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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  • CS

    Yes. yes, yes.

    I think there are two kinds of abstinence education: religious-community-based, and the school programs that have been put in place where the community is able to pull of that sort of thing.

    I don’t like either of them, to be honest. Why do we spend so much time telling them “DON’T HAVE SEX”???!!! I can tell you, what they really need to know is What TO do.

    I am a huge fan of teaching alllll the biology of sex, even to children, just at age-appropriate levels of info and terminology.

    Frankly, I don’t want anyone else teaching sexual morals to my kids, not even abstinence. It’s nobody else’s business to speak explicitly about what they should do with their sex lives. Teach biology. Teach relationship skills at a basic human level: Communication. Trust. The right to say no to physical contact, to anybody at any time for any reason even if you don’t have a reason. The obligation to take no for an answer, and to speak up if you see that anyone else is NOT doing so.

    We have an obligation to teach children how to live with joy and integrity. As religious communities we should emphasize *that* as the moral teaching: Wholeness. Learning how to corral all your human parts to work in harmony, toward serving God and His people….and all the struggle that goes into that lifelong learning process. It follows out of this that you tell them that you save sex for marriage, that it is the most integrated and whole way to live. And yes mention some of the possible dangers– other than physical. (I have told my older boys, for example, to be aware that if a woman becomes pregnant by them, she has the legal right to kill their offspring at any time, without their consent or knowledge.)

    But don’t you dare tell my kids that sex ed is teaching all about danger! and a totally sexist code of sexual behavior! And they better NOT!!

    Not your job, buddy. Not your job, bio teacher, or health instructor, or nutty chastity speaker (how about the dirty duct tape one? hm?!!)

    ….I obviously have a lot of opinions on this one.

    • CS

      Also, it is important to speak of the theological virtues, instead of using weird words like “purity.” I think that one is so loaded with baggage that it should just be tossed out at this point. Unless somebody can think of a way to fix it squarely back on the heart instead of (mostly women’s) bodies.

      • Calah Alexander

        I love everything you said. I even wanted to stand up and say “Amen!” for about .5 seconds.

  • Christina Austin

    I wrote this about my experience growing up in the purity culture.

    “This is also where the virginity/purity culture dovetails into rape culture.When you divvy women into “respectable” vs “sexual” categories, you have a huge congregation of women who you’ve labeled ’not respectable’ and ‘for sex.’

    And when *any* sexual behavior can get you put in the “not respectable” and “for sex” category then you propagate the idea that consent to any certain thing is consent to anything. [because you put yourself in the sex category.] And you teach boys that girls who are acting sexy are not worth respect and are “asking for it.”

    And then you really just should not be that surprised when girls get raped by boys they know.”

    • Christina Austin

      And this, about having been raped after having grown up in the purity culture:

      • CS

        Thank you for posting both of these. As a content warning for those who are regular readers of this site, there is explicit sexual talk and language. (The rapey stuff you have done a good job of warning about before-hand, Christina.)

        Definitely not a traditional religious perspective, but I have to say that feminist discourse is doing a great job of leading the charge for a re-examination of consent. I believe that we should teach *all* of our children about enthusiastic consent.

        Even those of us, teachers and parents, who don’t want to talk in any way that would seem to encourage or give affirmation to sex outside of marriage, can talk about it with our growing children: “We should expect to ask for and be given permission for any kind of familiar touching. Everybody has the right to say no to any touching, at any time, for any reason, and everyone has the obligation to listen and respect that. Immediately. Silence is not consent to be touched. Ask and receive an answer, and make sure it is happy and affirmative!” etc…

  • CS

    Tracy, where do you get the idea that the “two approaches mentioned here” (is that even so??) are :
    1)Saying sex is dirty.
    2)Saying teenagers having sex is ok

    Is it possible that you only see two options because of the social/religious ideas about sex and respectability that people are burdened with when not taught a wholistic gospel of sexuality?

    • Tracy

      Hi CS – I was commenting on the fact there doesnt seem ( with the responses posted) a middle ground. The girl in the article was taught she was tainted because of rape, which was THE most unloving thing to do, and untruthful as well. But then she went on to say that teaching the ‘no sex before marriage’ thing was wrong, because of how she was taught and felt after the rape. Neither options make sense and are wrong in themselves. Why is it when people believe sex before marriage is not a good idea, that they then get labelled ‘repressed’, religious crazies, and living in the dark ages. The kids I have seen in general, who have waited, are some of the most stable kids I know, as they dont take all their baggage from past relationships into their marriage. Having said that, its not a gaurantee its going to work. It’s always up to the two individuals to work at it. As for your holistic gospel of sexuality – care to explain what you mean there?

      • CS

        I don’t remember Ms. Smart saying all “no sex before marriage” messages are bad, but if she did, it is likely because she — like so many other people commenting here, both religious and not — cannot conceive of any other way that the message of personal/spiritual/physical wholeness can be communicated. And that is truly heartbreaking, because it is an indictment of the truly horrible job certain religious communities have done in responding to changing sexual morals in larger culture. Seriously piss poor job, and some (to paint with a very wide brush) religious communities have been worse than others.

        One fact that remains no matter who you are or what religious beliefs you have about sex: historical sexism is *still* very much influencing the discussion. Personally, I feel that only modern Catholicism offers a narrative that stays true to its beliefs and rejects sexism in an authentic way.

        • Tracy

          CS – I have long learnt that what I believe has to be lived out and not spoken about so much, as it ends up like now, with people who disagree. I value others opinions and ideas, and I do not so much try and impress my opinion onto others, as just saying what I see about the given situation. I just felt that there didnt seem to be a middle ground in the discussions. What is right for some, is not necessarily right for others. Having myself come from a teenager background of ‘do what you like’ that included drugs and sex, i can honestly say I value the fact my children didn’t have to experience what I did. But i dont believe all people who have sex before marriage will experience what i did either. Most of us project from our own personal experiences, in what we say is right or wrong. That’s why i love the fact God has made it clear to us what will hurt us and what will protect us. And from my own experience, He’s always right. Doesn’t mean he can’t turn our mistakes around into good things. He is an expert at that as well. :)

  • Calah Alexander

    Interesting comment. Actually, I said nothing about religion or religious upbringing. I limited my post to discussing one particular type of abstinence-only education. It may interest you to know that my husband and I are conservative Catholics who are raising our children to be very religious, and that I was raised in an Evangelical household by loving, wonderful parents. You might also be surprised to know that I agree wholeheartedly that the right circumstances are for a man and woman to be married before they have sex. I even believe that premarital sex is a mortal sin. It may benefit you in the future to read the actual words that are written, instead of the ones you think are going to be there.

  • Calah Alexander

    You’re right, I wasn’t promoting anything. The truth is that I don’t have a good answer. I am going to post tomorrow about what I think the least-terrible option is, but I don’t have a “this will solve all our problems!” solution. I should have made it clear that I am NOT promoting sex before marriage. I just find that this type of abstinence-only education is more poisonous than the all-the-sex-type-sex-ed. I am glad to have learned that there are other types out there (as some of my commenters have insisted) but I personally have never seen it, nor have I met/talked with anyone who has. Anyway, sorry for confusing you.

  • Amanda H

    I grew up with an abstinence sex ed perspective from my Christian parents and church. And while I’ve slept with two men, one before my husband and then had a child with my husband before marriage shortly after we began dating….I NEVER felt the shame or disgrace discussed here. My heart goes out to Elizabeth and the unhealthy perspective that was taught to her and that brought her so much pain….but as you have wrongly implied, this is not the only way abstinence sex ed is taught. I was taught that sex is a wonderful gift that has been given to us to enjoy within marriage. It taught me to be confident and realize that it is a special act of love to be shared intimately. My sister grew up in the same enviroment – she was a victim of rape. My heart broke for her as she healed…I saw her struggle with self-love and worth, but she was always loved, always upheld by family and friends and now has regained her confidence and sexual drive and is married to a wonderful man. Elizabeth’s story is sad. You however have chosen to attack people of faith that believe sex was made for the confines of marriage. Tell me…have you conducted research into the various forms of abstinance sex ed? Please attach your notes, relavent contacts you’ve spoken to about this and their teachings….oh that’s right…you have a bias and don’t care about offering a healthier abstinance sex-ed teachings. Ill teach my kids and you can teach yours….but I am confident my daughter will anxiously await her wedding night with exciement…if she can wait :) I know its hard, and I didn’t!

    • Fiddlesticks

      This was more like the kind of abstinence education I was taught – that intimacy requires trust and it’s better to wait for someone who really loves you. If anything, I’d say my abstinence education was too emotional and there wasn’t enough about more tangible dangers like contraception failure and STDs. I was certainly never compared to a chewed-up piece of gum, a spat out glass of water, or a used toothbrush. Eeeewhh! What a nasty, degrading attitude to women. Men are just as likely to carry STDs from previous relationships, so why is this being aimed at women?

      I agree with Amanda, though. We mustn’t forget that there are other, healthier presentations of the case for chastity out there. The media will always find the nastiest version to discredit the idea that it’s possible for kids to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex without getting too intimate.

  • Dan Frye

    Whoever taught you sex ed was a toothless hobo.

  • Valerie

    Just a reminder that Catholics ARE Christians. Hopefully you meant “Catholics and OTHER Christians.” I see your point. It is a twisted theology of the body and of sex that is being taught.

  • katelnruns

    While I don’t agree with you 100% (for example I think that Planned Parenthood has done a lot of good for positive sex education and medical health care for under-privileged women, not “over sexualization”). I do think you make an overall great point, and definitely open the door for some positive and necessary discussions, rather then the fighting, back biting and “No YOU’RE wrong” level of discourse that has marked recent political, moral, and social debates in this country.

  • Barry Daniel Petersen II

    Oh no, Abstinence-only education is not only “entrenching misogynistic, licentious attitudes toward sex in a whole new generation of kids”. The reality is far more sinister.

    Abstinence-only education advocates are so idiotic and sure of themselves that they don’t believe their hare-brained mantras will ever fail. This leaves advocates preaching their bullhonky with willful ignorance of the actual consequences of unprotected sex- after all, if people are afraid out of ‘purity’ reasons, why even discuss the possibility of STDs, or even the basics of the concepts of how every copulation can result in the beginning of a child- even the first time, or if you plan according to a period cycle, or if you pull out.

    I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but the type of self-serving, high-horse-sitting Christian that believes that the only way that they can raise their child right is by ‘shielding’ them from any in-source of information about anything adult or real in the world… Not only does it create misogynistic fools, but it creates people who grow up without basic understandings for how the human body works, people who grow up in impossible conditions for success who are ostracized socially for being human, possibly with child-in-tow because of aforementioned ill-education, and the attached cultural pro-life doctrine. And, it create human beings who, worst of all, are additional ‘abstinence-only’ blatherers.

    • nettwench14

      Bravo, sir! Bravo! I would add that unwanted teenage pregnancies produce women who end up in poverty or financially disadvantaged the rest of their lives, and who may marry the first guy who comes along, only to end up in an abusive relationship! Who would want that for their child?