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.


Little Girls Who Body-Shame
Christos Anesti!
Streams of milk or tears to offer
Land of the Freeish, Home of the Tattlers
  • Karen Beculhimer

    Hmm…I commented without reading the other comments…now I just really wish I hadn’t read any of the other comments. This post is absolutely true, and sex isn’t dirty, but the comments left me feeling very dirty…

  • Batrice Adcock

    Fantastic–yes, I kept thinking Theology of the Body is the answer–so glad to see you refer to it at the end. TOB for teens and Middle Schoolers with Ascension Press offers excellent alternatives. And, I hear they are working on a curriculum for even younger grades! God bless them!!

  • Steve King

    I’m mostly glad to read this. Thank you. I’ve been taught the same things at times, even as a guy, so I’m not so sure that it’s a totally chauvinistic movement, but it may tend to be and it’s certainly corrupt and hurtful. We ALL need to see ourselves as intrinsically valuable and come to grasp with what God designed human sexuality for. I’m on board with everything here as long as we understand that saving our virginity–physically, mentally and emotionally–for our spouses IS something that needs to be taught, as a devotion to God’s word and the plan that he has for us. We just need to teach it differently, for sure. But God forbid we should allow Christians, men or women, to be loose with their sexuality for fear of the psychological effects described here. That extreme is just as fallacious.

    Keep Proverbs 5 in mind (it was written to a young man, with applications for everyone). It warns against adultery, “lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless, lest strangers take their fill of your strength”. This is the warning our God gives us. Children of God, guard your hearts, for it is the wellspring of life. Don’t awaken love’s erotic passion until the proper time. This is what the Bible teaches, so let’s take it seriously as we walk in the grace and fullness of life that God gives us. Hopefully we’re all on the same page with this. Thanks again for bringing all of this to attention.

  • Diane

    I think it is wrong to condemn abstinence-only education because of the fact that some of the enforcers/supporters/teachers out there are doing it wrong.
    Abstinence-only education is the right education, it’s just up to us to teach it the right way.

  • M

    Incredible article. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Jon Hopkins

    What this Author has done was simply state that no current or past way of teaching sex education has ever been fully effective… that I can agree with, then they go on to suggest that we should instill every possible understanding on the children “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”. This would all be great except that it will never happen… we have a society and culture that looks too much to the government and the schools to raise their children these days. In order for values, morals and understandings like these to be instilled in children they have to be learning them not only from teachers, friends, family, and role-models… they need to learn them from their parents, who unfortunately too often don’t care enough to teach them or don’t have those values themselves, which is kind of an important part.

  • Ezekiel

    I agree wholeheartedly that our sexual education system is twisted, as is D.A.R.E. and many other programs. I don’t think however that it is fair to be so callous towards christians just because a few of the crazy ones speak loudly and with ignorance. I don’t remember any part of Jesus’ message that dealt with how to go about creating a proper public sexual education course. I do remember several parts where he spoke of compassion, love, and using great wisdom. I am a Christian, I am aware of the suffering that a staggering population of women endure in our nation and across the globe. I in no way support comparing such a glorious act of passion and intimacy to backwashed water. I support teaching love and compassion. More so I support having a education system that not only emphasizes on such things but actually feels them for their students.

  • Julia

    My school had what might be considered abstinence only (my state requires teaching about contraception, so we had a short blurb about what each thing was and its failure rate, and how we were not to use them, even in marriage, because they withhold fertility and prevent total self giving…unitive and creative…not going to type the whole encyclical…) But that wasn’t telling us to use birth control and we had a hearty NO PREMARITAL SEX, so it was basically “abstinence only”.

    However, our curriculum wasn’t like those horrifying examples at all! There was a huge, huge amount of time devoted to chastity vs. prudery, that chastity was about how sex was such a good thing and that misusing it was a bad thing, that chastity changed with state of life but was always meant to be lived, that rape ect were crimes done to you and violence against you (not anything that made you damaged goods or less worthy), and that even if you’d had lots and lots of consensual sex outside of marriage or violated the sacredness of sex in other ways there was always always always a chance to heal. In fact, one of the people in the video spent a lot of time talking about her own sexual experiences in high school and how they didn’t make her “used up” and “dirty” for life, that she still had human dignity and worth and deserved to be loved.

    This was the “Theology of the Body for Teens” series. I think they had a public school version as well, but I’ve never watched that one.

    It really, really upsets me to discover that the majority of of “Abstinence only” education is so different from the experience I had. It seems this type of “education” totally corrupts the goodness of sex! Something needs to be done!

  • Fem fatale

    I agree 100%!!! Go Elizabeth! You are a savior!
    This “education” of “women being used up if they had sex before marriage or than they are nothing but reproduces or they are some object/ prize to earn whether they want you or not” ….has cause multiple cultures, (particularly speaking of India and their favoritism of males and disposal of female babies), has erupted in such large amounts of rapes in their country and in many others, and I believe it to stem from the upbringing views of men being greater than women in their religions. Men are out numbering women which means not a lot of women per male which means they rape at will, in groups and its totally evil. They don’t even get what is going on, these guys who are leading the country. Anyway, I know that was really broad but it bothers me that no one can really do anything. It’s sad. I wish we could start somewhere n this seems like a promising beginning. I wish men would stop stealing or trying to, at least, all the wonderful women & their souls….only to traffic them. How could such an idea become allowed amongst all the people around? Isn’t there anyone that cares when this happens that can say something or do something. I can’t wait till we over populate the world with women. Time for a change!!!

  • HealingWarts

    There should be a balance in education. But this is impossible to accomplish because all of us were educated differently and we have different points of view. Definitely abstinence-oriented education is not a good way of education because of this things that could happen, and as humans our nature is not to get married and wait for the perfect life. We have urges and we should attend them in a responsible way.