spoke to the crowd about a school teacher who urged students against premarital sex and compared women who had sex before their wedding nights to chewing gum.

‘I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value’.”

(Read the rest here)

Perhaps there are some people out there who think this mindset is an abberration, who are not responding to this because they genuinely believe this is a rare exception to typical abstinence-only curricula.

It isn’t.

It is absolutely crucial that Catholics, Christians, and all proponents of abstinence-only education get their heads out of the sand on this. This is not some sort of freaky Mormon glitch in the abstinence-only train. This IS the abstinence-only train.

When I heard it, it was glasses of water. Women (and only women, mind you; the boys got a separate talk about cherishing each woman as if she were the prized treasure of another man) were like glasses of crystal-clear spring water. If you “fooled around” before marriage, it was like someone spit in your glass of water. If you had sex before marriage, it was like someone took a huge drink of your water, swished it around in their mouths, and then spat it back into the glass. The more sex you had, the dirtier your glass of water got. “So think of that before you have premarital sex,” we were admonished. “Think of the gift you’re going to give your husband on your wedding night. Do you want to give him a pure, untouched glass of delicious water, or a dirty cup of everyone else’s backwash?”

For one of my friends, it was an Oreo cookie that had been chewed up and spat back out. For another friend, it was a pair of custom-made shoes that had been stretched and warped from being worn by people they weren’t made to fit. Cups of spit. Plucked roses. It goes on and on. I’ve heard a million variations of it, but always the message is the same.

This does not teach anyone chastity or purity. “Abstinence-only” sex ed is a fundamentally flawed concept, beginning with its very name. It teaches children to negate an act, to deny a fundamental part of human nature until such a time as it’s permissible to indulge. It doesn’t teach children what sex is, what their sexuality means, how to understand it, or how to properly integrate it into a life of chastity both without and within a marriage. It doesn’t teach a boy that sex is primarily about the giving of himself, and that he can’t fully give himself to his wife unless he learns how to master himself first, how to wait, how to have patience, how to love her instead of using her as a vehicle for pleasure. Actually it teaches boys the exact opposite of that; that a woman is a trophy, a prize, that a good one (one worth keeping forever) will be untouched, but that there are plenty of dirty water-glasses walking around that have been ruined for any decent man anyway, and they might as well be used up since they’re not worth saving.

And what does abstinence-only sex ed teach girls? It doesn’t teach girls anything. It conditions girls into conforming with a sick, “religious-ized” chauvinism that masquerades as concern for moral purity but is really just plain old abhorrence of sloppy seconds. It says nothing to a girl about her inherent value as a human being, about her precious and vital role as life-giver, about her unique feminine genius that is inextricably linked to her sexuality. Like Pavlov’s dog, girls are told over and over in abstinence-only education that sex before marriage will make them dirty and worthless. The conditioning definitely works as intended on us pieces of chewed-up gum; our sexual relationships within marriage are usually fraught with psychological blocks, feelings of worthlessness, and fears of abandonment. It also does a number on girls who have been raped, like Elizabeth Smart. But here’s the thing: it totally screws up the “good” girls, too, the one who wait until their wedding night. You can’t tell a girl that having sex is like being a chewed and regurgitated Oreo and then expect her to be totally excited when it comes time for her husband to chew her up and spit her back out. You can’t teach a girl that her sexuality is a prize for a man, that the whole purpose of her existence as a sexual being is to be used by someone else at the “right” time and in the “right” way, and then wonder where these silly girls get their “objectification” martyr complexes.

It’s time to have a serious conversation about abstinence-only sex ed, and how it is not only failing but damaging our youth. It is screwing up our cultural understanding of human sexuality just as thoroughly as the hedonistic effects of the sexual revolution are. There very well may be some good abstinence-only sex ed courses out there, but they are certainly not the norm. We need to create a new way of teaching children about human sexuality, a way that emphasizes their essential dignity as rational, spiritual, and sexual human beings. We should strive to teach them to grow in virtue, to gain temperance, to master their passions, and to love for love of the other, not out of desire for pleasure, power, or possession. We should be teaching human sexuality as a series of positive moral developments that boys and girls must attain before sex can be truly enjoyed. We shouldn’t be teaching our kids to white-knuckle it through puberty and then glut themselves as soon as they say “I do.”

The question is not whether or not abstinence-only education is working. I’m not even sure what proponents of it mean by “working.” In the incarnation I’m familiar with, it certainly doesn’t seem intended to do much beyond shaming kids into not having sex using the crudest, most psychologically destructive means available. Research is pretty clear that it’s not even managing to accomplish that. The only thing abstinence-only education is accomplishing is entrenching misogynistic, licentious attitudes toward sex in a whole new generation of kids.

