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.


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  • Anony-mouse

    Sex in the Church needs to be handled better. The teaching about it has become divisive, implicitly (or explicitly, in some cases) inoculating young Christians to believe that shameful, dirty, or taboo while everyone else tells them that it isn’t a big deal and thus idolizes the pursuit of pleasure. The question is, how did we get here?

    In an effort to become a counter culture to reverse the effects of licentiousness the Church became legalists, comprising a list of dos and don’ts of sex without addressing the underlying issue; the effect? Young Christians who are told their whole lives to “wait for marriage” and are disappointed and frustrated on their wedding night (if not completely terrified), and others who broke the Church’s cardinal rule (either voluntarily or involuntarily) and are now sentenced to a life of guilt, shame, and chastisement from their well-meaning, “purer” Christian friends.

    I want to say something provocative here: SEX IS NOT THE ISSUE. Sex is not the issue in sex education? That’s right. This issue is bigger, deeper, and far more insidious. The root of the Church’s problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Father, His love, and our identity in Him.

    Why do people have sex outside of marriage? The same underlying reasons why a mother misplaces her hope and love in her children, why a man climbs the corporate ladder at the expense of other things, or why a child pursues friendships that could be detrimental to his or her development as a person. If God is some cosmic-genie/belligerent father whose only job is to love you unconditionally, grant your requests, and/or bring the hammer down when you screw up, then my brother or sister, you’ve misunderstood who He is. And if you don’t know your Creator, you don’t know you either–not your purpose or the object of desire that your heart truly longs for.

    It seems rudimentary, but necessary to tell the story of the Gospel over and over again to Christians because once we have it, we tend to forget immediately that we are in need of His presence, love, and grace just as much as our unsaved counterparts. Sometimes more, because in our pursuit of righteousness, we idolize our own ability to “be good/holy/CHASTE,” thinking that it’s for our own benefit and that we can do it ourselves. Challenge: use your willpower not to sin for a day and get back to me on how disciplined you are in pursuing righteousness. It isn’t possible because we’re bent on our own destruction in an effort to prove that we don’t need God. None of us are exempt, we just manifest our pride, idolatry, and rebellion in different ways. For some it’s pride that comes from checking off a list of dos and don’ts; for some, it’s familial relationships that validate us as loved and accepted; and for some, it’s sex. But pursue any one of these intrinsically good things (because there isn’t anything wrong with keeping the Biblical law, family, or sex–all come from God and were declared “good” in the beginning) as your ultimate end and the result will end the same.

    Bottom line? Saving the “one-flesh” bond for marriage is a good thing, not because it gets you more Jesus points, or because you’ll have a better marriage, or your conscience will be clear, or because “Pastor told me to.” That’s shallow and self-serving (end result=good, motivation=wrong). Saving the one-flesh bond for marriage is good because it is a theological allegory of how we’re loved by Christ. Satisfying our desire for His love by any means, not limited to sex, is heartbreaking to the One who gave it all to be with us and remains faithful (fidelity!) to the end.

    What if the Church treated people as more than just their uncontrollable sex drives? What if (gasp) the Church treated the Beloved of Christ as embodied, fallen image-bearers and treated the issue of sex as something bigger than friction? Isn’t a holistic, whole-person treatment how Jesus ministered? It must be so with us! We must stop fragmenting ourselves and each other and embrace our sexuality as the gift it is, and use it in a holy way to honor God. This means that SINGLES are no longer isolated (because, as a single, sex is only for married people and therefore my sexuality is what–worthless??). Singles can glorify God with their sexuality by choosing to ABSTAIN from sexual activity, but acknowledging their God-given sexuality as good, and more fully and un-distractedly pursue a relationship with their Bridegroom.

    And married couples? You can enjoy the one-flesh relationship, knowing that the joy of sex is but a mere glimmer of the joy that the Creator of sex has in store when He redeems all things. You can mirror Christ’s selfless, sacrificial love for the Bride by serving one another in your marriage, which in God’s economy happens to include the bedroom! Yay for you, being able to glorify God with your bodies and being an allegory to the world! What a much more beautiful, complete picture of holistic sex than the alternative: “Sex is dirty, unless you’re married. Then do it as much as possible.” What an inhumane way to treat ourselves and each other.

  • Alex Johnson

    This is a more accurate representation of Elizabeth Smarts words. The media has twisted it … again.

    • CS

      Thank you for posting that link.

  • Jami

    Thank you. Just thank you!

  • Meg

    ‘We shouldn’t be teaching our kids to white-knuckle it through puberty and then glut themselves as soon as they say “I do.”’

    I think this article hit the nail on the head in a lot of ways, however, just like many articles on the internet it picks apart the problem without offering a solid solution. Both come from the same heart of wanting to protect children from pain, and I think if you’re real with yourself, you acknowledge the truth in both messages. It IS true that when you get married the “baggage” in your past will come up because if you’re anything like me, I absolutely would have loved to save myself for my husband, because I now have committed my life, heart and body to him and I want him to have all of me. However, there is grace and I don’t hold guilt for those things because I was also taught how to have grace for myself and others through the sacraficial love of Christ.

    The problem is both messages hold no weight without teaching grace and self control. And I see where you are making that point to some extent, but I also think that not every abstinent message is so harsh. So, I would have loved to hear more of your opinion on what you think the actual solution is. However, I think that this was probably one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject, so THANK you :)

  • Madeline

    Something else that needs to be considered when it comes to abstinence-only sex ed are the girls who aren’t affected by it. The girls from Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant are generally girls from religious families who live either south or west. That’s not to say that there aren’t teenage pregnancies in the north; there definitely are. The difference is that the girls on the shows are only taught abstinence, and therefore don’t know all of their options for contraception or how to use them. They get pregnant because they’ve never been taught how to prevent it.

