“You Can’t Stop Teenagers From Having Sex”

I always bristle a bit when I hear someone say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” as part of an argument against abstinence-only education. Before I explain why, let me start out by specifying in no uncertain terms that I am about as opposed to abstinence-only education as anyone.

In fact, I hate using the phrase “abstinence only education” because I think it is a lie. It is not at all education but its polar opposite. It is a refusal to frankly, thoroughly, or neutrally educate about the realities of sex or one’s options related to sex. It replaces genuine education with a command and it backs up that command with whatever mixture of facts, half-truths, myths, rationalizations, fears, and lies necessary to manipulate people into internalizing and obeying. Unlike an education, it does not inform and empower people to make decisions. It dictates and deceptively manipulates people to see only one option as moral and it is statistically ineffective at lowering pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection rates. And when those so “educated” eventually go down the path of being sexually active, they are not equipped to understand their bodies, their emotions, their partners, their sexuality, their contraceptive options, or any of the ins and outs of having sex healthily or happily. And I don’t mean that it hurts only those people who break its rules and have premarital sex, it also hurts people who hold out. (See Libby Anne for much more on this. Two starting points: The Problems With The Ways Evangelicals Celebrate Sex and The Purity Culture and Sexual Dysfunction.)

I would have it that teenagers were given comprehensive biological information about their bodies and about how sex works (and doesn’t). They would be taught about what is normal, so they don’t feel bad over common struggles. And they would also learn about sexual minorities and how there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them just for having a different sexuality or set of kinks than other people. In all things all people should be taught that uncoerced consent and the health, happiness, and thriving of all involved should be the tests by which any sexual activity is morally judged–rather than by its “normalcy” or “deviance”. Girls and boys would learn about the intricacies of contraception. Teens should also learn about and discuss wide ranges of emotional possibilities that people report feeling related to sex and different kinds of experiences with it. And they would be encouraged both to figure out what sorts of values priorities with respect to sex make the most sense for them as individuals while discouraged from engaging in any slut-shaming or virgin-shaming of others over their alternative judgments, decisions, or uncontrollable circumstances. And in open discussion the students would have room to vent their opinions and debate the morality of sex honestly and rationally.

Were I to have my way, this would be a topic that teenagers would be encouraged to discuss openly with educated adults so they could learn as much as possible and make as informed, ethically conscientious, and emotionally and physically satisfying choices for themselves as possible.

The utmost goals would be to instill in teenagers an ability to reason for themselves about sex so that

(a) they never feel pressured (either by society or a specific partner) into having sex that isn’t good for them or shamed away from having sex that is good for them

(b) they know what to expect with sex and have concrete strategies and communication skills so that as much as possible it is mutually satisfying physically, emotionally, and sexually

(c) they are efficiently trained to be competent and dutiful with respect to protecting against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections

(d) they are prepared to deal with sexual minorities or those who struggle with one aspect of sex or another in empowering ways that acknowledges them as equals, rather than freaks, and help them fulfill their own happiness with respect to sex the most.

So with that context in mind, there are a few reasons that I can’t stand when people say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex.” First of all, I feel erased. I was a teenager who conscientiously was abstinent, for religiously inculcated reasons that I took to be morally right. And I know a lot of other people who also were, for the same reasons. I know people in their twenties who were or are still deliberately virgins. There are even some older than that who hold out. We exist, we matter, we are part of the equation. And we have a lot of complicated feelings and struggles that all get erased when people talk about sex in ways that assume everyone starts as a teenager. A lot of us are too ashamed to talk about the effects of this on us psychologically but there are plenty of us out there who are damaged by messaging that we totally missed out on all the fun everyone else was having. Or that there is or was something wrong with us, etc.