There is no excuse for Christians to close their eyes and pretend that abstinence-only sex ed is even a tolerable thing, much less a good thing. This dehumanizing approach to sexuality is not an acceptable alternative to the Planned Parenthood-driven over-sexualization of our kids. I will not settle for my kids learning anything less than the full theology of the body, and neither should you. You don’t need to defend abstinence-only sex ed from attacks by girls like Elizabeth Smart; you need to defend girls like Elizabeth Smart from the psychological effects of abstinence-only sex ed. It is not “education” in any sense of the word. It is shallow, sickening cultural conditioning, and we owe our kids enough to admit it. There are two whole generations of young adults who have been psychologically and emotionally damaged by the widespread and complacent acceptance of abstinence-only sex ed. Let’s not make it three.


*I am still getting used to our new comment system, which requires a great deal more moderation than I usually do. If you post a comment and it disappears, it got caught in my spam filter, and I will release it when I check in periodically. I don’t delete comments.


Streams of milk or tears to offer
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  • Jen H

    “Planned Parenthood-driven over-sexualization of our kids?” I don’t think PP has power over Hollywood or Madison Avenue.
    I took sex ed in school and was taught all about various forms of birth control and health concerns such as sexually transmitted infections. That phrasing makes it seem as though having that knowledge is not only dangerous but also the cause of kids’ being oversexualized. How is that any different from the Abstinence-only way of thinking?
    That said, thank you for a very thoughtful piece. You made many points that I agree with, and having teenage sons I will be bringing them up with them when we next revisit “the Talk.” (Which in all honesty should be renamed, “the ongoing Conversation.” You can’t tell kids things just once and then send them on their merry way!)

  • CS

    Calah, you might not see this comment with your recovery and your baby’s, but I wanted to say all the talk about PP reminds me that parents need to be utterly unafraid of talking about sex with their children. UN.AFRAID. Willing to discuss anything *if asked*. Willing to offer a *safe* source of biological information if we don’t know ourselves, or are not comfortable talking about it in great detail.

    We also, as parents who have a different vision of the role of sexuality in the human person, have to fight really hard for our communities to be open and welcoming to our kids about this. And making sure they get the information about biology **and relationship ethics, like what it means to give and receive consent for any kind of intimate touching** We can even put those things in terms of, “These are the ethics of how people ought to respect each other. Your friends might eb having sex. But you have to be aware that there are rights and wrongs there: Silence is not YES. You can’t assume consent to do anything, and you should encourage your friends to keep that as a good standard. And if you ever see anybody doing the opposite, taking advantage of a silent or unaware partner, you have to do what you can to help put a stop to it. And if you are with a person who at any time says, stop, or I changed my mind, you are absolutely obligated to listen, and respond, immediately. Finally, if for any reason you take it into your head to go further than I have taught you is best, remember it yourself: Only joyful, affirmative yes should mean yes. ”

    They can get the message about protection & stuff in one day, waaay easier than they can get the above message about affirmative consent. And really, asking your teenage kid to make sure that they always have the happy affirmation of their loved ones to touch them/ give assent to be touched or it is not good….that would actually solve a lot of the problems of premarital teen sex. I would wager that a good portion of teenagers go a lot farther than they might have wanted to intellectually, because they are feeling lots of stuff, including not knowing how to put a stop to it. And for those who *didn’t* want to go that far, the result can be shame and self-destructive ideas and behaviors, including– as so many have commented here and elsewhere– continuing to engage in sexual behaviors just because “it’s too late to go back now.”

    ….So maybe the script for us, as faithful parents who want to lovingly impart the message in a way that will help them, needs to include this:
    “If you ever, ever go farther than you wanted to, or had planned, or in any way feel that things have gotten out of control for you, remember there is nothing you can do that will alter the fact that you are loved and valued. Sometimes we go we don’t realize who we are until we do something that shows us we don’t want to be that kind of person. You cannot change your worth as a human being. You can always begin anew to be the person you want to be. And I will always help you if you need my help.”

    • Calah Alexander

      This is so good. I can’t thank you enough for your participation here. Everything you have said is just wonderful. Even my friends have been like, “thank God for CS!” YOU should write a post about teaching our kids a healthy, morally-based sexual ethic.

