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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  • Fiddlesticks

    Chastity, as I understand it, is about 3 things:

    1) Respect for life
    2) Bodily health and privacy
    3) Avoiding misunderstandings

    I’m not sure how helpful glass-of-water or chewing-gum imagery is.

  • Mitzi Barnes

    Calah, thank you. I never fully realized until I read your words here that my parents were teaching me theolody of the body from day 1 through … well, even until today, though I live on the opposite coast, am 35 years old, married 10 years this June and have three children of my own. Their witness of contantly hugging, kissing, cuddling, expressing their love verbally as well as their candor during the “sex talk” they BOTH gave me, together, expressing both masculine and feminine at the same time and the continual follow-up of new information in a Godly light … now I understand more why I have always viewed sex as a beautiful, holy gift from our Lord and looked forward to it, have enjoyed it (for the most part, it’s not fun all the time!) and been comfortable in my own skin with my husband enough to laugh when there are funny moments during lovemaking. And I understand why other Christians see it completely differently, and sometimes don’t enjoy it AT ALL.
    How does one help friends see sex as God gave it to us? How does one get past this “Abstinence Only” viewpoint and learn “Abstinence Plus” viewpoint as an adult?

  • Nathan Gibson

    I think that the term “abstinence-only” can be taken two ways:

    1) Saying that we should only practice abstinence and not use contraceptives, etc

    2) Saying that we only teach abstinence, not the virtues that go along with it

    The article was very confusing since, depending on which of these two the author was intending, the article could have a very different meaning. Since the author suggests Theology of the Body, I believe that she means the latter rather than the former.

    If the former was intended, this article suggests things that are irreconcilable with the faith, as it would be essentially suggesting that abstinence is not the only way to go. If the latter was intended, this article conveys a beautiful message of the importance of understanding and teaching human nature and sexuality as beautiful and God-inspired along with teaching abstinence/chastity as the appropriate way of living.

    (perhaps the author should clarify?)

    • Petro

      I think the issue that you are struggling with is the difference between abstinence and chastity. They are not the same.

      You might want to read Sam Rocha’s reflection on this piece for help here.

      His thought, which I agree with, is that teaching a concept such as abstinence when it comes to sexuality is illogical and fruitless. For me, the focus should be on what sexuality is and how it is used properly, not how it should be avoided. This is because sexuality cannot be avoided. In that context, either use of the term abstinence is irreconcilable with the Church.

      You might note that the word abstinence only appears once in the Catechism, and that is is the context of following prescribed days of fasting and abstinence as part of the precepts of the Church. The word chastity appears many times in the Catechism. All baptized are called to chastity, whether married or celibate, young or old.

    • Calah Alexander

      I’m specifically talking about the type of abstinence-only sex ed that goes on in high schools and middle schools. The type that says “the only thing that will keep you from getting pregnant/catching an STD is waiting until you’re married to have sex.” I’m only talking about abstinence as it is taught to young, unmarried kids here; this has nothing to do with married sex or discussions of NFP.

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  • Allison Grace

    Since becoming Catholic, I have found many instances of “both/and issues” (for example, both faith and works; both religion and relationship; both babies and bonding; and here in this issue, both abstinence and partaking ~ which is better called chastity, as Calah mentioned below in a comment.

    We were both virgins on our wedding night. I had been petrified to disobey the heavy-handed independent Baptist theology and my husband had been petrified to make a baby. Not exactly the beautiful understanding of chastity and theology of the body, but it worked!

    I wonder if those who criticize the phrase “abstinence only” do so because they didn’t wait?

    Premarital sex certainly has forever consequences, but it’s not unforgivable and God’s mercy changes everything (think Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who understood mercy better than Peter).

  • Chelsea Dumontier

    What we need to do is teach kids the purpose of sex, which starts with marriage. God created marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman with the purpose of sex to be to procreate. We then need to teach kids all possible outcomes of having premarital sex. Next we need to trust that we have given them all the tools they need to make their own informed choices. And finally, we need to be there to support them with whatever choices they make. To put this into context for you I’ll give you a little background about myself. I am a 20 year old, Catholic woman who still has and cherishes her virginity. I believe that we need to stop placing blame and start being there for each other to provide support and complete honesty. I have no way of ever empathizing with Elizabeth and I’m not about to say that I can understand her frustration and anger towards some false information, but I will say that there never is an easy answer to these types of situations, but there are always other options and if we taught the true meaning of sex, we wouldn’t have girls and boys who have these views or feelings towards sex. Sex would become this beautiful, life giving act shared between two people with immense love.

    • spinetingler

      “God created marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman with the purpose of sex to be to procreate.”

      So my 72 year old father who married a 70 year old woman (i.e., past her “breeding years”) after my Mother died lacks your Gods blessing for his marriage bed?


    I feel that there are many points that can be made in this thread but I will try my best to only share some initial important ones that are necessary to mention and helpful to parents.