Part of really educating people accurately is acknowledging that sex is not simply a force of nature against which all teenagers are helpless. Except in cases of rape, sex is a choice. We can rightly point to the evidence that a great number of young people who sign up for “purity pledges” and take on “purity rings” wind up caving and having sex anyway. We can use that fact to make the case that even purity pledgers need to be educated and equipped just in case they change their minds, so that they don’t wind up pregnant or sick. But we can do that without snidely dismissing their agency, their sincere feelings of commitment, or their real successes in carrying through in some cases. We can point out that some of them fail without being disrespectful of where those people are at present in their emotional and moral journey.  And that starts, in part, by not erasing them with by oversimplifying and saying “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex.” Committed evangelical Christian teenagers themselves will probably tune that message out as contemptuous dismissal towards their values, their personal integrity, and their youth. And, resenting you and your condescending expression of your own values, they may be all the more determined to prove you wrong.

But, why am I quibbling over this little bit of hyperbole. Sensitive feelings aside, the main point is true: while specific teenagers may be successfully dissuaded away from sex, statistically high proportions of teenagers always have and likely always will have sex, and, statistically speaking, those who take purity pledges won’t be any different.

There are several problems. For one thing, abstinence-only education supporters who themselves did hold out and still believe in it will simply dismiss us as making apologies for bad behavior and point to their own example that moral fortitude can change behavior. They will argue that if only the culture changed and stopped excusing premarital sex that more people could be like them and things could change. So, I don’t think the overstatement “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” actually works on such people. It sure never worked on me when I was a teenager or a twenty-something year old virgin.

But what it did do to me when I deconverted and decided that now I wanted to have sex, was make me feel bad about myself as an abnormal freak and a loser for being a virgin. I was able to assure myself that I had chosen to be a virgin but now the pressure was on because now if I remained a virgin it meant I was undesirable. But how was I to perform to expectations when everyone secular around me has been at this (apparently) since they were teenagers! How behind was I in terms of experience? How much had I missed out on exactly?

And I fear it could inadvertently send the message to many teenage virgins that there’s something wrong with them because it is an “everybody’s doing it!” message. And teenagers are infamously prone to wanting to be like everyone else and are known to do things that don’t feel right to them in order to be like what they perceive that everyone else is like. So, when they hear “you can’t stop teenagers from having sex!” they may be hearing “no normal teenagers can help themselves from having sex”. So what does that tell them about their hesitations towards having it? Especially boys who are given extra strong messages about how uncontrollable the teenage male libido is. And what are girls to do with the rancid and insidious counter-messaging that “good girls don’t put out” or “girls don’t want sex as much as guys do”? I think it’s that they’re supposed to have the idea that they’re not supposed to want to have sex, both morally and as a girl, and yet when a guy they really like is cajoling them they are supposed to cave and blame their hormones because “you can’t stop teenagers having sex!”

I am only speculating here, trying to make sense of dizzying and damaging contradictory messaging, but I think a sexist effect behind the message that “girls aren’t interested in sex but that they will cave anyway” is to make it so that the guy can feel like she only wants him and not sex in general. She, as a member of the morally pure order of sex-hating females, would never be interested in the carnal pleasures were it not for this special, magnetic young man and his effect on her, which makes her love it. But only with him. And so this is why girls “give it up”. They’re basically conditioned to be in a dialectic of “protecting” sexual purity and then giving it up because of the appeal of some particular boy to her. None of this involves the girl just liking or wanting sex itself because that might make the boy feel like she might also be interested in others too and not just him, and we can’t have that…

How much damaging and regretted sex (and even rape) results from both boys and girls following this script of expectations whereby girls are supposed to simultaneously be the chaste ones who don’t like sex and the ones who cave to the persistent charms of the “right” guy? “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” boosts this ugly script. It makes sex something teenagers don’t have control over. It’s something they inevitably just fall into without agency. And so, to be normal, that’s how teenagers who might not feel ready for it but still feel pressured into it socially, have sex they don’t really want: by playing “seduced”.

And what about the unwilling virgins? Imagine being one of those teenagers (and twentysomethings, etc.) who would have sex were they to have the opportunity that they felt even remotely good about–but as of yet have been unable to make it happen? What good does it do them to be told by supposedly progressive adults in their “let’s get real here” tone of voice about how teenagers are unstoppably sexually active? I think they’d feel like I have felt: erased. With an additional helping of “like an abnormal freak and loser” possibly thrown in. People are overburdened with sexual pressure and stigmas. And as much awful slut-shaming goes on, on the flipside there are countless people who feel miserable inside because they feel sexually unwanted and like they are missing out on this enormous orgy the rest of the world is allegedly having without them. “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex!” just contributes to this myth that “everyone else is doing it” and puts pressure on people who don’t even feel able to conform to what everyone else is supposedly doing and which sounds like so much fun.