  • milly

    Wow, all I can say is wow. I don’t know exactly how Smart’s parents taught her about sex, but I know that teaching a girl, or boy for that matter that they are worthless because they have had sex in the LDS faith is not common. Yes, they teach abstinence is best, but it is left to parents to teach their children, not the religion. I know plenty of LDS parents who teach abstinence is best, but also teach about contraceptives. When I read about Smart coming out and speaking out about how she feels abstinence only is bad I couldn’t help but think that what she was saying is not common among the LDS faith, and I knew she was LDS. I know people of the LDS faith are not like this from personal experience. I am LDS and became pregnant before I was married. I continued to go to church throughout my pregnancy, and I was not married at the time. Everyone was very kind to me, and offered to help me through it all. I think if I hadn’t had the support of the LDS members I would have had a hard time dealing with the emotions of possibly being a single parent, and other concerns I had. They did not make me feel worthless. On the contrary, I felt very loved. Just some food for thought for many who may not know much about the LDS faith or don’t understand it.

  • exnyer

    You are right about everything except Planned Parenthood: PP does not ‘drive the sexualization’ of children. It teaches real world sex education, it provides the only medical care (like breast cancer screenings) that some poor women ever get, and most of all, it provides comfort and support to rape surviviors like Elizabeth Smart.

  • Kathleen Young Rybarczyk

    As a former Roman Catholic, I had to take some time and really think about what I wanted to say here.

    It is extremely important to realize that the cultural/religious obsession with virginity and restricting pre-martial sex comes from the societal view, still slowly evolving, that women and the children they produce are the property of the man involved. In a patrilineal culture, the ONLY way to ensure that the children your wife births are yours is to have her be a virgin at the wedding. The only way to guarantee they are yours is to be the only one to ever have sex with her. Therefore, the whole “Virgin bride/abstinence only” thing comes from societal constructs – which also shaped and formed the Bible we read today.

    Now, on to sex and pleasure. Most people forget that God commands humanity to be fruitful and multiply. S/he wanted us to have sex, to enjoy our beautiful bodies given to us, to love each other fully. We are blessed with a body that can feel wonderful things, a mind that can process not only the physical feelings but the mental and emotional ones, and a spirit to bless whatever form of God we believe in for such a gift.

    How then is it a worthy thing to denigrate such a wonderful, wondrous gift? Let us consider that teaching the facts, encouraging the sanctity and respect for one another’s physical and mental and spiritual beings, as well as waiting until one is truly ready for sex and love might be the answer.

  • Becca

    Thats only Catholic priests…almost every other denomination in the world allows their pastors to be married. Both of my parents are married pastors. They know about family.

  • Brenda Be

    You did a great job of exposing the idiocy and completely proven ineffective travesty of ‘church state separation’ and ‘educational offerings that work’ that is ‘abstinence only’ sex ed. You used copious, logical, effective examples. Bravo. Great job. Excellent article. All until the end, when you threw out a gratuitous, unproven, and probably completely incorrect assertion that ‘Planned Parenthood’ sex-ed is ‘oversexualized.’ This sounds like someone who is ‘moderate’ but comes from a ‘traditional evangelical background.’ You have clearly learned to think for yourself, research, use facts and logic to make your argument. Yet still falling back on some knee-jerk canards of the religious right wing, such as the ‘obvious evil’ of Planned Parenthood which is apparently so ‘obvious’ all you have to do is mention them by name, no proof, no examples, whatsoever but your unfounded accusation about them is a fine and dandy way to sum up your article. Keep thinking for yourself, just a little harder. If you honestly believe that Planned Parenthood’s sex ed curriculum is bad and wrong ‘cuz oversexualized’ then provide examples. Prove it. Otherwise, I think you’ll find that if you look up their sex ed programs that they are probably fact based, Accurate, Educational, and in no way whatsoever ‘oversexualized.’ We the fact based community invite you to wade a little deeper in our water. Come on in, the water’s fine. Hate Planned Parenthood? Think their sex ed is bad and wrong? Prove it. We’re waiting.

  • Iforkmyself

    Eating with our hands only is dirty and shameful, we must always use a proper utensil. The only acceptable eating utensils are knives, forks and spoons, chopsticks are an abomination used by heathens. There is no such thing as finger food.

  • Nina Perez

    that wasn’t my personal opinion, that was the message that both speakers gave. the first speaker who had the rose use slut shaming to say if you are this damaged rose nobody wants you. the secone speaker gave a slightly better message that jesus wants the rose, but he neglected to mention who else might see a broken rose as having value (probably nobody if you are mangled they way he described that rose). and fyi i engage in sex frequently. and i have a pretty healthy self esteem. and i am well aware my worth is more than sex life. but this slut shaming nonsense of “nobody wants a broken rose” or only jesus wants a rose is absolute b.s. nobody should be considered damaged goods because they engage in sex. ever.

  • Theodore Ziolkowski

    Sloppy Seconds Sex Ed. this is outrageous. Men if you did not have sex with them then they would wait for your lily white pure ass. No one forced you to have sex so why is not the same choice ok for the woman you marry???