    I was a Florida Regional Director and consultant for an Authentic Abstinence Education organization for 10 years, a teacher for 13 years, and currently a parent of a college student. Also, I have attended a few human and sex trafficking conferences which have not made me an expert but has given me a great deal of useful information to do my part to stop the problem and understand why we have a problem.

    Human and Sexual Trafficking is a real problem in the world but also in our own country because it has increased. It is less costly to abduct a young person
    domestically than from another country. It is a growing problem created by sick
    sex addicts and now more by sex and drug addicts because drug rings have
    realized that they can make more money from a using a person as young as ten
    years old, than a drug where you only use once. That is an unfortunate reality
    that we must do everything in our power to change it. Through prayer and becoming educated in knowing the flags in our culture to help stop it. I experienced several human and sexual trafficking conferences personally. They affect you so very deeply that you are never the same.

    Elizabeth Smart’s story is horrible and I cannot imagine her suffering. I immediately began praying for her when I became aware of her story.

    Her mention about abstinence-only education and not on her experience of being a sex slave in a human & sex trafficking conference is interesting to me. Her awful
    experience of being taken from her family, being treated as a sex slave and raped
    repeatedly weighs greatly for a platform where she can tell her story about
    that. I would attentively want to hear any talk she makes that pertain to her personal experience of being captive for so many years.

    I see a problem in her platform when she attempts to place all “Abstinence Education programs under the category “Abstinence-Only”. Her
    one bad Abstinence Education program experience cannot represent all Abstinence Education programs. It would be unjust to do that. It reveals that she does not know the field well. So why did she declare this? There are reasons which are too lengthy to discuss here.

    It would have been so helpful to Elizabeth to either have been presented with the Theology of the Body or another faith based angle program or an Authentic Abstinence Education program to help her understand her value and role as a woman with dignity under God’e eyes. It was unfortunate that she experienced a bad program and I don’t think experiencing one bad program makes you an expert to declare that all of the Abstinence Education Programs should to be discarded.

    It is very important to point out that the word “Only” in the term “Abstinence-Only”, was created
    by proponents of Sex Education not Abstinence. The word “Abstinence” is not a sinful word. Yes, it does not include God but it is not sinful because it does not reflect on God. You can choose to use the word “Chaste” and that would be ideal but the word “Abstinence” was created for very good end goal in mind. Proponents of Abstinence have succeeded. It is important to know the history of the Abstinence field. Created by faith-based people wanting to help young people in the public square where all children function if they connect with other young people. The “Abstinence-Only” term means Abstinence Education without promoting birth control in the eyes of Sex Education or Comprehensive Sex Education proponents. They want to promote birth-control to teens. The word “Only” was added to the “Abstinence”
    term by them to communicate to the culture and the public dialogue that an abstinence program was not complete because it did not encourage birth control, also abortion, and sexual experimentation. They also chose
    the term “Comprehensive Sex Education” for their agenda. We have used the terms Abstinence Education, or Abstinence until Marriage, or Authentic Education for years, never Abstinence-Only, as they have wished it. Authentic Education programs do not promote birth control but educate young people that birth control is not the best and healthy choice. When you hear public figures state that “Abstinence-Only” Education Programs are bad or don’t work, people then conclude all Abstinence Education programs are bad which is what Sex Education or Comprehensive Education proponents want to accomplish, therefore opening up the opportunity to get their Sex Education and Comprehensive Sex Education programs in the schools. These proponents try to persuade teachers to
    only teach programs that teach young people about having the so called “Safe
    Sex”. There is no such thing as safe

    That is the trap laid out by the media to brainwash the culture to believe. It takes years of being in the field to understand the language but most importantly
    connecting with the pioneers of the field to understand its history and vision.

    Sex Education or Comprehensive Sex Education gives a mixed message to youth because they present Abstinence but they also encourage birth control and other detrimental ideas for youth. The teen brain needs a clear message or it will be confused. It is like encouraging a young person to abstain from sexual activity, alcohol and other drugs, and then teaching them how to use birth control, drink, and use drugs if they choose to. It is important not to fall into traps that certain local, state or national level interest groups try to create in society. Changing the language to persuade the public to get on the bandwagon is a trap.

    Most children are in public school. Most home school parents place their children
    in public or private school when they begin middle or high school. Since faith-based programs are not allowed in public school unfortunately, the term “Abstinence” instead of “Chastity” or “Purity” was created to bring to public schools the message of abstaining from sexual activity, alcohol and other drugs from a health medical angle. It is important also to educate young people why they will be healthy spiritually, mentally, physically, and socially. The word “Abstinence” is a secular word but it is not a bad word just because we don’t use the word “Chaste” or “Pure”. It is a word that can be used in the public
    arena as well as the faith based one.