Finally, here is the worst way to say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex”: as an agreement with the abstinence proponent that our goal should be sexually repressing teenagers and other unmarried sexually mature people. I know that strategically it often looks like a good thing to sometimes adopt your opponent’s values and try to say, “look, even were I to share your values, it’s a bad idea to do this because it will prove counterproductive to those values.” But I hate it when people use this tactic when debating morality because it usually concedes way too much to moral principles that themselves should be challenged. I feel like often liberals want a certain outcome and will push whatever moral button on their opponent they can, even if it’s a moral button that itself needs to be challenged. I hate the way that that reinforces that bad moral principle itself.

I don’t think liberals should be squishily saying to conservatives essentially, “Well, yes, of course it would be ideal that teenagers never have sex”. That just validates and reinforces the conservatives’ values about sex which themselves are in need of vigorous re-interrogation.

I want to argue that in the modern world it makes sense for most people to delay marriage until at least their mid to late twenties because of the amount of education that is required to catch up in the information age so that one can contribute effectively to it and because of the amount of time it takes most people to become stable enough financially, mentally, emotionally, and socially in order to make a wise choice of partner and be a good partner themselves. We also live more than twice as long as our ancestors whose bodies’ reproductive “clocks” we have inherited.

We are a species that can reproduce younger than young girls’ bodies can even handle it. We are fertile and often sexually eager for a solid 10-15 years before most people should reasonably consider marriage, given the realities of modern life. Even were people all capable of conditioning themselves to be abstinent until marriage, I think it is cruel and a waste to make this a moral obligation or promote this as an accepted ideal when it means making it a matter of conscience that people feel sexually frustrated and remain emotionally and socially immature in various ways for such a long period of time. It also damages a lot of people psychologically to engage with sex as a taboo for so many years of their lives. Being at constant war with one’s basic sexual impulses, instead of embracing them and finding healthy outlets for them, is self-destructive. Morally, premarital sex has to be unequivocally encouraged as a moral and healthy option for many people.

Now, 11-13 year olds certainly are much too immature to be trusted or encouraged to figure out wise sexual choices. Without abusive, extremist anti-sex messaging, they should be reasoned with to wait. And 14-15 year olds are only a little more likely to be healthy about sex, so they should also be equipped just in case but encouraged to wait. But by the time we’re dealing with 16-19 year olds we should be putting all of our energies into equipping them emotionally, mentally, morally, and materially if they choose to have sex and affirming their choices if they choose not to, rather than celebrating the ideal of ongoing repression as the ultimate moral choice. We need not encourage them to do it but we should be fairly neutral and non-judgmental about whether they have sex and rather be focused on the ethical substance of the sex they’re having. Is it consensual? Is it a healthy and positive experience for them? Too many young people do have sex for us to make it a matter of secrecy and moral shame and guilt, especially when it can be a positive thing for them in many cases.

Of course it is fraught trusting teenagers with each other’s hearts and bodies. They are going to stumble and hurt one another and themselves inevitably. But the goal is to remove whatever obstacles to their getting it right that we can, to make rape and other forms of abuse as unlikely as possible, to not load them up with long term destructive, repressive burdens trying to save them from themselves, and to make it so the kinds of mistakes they make with each other are the constructive ones that they can grow through, rather than be damaged for the long term by.

The more we push it underground the more we hurt teenagers by making a potentially good thing all the more risky and unhealthy for them. Every teenager needs the education, none need outright repression or moral stigma associated with their sexuality. And we shouldn’t slip into overcorrective statements like “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” which only sends a damaging “everyone’s doing it” message to teenagers.

Your Thoughts?

Related Posts:

On Back Door Ways To Keep One’s Virginity (And To Defend One’s Faith)
Love Virginity
Hot, Passionate, Rational Sex
Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian
Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes
A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity
Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery
On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”
Sex and Apostasy

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Eli

    Thank you for writing this. I completely agree, but I’d also add the harm it does to teens who aren’t even interested in sex, not just those who are choosing not to or “holding out.” Not everyone develops at the same rate or in the same way, and it can be very alienating and scary to hear the message that teens just always are interesting in sex when you’re not. Not just scary because it suggests something’s wrong with you, which is bad enough, but because it also makes you afraid to even try to have romantic relationships because it can sound like everyone around you wants a kind of relationship that you don’t. (Actually, the abstinence angle doesn’t help here either because it glorifies sex, just only within certain contexts, and if you’re a teen who’s not interested, that’s also scary and alienating.)

  • JohnH2

    “remain emotionally and socially immature”

    How precisely is it mature to give into uncontrolled sexual impulses and engage in what is a reproductive act, even if attempts are made to make it not so, long before one is capable of even considering reproduction seriously as a possibility? When a five year old acts out according to the impulses that they are faced with we consider this to be immature, why does it change for a 16 year old?

    How is it immature to decide for any number of reasons to not be sexually active while a teenager?

    In my experience it is very often those that are much more emotionally mature that choose to wait through their teenage years and your suggestion that they are the immature ones doesn’t really make any sense to me at all.

    There are few other points where I disagree with you but this part of it doesn’t even seem to fit with everything else you said very well.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      How precisely is it mature to give into uncontrolled sexual impulses and engage in what is a reproductive act, even if attempts are made to make it not so, long before one is capable of even considering reproduction seriously as a possibility? When a five year old acts out according to the impulses that they are faced with we consider this to be immature, why does it change for a 16 year old?

      How is it immature to decide for any number of reasons to not be sexually active while a teenager?

      In my experience it is very often those that are much more emotionally mature that choose to wait through their teenage years and your suggestion that they are the immature ones doesn’t really make any sense to me at all.

      There are few other points where I disagree with you but this part of it doesn’t even seem to fit with everything else you said very well.

      There is nothing inherently immature about the choice not to have sex, especially before one is ready for it. What I was saying was not that that choice itself was immature but that there is a certain maturing in relationship skills that sexual relationships require of people. They test people socially and emotionally and these are, among other relationships, part of how people grow in their broader social and emotional skills and, specifically, the skills they will eventually need if they are to be in long term sexual love relationships.

      And nowhere did I advise teenagers giving in to “uncontrollable urges”, I advised throughout teaching them how to think about what’s going on and to be maximally responsible in their choice to have sex. They very well can understand that reproduction is a potential consequence and they can very well be taught to understand how to prevent that from happening. They are not five year olds. They are primed for sex biologically and many of them can start figuring it out in emotionally mature ways, especially if they had adults who talked maturely with them about the subject and stopped acting like children or treating them like children.

    • JohnH2

      You statement in regards to maturing relationship skills would appear to make a much better argument for dating without the complications that come from sexual intercourse.

      It doesn’t really matter how good the teaching on how to prevent reproduction is, nothing works perfectly (not even sterilization). I know multiple people who have gotten pregnant on IUD’s, not even considering other forms of birth control.

      “ready for it” “maturing in” “They test”

      You are treating sex as a rite of passage in which one matures by having sex. Meaning you are in fact saying that those that do not have sex are immature while those that do have sex are mature. This actually puts pressure on people to have sex in order to prove their maturity.

      As a counter point to what you say, me and my wife were both virgins on our wedding night and our marriage has already lasted longer then the median. We didn’t have problems having the skills needed to be in a long term sexual love relationship, despite being virgins at the time of marriage. In fact the statistics say that you are precisely wrong about the need of sex before marriage in order to be in long term sexual love relationships: the raw statistic is that being a virgin at the time of marriage lowers the divorce rate. Further (more trustworthy) statistics show that being sexually active before marriage and living together before marriage both increase, not decrease, the divorce rate.

    • Geena Safire

      [T]he raw statistic is that being a virgin at the time of marriage lowers the divorce rate.

      Correlation does not equal causation. In fact, your data works the other way around.

      The low percentage of people who are virgins at marriage says much more about the kind of people they already are. That is, the people for whom marriage is so central in their lives and consider themselves committed to their marriage for life no matter what are the kind of people who would also hold out to be virgins at marriage.

      In addition, abstinence-only sex education has not led to a change in the age at which people have sex nor the number of partners. The only difference is that students who received abstinence-only sex education (and not information regarding birth control and sexually-transmitted diseases) had a higher percentage of young people who did not use birth control at all which led to a higher rate of teen pregnancies and STDs. There was also a trend toward increase in heterosexual anal sex and oral sex because some girls wanted to remain “virgins.”

    • JohnH2

      “Correlation does not equal causation. In fact, your data works the other way around.”

      I actually agree with you on this point, and largely on the reasoning of why this would be; I haven’t seen that statistic controlled for other factors, just presented as a raw statistic which makes me think that if other factors were controlled for the effect would probably drop to being very close to the same effect of not living together before marriage. That is why I said that the other two were more trustworthy as they have had other factors controlled for in papers I have seen so I trust those results to be real.

      “abstinence-only sex education”
      I am not advocating abstinence only sex education and certainly not so in schools.

    • Sandrilene

      I would say that being mature is about neither giving in to your sexual impulses or restraining yourself from your sexual impulses, but integrating your desires as a part of you.

      You may decide not to act on your desires but I think acknowledging those desires as part of you is emotionally healthy.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I would say that being mature is about neither giving in to your sexual impulses or restraining yourself from your sexual impulses, but integrating your desires as a part of you.

      You may decide not to act on your desires but I think acknowledging those desires as part of you is emotionally healthy.

      Superbly put!

  • Spectrall

    I think you’re misinterpreting what’s meant by, “you can’t stop teenagers from having sex”. If I say that, all I mean is that there’s a very large subset of teens that will have sex regardless of admonishment against doing so and that they’re poorly served by bogus abstinence only programs. This is in the context of a broader argument that you not only can’t stop anywhere near all of them, but that you shouldn’t. Perhaps others use the expression differently, but I think you’ve loaded it with more meaning than it usually has.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      This is in the context of a broader argument that you not only can’t stop anywhere near all of them, but that you shouldn’t.

      Sometimes. Not always. Sometimes it’s an appeal that tries to be sympathetic to the conservative and say “of course I don’t want my kids having sex either but let’s be realistic!”

    • Spectrall

      Sure, that makes sense. I guess I hadn’t thought of myself saying it from that angle because I don’t have kids and I’m pretty sure if I did, I’d have no objection to them having sex; provided they’re equipped to make good decisions, I think having the opportunity to make those decisions (even if they’re sometimes bad!) is a crucial part of growth.

      I forget who it was, but I heard someone say that it’s a weird thing that we all know that we’d like to have kids to have healthy sex lives someday, but that many of us like to never think a thing about about it.

      I’m not sure I could ever really be particularly sympathetic to conservative, sex-negative views. Maybe that’s why I’m not really able to relate to the idea of using the expression to mean, “hey, yeah, it is terrible, but what ya gonna do!”. For me, it’s always, “we shouldn’t want to stop this, and I don’t think we could stop very much even if we wanted to”.

  • Geena Safire

    Just some statistics to add to your moving and meaningful essay:

    In the US, puberty kicks in now at about age 9-10. Half of all US teens have had sex by the age of 17, even though most sex education materials advise against it (including those of Planned Parenthood, which is the US’s largest sex education organization).

    Significantly for Dan’s essay, note that this also means that half of all US teens have not had sex by the age of 17. That is, not everybody is ‘doing it’.

    The Catholic church would note that complete abstinence has a nearly zero percent failure rate (allowing for rape and the occasional deity). However, people who intend to be abstinent are not always successful in abstinence. Even among women born in the 1940s, when virginity was taken more seriously, nearly 9 in 10 women had sex before they married. (“Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954–2003,”, Lawrence B. Finer, January/February 2007, Public Health Reports)

    More recently, follow-up studies (see below) on abstinence / purity / virginity pledges among adolescents indicate that the pledgers show either no difference or some delay in first sexual experience. The delay found may be irrelevant due to pledgers being already more negative toward premarital sex, because the Rosenbaum paper, which took this into account in matching pledgers and non-pledgers, found no delay. On the other hand, fewer pledgers used contraception at their intercourse or in future sexual encounters. Half of the pledgers denied, a year later, that they had taken the pledge. She also found that five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged at all.

    In addition, the pledges, which were generally phrased (or understood) to avoid vaginal sex, do not reduce the number of STDs because many of the pledgers still engage in anal and oral sex. “Not only do virginity pledges not work to keep our young people safe, they are causing harm by undermining condom use, contraception and medical treatment,” William Smith, policy director at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

    The information in the above two paragraphs is based on four peer-reviewed papers. These four papers are based mainly on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health):

    (a) Janet Elise Rosenbaum, PhD, AM, “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers”, PEDIATRICS Vol. 123 No. 1, e110–e120, January 2009.

    (b) Brückner H, Bearman P., “After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges”. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36 (4): 271–278, 2005.

    (c) Bearman PS, Brückner H. “Promising the future: Virginity pledges and first intercourse”. American Journal of Sociology, 2001.

    (d) “Appraising Evidence on Program Effectiveness: Do Virginity Pledges Cause Virginity?”, Public Health Institute Center for Research on Adolescent Health and Development.

    As expected, the Heritage Foundation reports different, more positive results. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation references ten studies, some also based on Add Health data, which he claims have found significant positive results from abstinence pledges and abstinence-only sex education programs. But none of the ten studies referenced were peer-reviewed studies, so they are not considered to be reliable (next two paragraphs). The government’s own contracted evaluation of the programs (third paragraph below) found essentially no change in any factor reviewed due to abstinence-only sex education.

    “In sum, of the ten studies identified by the Heritage Foundation paper as providing proof that their respective programs reduced early sexual activity, nine of them failed to provide credible evidence … that they delayed the initiation of sex or reduced the frequency of sex. One of the studies suggests that the program, Not Me, Not Now, may have delayed the initiation of sex among youth 15 and younger, but not among those 17 and younger.” (Douglas Kirby, “Do Abstinence-Only Programs Delay the Initiation of Sex Among Young People and Reduce Teen Pregnancy?”, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Oct 2002.

    “A review by Robert Rector identified 10 evaluations of AOE [abstinence-only education] programs that appeared to demonstrate behavior change as a result of program participation. However, few of these evaluations met the minimum scientific criteria listed above [in the article], and all contained flaws in methodology or interpretation of the data that could lead to significantly biased results. A review of 10 state program evaluations by Advocates for Youth found no evidence of an impact on adolescent sexual behavior.” (John Santelli, “Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs”, Journal of Adolescent Health, 38 (2006) 72–81.

    Mathematica Policy Research, authorized to review the abstinence-education programs on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported in 2007 in “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” that they “found no evidence that abstinence-only programs increased rates of sexual abstinence.

    Also, students in the abstinence-only programs had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex.” They were somewhat worse at using contraception and STD protection, had the same knowledge pregnancy risks and about risks and consequences for STDs. Program youth had less correct information regarding the effectiveness of condoms at preventing STDs. Starting abstinence-only education in elementary and middle schools had no effect on behavior.

    • JohnH2

      Regarding the Rosenbaum paper, She is using 95% CI’s, which are great and standard but in this case don’t actually tell the whole story. If we drop the significance to the 90% then the pledge appears to reduce the # of lifetime partners slightly. If we drop it to 85% then a whole host of things show up: the pledgers were less likely to have had sexual intercourse, less likely to have premarital sex, had sex slightly later, were more likely to give anal sex, and were less likely to have had a partner with an STD.

      Meaning that she did in fact see that pledgers may be substituting anal sex for vaginal sex; it just wasn’t significant at the 95% level but is at the 85% level. She also saw that the pledge did have a slight effect at reducing sexual interaction, but not significantly at the 95% level (but is at the 90% level). So the pledge is probably slightly effective at its stated goal, but really sucks it up on a wide range of other issues, specifically the issues that society actually has an interest in.

    • Geena Safire

      …she did in fact see that pledgers may be substituting anal sex for vaginal sex…

      This is an irreverent song regarding this ‘substitution’: ‘The Loophole’ by Garfunkel and Oates’.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      In the spring I wrote a whole post inspired by that song http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2013/06/fck-me-in-the-ass-because-i-love-jesus/

      By the way, thanks for all the data in your other comment, Geena. It confirms everything I had remembered learning over the last few years in terms of relevant statistics which informed my writing of the original post here.

  • John Kruger

    A very good article.

    I would just add a bit of perspective as one of those unwilling virgins until my 20′s. It is kind of a vicious cycle that low self esteem creates poor social interactions, enforcing “failed” sex expectations, reinforcing the low self esteem. Whenever there is a social norm that one does not live up to it becomes more or less inevitable that feelings of inadequacy or estrangement will follow. I imagine that the unwilling male virgins have some feelings similar to the shamed female non-virgins (though admittedly not nearly as severe a social backlash as in the latter case).

    Breaking down the social norms and not having the constant nagging “what is wrong with me” thoughts would have been very beneficial to my early adult development, I think.

  • gibsonsdad

    Why would one want to stop teenagers from having sex? Having sex is a perfectly natural activity, and it has been practiced by human teenagers as long as there have been human teenagers.

    • B.J.D

      Why would anyone want to stop teenagers from having sex .. perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they are too immature to handle the consequences.

    • gibsonsdad

      Horseshit. The mid to late teen years is when nature intends humans to begin being sexually active. The consequences are something society imposes on sexually active teenagers because society is controlled by religidiots who fear both sex and teenagers.

    • B.J.D

      The biological capability to reproduce when one is in their mid-teens doesn’t mean an individual is financially or emotionally ready for parenthood which is an extremely likely probability for sexually active teenagers. But I suppose that’s what abortion is for, right?

    • gibsonsdad

      Another option would be to provide teenagers with honest sex education rather than “oh my Gawd. We can’t let ‘em fuck AT ALL” fairytale sex education we do now, make birth control readily available, and allow pregnant teenagers to continue with their education. Of course, that won’t raise money for the preachers and rethuglican politicians, right?

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Please, gibsonsdad, tone down the name-calling. I don’t go to blogs that call me a libtard and I don’t want Republican readers to be similarly put off by being called “rethuglicans”.

      Also, just calling other people’s views “Horseshit” so flatly really isn’t going to encourage them to civil dialogue either. This is a blog that prizes civility as a means to making for a more humane, productive, and genuinely inclusive discussion that one finds other places online. Please respect that goal.

  • Itarion

    As a late-teen in a stable, though from a long view, admittedly short, relationship, I’ve given more than a little thought to the reasons I have to stay virginal. And would you believe it, “because I want to” has never crossed my mind. I would just like to thank you, Dr. Fincke, for this article, and a thoroughly new perspective on the issue.

    And I will say, as an insider, that there is a definite “Yeah, go for it, those plums are yours to pluck” social direction [maybe not mentality, as I'm certainly disgusted by both guys and girls who pass through relationships like nothing] among guys I know. And I really can’t say if that’s an effect of “You can’t stop teens from having sex” or not, but it makes sense that it could be, at least.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Itarion. I think it’s great that you are working out what’s right for you in your shoes. But I also advise you not to judge others’ decisions either. Being willing to explore relationships with a number of different people can be how people figure out exactly what they want and don’t want. People’s paths to maturity in these matters can be varied based on their own particular temperaments and needs. We should ethically criticize when they’re hurting themselves or others in their abilities to flourish as people. Other than that, we should be as supportive of people’s journeys as possible.

  • ansuz

    Maybe I’m just not paying attention to the exact phrasing, but my brain doesn’t seem to recognize the phrase “you can’t stop teenagers from having sex.” What it comes up with instead is “you can’t expect teenagers to just not have sex.” It’s quite possible that my brain is just interpreting “you can’t stop teenagers from having sex” in a way it agrees with.
    (For context, I’m asexual and uninterested in sex, and I was raised in a relatively progressive and sex-positive environment.)

    EDIT: What I mean to say is, it may be the case that that specific phrasing is less common than your experience suggests, and I would guess that it is the case that the ideas suggested by that phrasing are less common than you (EDIT II: insert ