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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  • Petro

    Excellent and revelatory post. I question whether the Theology of the Body industry is the answer to this, as you suggest. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on why you feel it is the answer.

    There are other Catholic perspectives on sexuality that are not being sold by Christopher West’s interpretations of Pope John Paul II’s deeply theological and often abstract lectures. There are even other interpretations of those lectures. I would be hesitant in suggesting that it is the solution here.

    • James

      Christopher West’s interpretations are those of Christopher West’s, not JPII or the Catholic Church. I have a LOT of problems with West’s presentations and find they are as likely to confuse as to enlighten.

      I agree that Theology of the Body is too abstract for people to get practical advice from. Besides, the work was never meant to be a treatise on sexual ethics.

      Sexual ethics was, however, the focus of JPII’s earlier work, Love and Responsibility. In my opinion, TOB doesn’t make much sense without the background of L&R. Dr. Edward Sri has some great material based on L&R.

      I am curious what other perspectives you are referring to. The old Natural Law ideas aren’t very convincing to modern audiences. All the other perspectives I have heard become a series of “thou shalt nots”, leading to Catholic versions of this “Purity culture”.

      • Petro

        Usually these perspectives come in the contexts of larger works, rather than ones dedicated solely to sexuality. A recent one I read that I found to be profound was in Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. In a chapter on the topic, he addresses sexuality in its totality in order to incorporate it into spirituality.

        In essence, sexuality lies at the core of all life-giving and creative action. While a part of this activity is intercourse and procreation, one does not need to have intercourse nor to procreate to act upon one’s sexuality—and I don’t mean masturbation.

        From Rolheiser:

        “Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.”

        There is a certain piece of this in West’s work in which he discusses our needs to be loved. His angle on this, however, is that sexual relationships are some form of substitute for the divine love rather than the human form of participation in the divine love.

        Rolhesier goes on to extol how these energies allow us to be co-creators with God: “mothers and fathers, artisans and creators, big brothers and big sisters, nurses and healers, teachers and consolers, farmers and producers, administrators and community builders.”

        In essence, we are empowered by our sexualities and not hampered by them. The problem is that—as Spiderman would note—with great power comes great responsibility. The sheer power of our sexualities often overcomes what we are able to handle alone.

        Nouwen often wrote about the need for us to maintain a tension in our lives. He notes how our avoidance of these tensions often compounds itself into an avoidance of God. Without a proper outlet for our sexual energies, or a willingness to abide in tension, we are driven into emptiness, typically resulting in the cheapest and easiest release of these energies through having casual sex or masturbation.

        Nevertheless, the only outlet for this sexual energy is not homosexual marriage. This energy is not primarily a production of the body, as Theology of the Body might suggest. Celibates are not just happy because they have made a choice to be vowed to the Church or Christ alone. They are joyful because they channel their life-giving and creative energies—their sexual energies—in ways that move beyond the most concrete form of sexual expression.

        Equally, those who are celibate but are not employing their sexual energies in constructive ways can find themselves lost and resort to the emptiness as discussed before.

        Those are a few ideas blended together from two well-known Catholic priests and theologians. There is a lot more out there. These perspectives approach sexuality in the context of something greater than intercourse and procreation. I think Catholicism, better than any other spirituality, has demonstrated the Truth of this. Christ’s choice of celibacy does not reject sexuality, but opens it up to be far more than the exchange of bodily fluids.

      • Anna

        Oh, when is everyone going to get off the Christopher West hate band wagon? He may have been a little rough in his early days, but he has honed all of his presentations over the years, with the guidance of some of the top scholars of JP II/Thomas Aquinas (Michael Waldstein, in particular), and the fruits of his work in the lives of dozens of people I know personally, not to mention the thousands I don’t, are nothing less than wonderful.

        • Petro

          It’s not hate. It’s acknowledgement that his perspective is one particular perspective with strengths and weaknesses.

          Its biggest strength is that it gives many Catholics a context in which to discuss sexuality. That’s a really good thing.

        • James

          I’ve read West’s “Good News about Sex and Marriage” and heard a few of his lectures.

          My problem with West isn’t that he’s unfaithful (I agree with Sr. Helena Burns that he gets about 90% of it right.) it’s that he’s hard to understand. He likes to use hyperbole in his lectures to make his points. The problem is that for a very literal-minded person like myself, his rhetorical style detracts from and distorts the message.

          West’s lectures gave me the feeling that I was being subjected to “hard-sell” tactics and was being presented a view of sexuality that simply doesn’t match reality. Having been subjected to the “sloppy seconds sex ed”, I felt like I was getting the Catholic version of the same. It had the feel of “if you follow the rules, your life will turn out rainbows and sunshine, and if you don’t, you’re cheating on your spouse and killing grandma.”

          West’s lectures weren’t wonderful at all, but made me very cynical of the Catholic view of sexuality.

  • Jane Hartman

    Poor Elizabeth Smart. I feel so sorry for her but I truly believe that her feelings/belief in her dirtiness was because of being continually raped. I believe anyone is this situation would feel the same. Blaming abstinence education is grasping at straws and looking for something or someone to blame. The evil is in the rapist, not the education.

    • Belle Vierge

      Elizabeth is not the first rape survivor to express these feelings. She’s just the most prominent.

      This woman felt worthless after her rape, because her upbringing emphasized the value of her virginity over anything else.

    • Melinda

      I’m sure you mean well by your comments, but you obviously speak from a place of ignorance on the matter. I am someone who was affected in the same manner as Smart when it came to sex ed. For me it was a licked icecream cone. That teaching put me in a vulnerable position to feel unloveable after being “licked” and I wound up marrying an abusive man I didn’t love because I didn’t think anyone else would want me. Although abstinence is a good thing, what is really at issue here is the manner of teaching it. It is wrong to associate a girl’s worth with the state of her vagina. If the manner of teaching this subject had been different for me, perhaps 3 beautiful girls might have been saved from living through a bad marriage and a divorce.

  • Becky Emerson

    Who decided that sexual education of any sort ought to be taught in the public forum? Sex is intimate. Why is it being talked about so openly like it’s how to drive a car? Ideal sexual education ought to take place between a father or mother and their same gendered child, using a whole person approach that focuses on virtue.

    • Jane Hartman


    • Broken Whole

      Ideal sexual education might best take place between a child and a parent, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I think the whole idea of “Sex Ed” stems from a recognition that (1) sometimes parents don’t do the job they need to in terms of talking honestly to their children about sex and sexuality and (2) it’s important for children entering adolescence to have basic, factual information about sexuality and reproduction so that they can understand the changes happening in their bodies and their desires.

      • pleschke

        Agreed! Many parents completely neglect this part of parenting their children. I was grateful for the public school — my parents didn’t tell me one single thing, and let the school do it. And they sent me to one parish retreat in 6th grade, which was a mixed bag . . . one honest, wonderful couple, but some other grown-ups who were very shaming (and didn’t even get the teaching right!). My kids’ public school teaches “just the facts” in the context of studying the human body. They’ve covered the nervous system, the digestive system, etc. and now the boys and girls will be separated to learn about the reproductive system. My husband and I have taken great care to teach them well throughout their childhoods, and I hope they will see us as a safe place to ask questions, confess mistakes, and celebrate this gift God gives us.

    • Dr. Juris

      Many people don’t know the physiological processes involved with sexual education, and I think it’s an important topic that should be addressed, just like driving a car.

      • Belle Vierge

        Exactly. My abstinence-plus education explained body changes during puberty, the reproductive organs, the body’s response to arousal, what happens during sex, etc. Our teacher also very specifically addressed sexual myths, like you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex. I feel as though the average parent won’t 1) know all the scientific aspects and 2) be aware of all the myths out there that teens hear.

    • Kimberly Collins

      …because we don’t live in an ideal world. My mother got pregnant in her senior year of high school & still didn’t know the basics about her own body even after having 2 children & having been married for over 20 years, because sex wasn’t taught in a public setting, it was left up to the parents, who didn’t want to do it either. So who did my mom learn about her body from? Me, when I was a teen. o_O

  • tedseeber

    I am.

    Being used isn’t shameful and it isn’t a crime. Being a USER is shameful and is statutory rape.

  • Pingback: Abstinence Only Recovery | An article discussing sex ed with some very good points. Don’t read the comments.

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  • PrecipMom

    Absolutely amazing post. Thank you so much for writing it.

  • Jennifer Ayars Bush

    But, the reason we talk about abstinence with teens/young adults/unmarried people is because they should be abstaining from sexual activity! In the context with which this is taught, it is appropriate. And yes, both girls and boys who have premarital sex are dirty. They have been soiled and will not be pure for their future spouse, if they are called to marriage. What is wrong with saying this? Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)? It is shameful and dirty and their experience will be baggage that they bring into a future marriage.

    • Sam Rocha

      Why not just tell them to get married and have sex and babies and the rest? Why only tell them to not do what they are able to do, if they are willing to do it through the sacrament of marriage? THAT is why your comment makes no sense at all and also misses the deeper point about grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

    • Gina

      What’s wrong with saying this? Well, it contradicts everything Christ taught. i.e. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelations). That doesn’t mean those who engage in premarital sex will not feel the consequences down the road, but it does mean they can receive complete absolution, forgiveness and renewal in Christ and His purity, which is the only real purity that exists.

  • Brian Casaday

    “What almost no one did was hear what [Smart said] said.”

    This is unfortunately true, including the author of this article. Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour’s speech was not about abstinence-only education, and it’s unfortunate that her speech and experience has been hijacked for pushing social or political agendas.

    I highly recommend that everybody read or watch her entire speech. It’s not very long and is considerably more authentic than the articles written about it.