    I attended many national Abstinence Education or Authentic Abstinence Education conferences which were organized by leaders of Abstinence Education or Authentic Abstinence Education organizations, and met with the founders of hundreds of Authentic Abstinence Education programs that do not include activities in the contexts described in the blog. Some of the same exercises have been included in programs but to prove other points, never to make a young person feel de-valued. That does not make sense. Just think of that intention for
    a moment. Why would Authentic Abstinence Education programs want to do that? Their main purpose is to help young people protect their value by choosing to not engage in the negative high-risk behavior. Now, if the presenter is not
    trained well, it can confuse the young person or students in a school with a
    bad program. Bad programs promote sexual activity among teens because they provide information on how to use birth control. The more they are sexually
    active, the higher are the chances they might get pregnant, have an abortion or
    support experimenting with different partners. Their goal is to make them potential clients for abortion which equals money in their pocket.

    Abstinence Education or Authentic Abstinence Education programs include other important skills like being goal minded, having a game plan for life, protecting their minds from the media, understanding they are valued and that it is never too late to start over again, why boundaries matter, the importance of choosing your friends, looking at marriage as a goal, and how to make it work in a culture that goes against all of these messages. Programs are athletic or adventured themed. The programs teach young people how to map a healthy course in their life journey, how to recognize road blocks in their culture that create challenges, how to develop character, how to avoid situations that compromise their integrity, how to avoid high-risk behavior that cause negative consequences, how to prepare
    themselves for a future marriage and family. These programs teach young people ways to avoid situations that make them at-risk of a high risk behavior. Abstinence
    Education and Authentic Abstinence Education educate young people about the
    negative consequences as well because it is important to make them aware of
    them so they avoid them. I presented the AC Green’s GAME PLAN 8-chapter program to my son the summer right before entering 6th grade. It gave
    him the tools to feel confident about choosing to abstain from sexual activity,
    alcohol and other drugs. He was presented with all three opportunities in 6th grade and he not only knew how to handle each situation but became a leader for his peers. Connecting with organizations that create great Authentic Abstinence Education programs open the doors for your children to take part in other opportunities to help them succeed. Our organization brought in speakers throughout the years to reinforce positive best practices for young people and help parents create and maintain high standards for their children.

    I had the opportunity to train over 300 teachers and reached to thousands of students with our program. Training is vital. When we received a 3-yr grant under the Bush administration, we reached 45,000 young people in three years. Authentic Abstinence Education organizations all use the term “Authentic” not “Abstinence Only”. We included pre and post tests based on the
    content of the programs, non-invasive, where parents were aware of the content and the tests were analyzed by Northwestern University with amazing results. The
    key is for parents to become aware of the local main and supplemental texts
    that are approved by their state and county, and the state laws if their
    children are in public or private school.

    If homeschooled, it is important for parents to learn about the federal agenda
    called common core which will affect home school parents if they do not act
    now. The Obama administration removed the Abstinence Education department and replaced it with Sex Education or Comprehensive Sex Education in the beginning of his first presidency which has pushed an agenda that begins in kindergarten. Since then, there have been many programs that have come into the field and the pro- sex education, pro-birth-control for teens, pro-sexual experimentation, and pro-abortion, etc. proponents have targeted defunded Authentic Abstinence Education Programs and kept drilling into the minds of the public that Abstinence Education programs don’t work. Not all counties or states have implemented the bad programs and there are many schools where they experienced effective Authentic Abstinence Education programs before the Obama administration and chose to continue implementing the healthy programs for the students.

    When it comes to teaching young people about human sexuality, it is best for the parents to be first to teach their children about human sexuality. It is valuable to teach young people both from the faith and medical angle. Personally, my favorite faith-based resources are Theology of the Body by Dr. Waldstein, TOB for middle school and high school by Jason Evert and TOB by Christopher West. These are Chastity Education resources for parents and teachers in private schools. In addition to these, the GAME PLAN, NAVIGATOR and QUEST programs Kelli mentioned in this thread are created by Authentic Abstinence Education organizations like Abstinence and Marriage, AC Green, and past organization like Project Reality that teach young people other skills that are valuable for their survival in the culture they live in. Some of these same organizations offer also other faith based chastity programs.

  • Newp Ort

    Abstinence Only just means they don’t discuss any other means of pregnancy or disease prevention; it’s not necessarily the idiotic “ignorance + scared and ashamed is best” approach discussed here, a sex-positive chastity type approach would be Abstinence Only, too.

    So what do the commenters here think about “abstinence + full education” approach? Where they start with abstinence is the only sure way to not get pregnant or a disease, and maybe some emotional aspects and why you might want to wait until marriage (or at least until you aren’t a dumbass highschool student). Then get into different methods to avoid pregnancy and/or disease, here’s how effective they are etc, plus reminder that you are now incurring serious risk, so think about if you really want to do that and what you (and your partner) will do if it fails.

    Basically you do a hard sell on abstinence but knowing some are gonna do it anyway they are at least able take a damage control approach.