  • Kristen

    My issue with this whole article is that it is throwing Christians into a lump group – typical of a lot of anti-Christian or anti-conservative groups. This comment alone is directed towards mormons, a belief that doesn’t align with Christianity, ” ‘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’”

    I have been raised a Christian all my life, and while we are taught abstinence as a vow of purity until marriage, we by no means reject or deem someone worthless for having engaged in pre-marital sex. Anyone who fully understands Christianity understands it embodies Jesus Christ, who is our example and from whom we define our values, behaviors and beliefs. Christ never rejected anyone, dehumanized them, or degraded them for what was considered an “unpure” life. He extended love, grace and acceptance. While Christianity does support abstinence until marriage, we understand that the world as a whole does not. This does not mean that we don’t extend grace and love towards those who don’t believe in Christianity. We do this for everyone.

    I can’t imagine not showing compassion towards those especially who have been abused, raped and sexually mistreated. Christ himself would show compassion beyond all measures and not condemnation. Let this article show as an example that maybe many people are misguided on Christian beliefs. Also, that maybe some Christians don’t even understand Christianity themselves, and that’s a pity because they are doing an injustice to the message we are trying to show the people of the world.

  • Solveig Giffin

    There can be extreme views from either
    end of the spectrum, neither of them good or healthy. I believe the
    Church has a very important role to play in matters of sexuality,
    which its sore neglect of has contributed to abuse and unhealthy
    ideas and images both within and without. God intended sex to be a
    beautiful, blissful, sacred expression of love within a committed and
    equal relationship built on honour, trust, cherishing, respect, and
    giving up of self. If we are teaching about these things separate
    from each other or in any degraded manner, is it no wonder that there
    are issues of shame, guilt, objectifaction, abuse, adultery,
    infidelity and promiscuity? Too “conservative” or too “liberal”
    a view leads to unhealthy concepts of sexuality, which can lead to
    very real and devastating emotional, psychological spiritual,
    physical and relational implications. I think churches need to be
    teaching more about the beauty and the goodness of sex (not just
    saying no, no, no to the forbidden fruit), and schools need to be
    teaching more about the value of waiting and having one partner (not
    just saying they’re going to do it anyway).

  • PassinThru

    The whole point of this article is that endorsing ABSTINENCE is not SEX EDUCATION. Abstaining from sex can, indeed, protect you against STI’s and prevent pregnancy; those two issues, however, are TINY compared to the remaining infinite complexity of sexuality. WE NEED SEXUALITY EDUCATION. Children, adolescents (and many adults, as well) need to understand what sexuality is — a broad topic that is different from person to person, community to community, and culture to culture. Anatomy, arousal, compassion, respect, procreation, recreation! SO many concepts to explore! It’s not a class to teach, but rather a conversation to which we must open ourselves to having. To talk about sex education and abstinence as if they are the same things to ANYBODY is to demean BOTH topics by polarizing people on both sides of the issue.

  • Laura Joy Nolan

    Thank you. Thank you so so much. I was one of the “good” girls that was royally screwed up by such idiocy. Except I wasn’t. My mother’s husband, my biological father, had a thing for very little girls. By the time I was 8ish I had largely repressed everything that happened, but my reactions to adult men were always screwy, and no one could figure out why. And then when I met the man I eventually married, and we starting “fooling around”, the cycle of hormone rush to guilt to rush to guilt and back again was maddening. Predictably it became a game of “how close can we get/what else can we do and still be ‘good’”. A game that got much harder to stop when we officially became engaged. My husband is Catholic, I am… generally Protestant, charismatic leanings but without the more egregious right-wing insanity. I was raised in mostly Methodist/non-denom Protestant churches, so very middle-of-the-road. You can imagine what the guilt cycle was doing to both of us. Toss in me being bipolar (translation: I have the sex drive of a 17 year old male and always will), plus a young, healthy soon-to-be-husband, and you have a recipe for “disaster”.

    This has the potential to get absurdly long so I’ll just say this… I have not yet figured out how I want to approach sex ed w/ my kids (I plan to home-school), but I know for damn sure that I won’t be taking the abstinence-only, white-knuckle-til-marriage-then-feast-away approach. I will NOT be teaching my daughters that their worth is defined by the unused state of their lady-parts, any more than I will be teaching them that Abercrombie&Fitch is an appropriate standard of health and beauty. I will not be teaching my sons that girls are prizes and only valuable if nobody else has yet nibbled. I WILL be teaching my children of both genders that their bodies are temples, to be treated with reverence and valued highly, but never ever at the expense of their feelings of self worth.

    I’m a sci-fi nerd, so, Firefly reference. There’s an episode where a young man’s father hires a Companion to take care of his “virginity problem”. The young man is embarrassed, and the Companion Inara tells him “It’s not

    embarrassing to be virgin. It’s simply one state of being.” That’s the attitude I really want… that physical virginity is not the important part. The important bit is coming to your spouse with a whole heart, without lingering romantic attachments to others. It’s a gilded, romantic notion that two virgins learning about sex on the wedding night is some pure, beautiful thing… and it’s bull. If I had it to do over, I would very much rather my mother had explained actual sex, the risks, rewards, and how easy it is to lose a piece of your heart, made sure I had access to birth control in case it was needed, and stopped there, without programming me to feel indescribable shame so deep I couldn’t even tell her when the memories of childhood rape refused to stay buried any longer. She died without knowing that her husband used her four year old daughter for a sex doll, because I was ashamed. I will NEVER do that to my children.

  • Susan S

    Sex isn’t dirty. I am tired of ANYONE referring to it as such. It is so screwed up! (Pun intended)