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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Streams of milk or tears to offer
  • Nancy

    What a great article with a reasoned, articulate perspective, which I believe is the correct one. We all need to speak up — as often and as loudly as necessary, until the predominant mindset regarding abstinence-only sex education is changed.

  • Chaya Kostelicki

    Elisabeth Smart has people to blame, much of it appropriate. She should be disapproving of her dad’s being cheap. If he hadn’t, the man wouldn’t have kidnapped her. She should blame the mental health system because that man who abducted her should have been in a mental health facility. She should blame her parents, both of them, for being so conservative as to beleive that men should be sexually active prior to marriage, but not women: She should bash abstinance only education, Some of us are sexaully abused, that isnt’ the fault of the victim, some high school students are married, if they have sex, it becomes none of my business.She should blame the morons who encourage or force mentally unstable people to live without treatment and usually homeless.

  • rogerrramjet

    Uh no it wasn’t

  • rogerrramjet

    Over sexualization of our kids by PP? What are you? ON drugs. You had a decent article until that nonsense.

    • CS

      Calling for the sexual rights of children to be put on a human rights list is sexualizing kids. So is exposing them to sexual morality lectures without parental knowledge or consent. So is allowing underage children with older abusers (“partners”) who come to their clinics looking for help to leave with nothing more than birth control/STI scrips/abortions.

      • rogerrramjet

        The parental bit is highly tricky. I’ve run into parents who teach them Halloween is a way to indoctrinate kids into worshipping Satan and seeing their kids with eyes wide open seeing these thousands of other kids having fun and dressing up.

        They are the same parents who teach that sex will kill you if you have it outside of marriage. That anything that is not sex with your wife or husband is self abuse and immoral and will send you straight to hell and these are the kids who grow up…screwed up.

        I’ve seen the sex ed classes in abstinence only schools, predominately the South, that teach nothing but lies.

        So maybe HONEST sex education is something they should all have whether parents like it or not.

        Would you be okay with kids being taught, with parental consent, that the Buybull should be the only schooling children get?

        Would you be okay with kids being taught blacks hated being emancipated and missed their owners who kept them safe, warm, well fed and was the most wonderful boss anyone could imagine?

        Would you be okay with kids being taught science is anti God and is evil?

        Would you be okay with kids being taught that any other belief system that does not go with the buybull is evil and god says to eradicate them?

        Or that women are second class and should not be allowed out in public because they are not capable of taking care of themselves?

        WOULD YOU?

        Sex education is EXACTLY THE SAME.

        You think it would be better if underage girls who got pregnant should be turned into the police? OR hide their pregnancy and then throw the baby in a dumpster?

        Or be like the kidnappers they just caught with three women one of whom he punched and kicked in the stomach to keep them from being pregnant?

        OR back alley abortions?

        Sorry but that sort of backwards thinking only makes things worse for young girls and society at large.

    • Christy Marie

      Sex is for adults, not children. Teaching that it’s perfectly normal and healthy for two irresponsible kids to be having sex couldn’t be further from the truth.

      • rogerrramjet

        What a load of crappola. PP has NEVER done any such thing. So why do you people lie about PP so much?

        OH wait..must belong to the Christian Taliban. Never mind.

        • Billy Ten Eyck

          Other people are above responding to your idiocy. I am not. You are a liar and a coward, and you are complicit with evil.

  • Josh Metheney

    Here’s an idea. If you want your kids to be taught that sex is a “dirty”, “shameful”, “sinful” act, based on your religious beliefs, teach them that. But in schools, they need to be learning that sex is not this dirty action. In fact, it’s a natural process. And if they are going to have sex, which will happen, I would rather them be prepared and know that there are option to have relatively safe sex than be completely unprepared and confused about what happened.

  • Joseph Mentor Nichols

    I don’t know. I don’t go sleeping around and I definitely don’t want a women who’s been around the block either. It shows that you have little or no respect for yourself.

    Not only do I respect myself, but I respect my future wife enough not to sleep with all of her friends, family, and acquaintances before we meet.

    Besides, it’s just sex. It’s the least important part of a relationship. Even without my dick I could still be in love, crave companionship, and share my life with someone (sometimes maybe even better, ha).

    People feel the need to validate their lack of willpower. Their addiction to the ever elusive orgasm. I don’t really care what you do with your life, but don’t go preaching to everyone that it’s the right thing to do.

    • Joseph Mentor Nichols

      I’m not saying not to do it until after marriage. I do feel that someone people view sex to be so important that they actually have a “sexual compatibility”. Those people definitely need to act on their desires before engaging into a lifelong commitment.

      All I am saying is to choose your partners wisely. Get to know the person ahead of time. Fall in love. Then you can play around a bit. Just make sure it’s love you’re in and not lust.

    • CS

      “I definitely don’t want a women who’s been around the block either. It shows you have little or no respect for yourself.”

      It could be an outgrowth of that, but maybe not. In itself, it doesn’t show anything. And your arbitrary number of partners that makes the line between “ok” and “too many” is probably based on nothing at all besides a personal ick factor. I wonder if the number is the same for you as for your potential partner?

      You know, you have every right to have a personal preference for personality in a partner. You even have the right to be an ignoramous who believes that a number defines a person…instead, say, of ethical beliefs and life story, circumstances, and where a person is when you meet them.

      Sorry, you are part of the problem.

      • Joseph Mentor Nichols

        To be honest I set myself to a higher standard. I’m no hypocrite.

        I am not part of the problem. Doing right by the women I meet and treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve is a trait that I personally admire. I will not lead them on. I will not get them pregnant and then dump them. I am responsible and selective with my choices. When I lie with someone they can sleep well knowing that I shall be there when they awake. They can be confident and comforted by the fact that I’m not just out to add another notch to my bedpost.

        They know they can trust me and that I will not lead them astray. It’s a sign of commitment for me. For better or worse. After all, if I am to sleep with someone I am essentially saying that if the condom snaps and her birth control fails, then I am willing to have a child with her.

        It’s a huge deal. A romantic gesture. A commitment. A risk. Something to remember and cherish and never something to regret.

        It is not I who has corrupted society. I am not the problem.

        • CS

          Oh, boy.

  • Catharine

    Well thought out and expressed. And pretty shocking that this is still going on. For God’s sake it is 2013. I guess it is up to women, including mothers to teach young girls not to take any crap from anyone, physically or mentally.

  • Susan Carlson

    I believe you have written a truly important piece here……thank you. I will be bookmarking and sharing it.

  • Phoghat

    “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…”
    Who were those “good people” reference, links, ??? I’d like to know the a-hole’s names

  • Phoghat

    “talked a lot about why we should abstain in a positive manner.” Good ONLY if he information is given as to what to do if you do not abstain. Abstinence is a choice, not a command

    • Rosemary Brewer

      In the bible it IS a command. for our own good.

      • Phoghat

        The Bible: A nice collection of stories that try to teach a moral lesson.
        See also: Aesop’s Fables

        • Brianne

          Phogat, I agree with your first comment that it should be taught as one option out of many, which seemed to be precisely what Suzanne said. She said that her class was like the one that Belle described, which taught many options.

          However, in regards to your second comment, I found it a little disrespectful and disappointing. I wish that non-Christians would, in such discussions, seek to understand the other side rather than demeaning others’ beliefs. I understand that not everyone is a Christian and that many find it frustrating when overbearing Christians seem to force their beliefs on others. However, the fact of the matter is that not all Christians are like that. And, regardless of whether you agree with someone’s beliefs, I think that we ALL need to learn to be respectful of others’ beliefs. For Christians, the Bible is truth and, more importantly, it is a book that they use to guide their lives. Why would you overlook that, treating it as nothing more than a tale when, for others, it is so much more? It throws up further barriers and creates further division where commonality could have been.

          For example, rather than demeaning the Bible, could you perhaps say, “I understand that, for you, the Bible is truth and that abstinence is a command in the Bible. However, I do not see the Bible that way, seeing it as a series of stories that teach one how to live a “moral” life. I do not read it as a command and do not think that everyone should be expected to do so or to follow its commands. That is for each individual to decide for themselves.”

          Does what I am saying kind of make sense? I guess I am saying that these conversations have the possibility to be so much more productive when we can see and acknowledge where they other person is coming from. I’d like to think that it will take us much farther…

          P.S. Please feel free to disagree and respond to me. I totally welcome respectful engagement!

      • Barry Daniel Petersen II

        Too bad that no one that throws that one out there actually knows how to read the bloody thing.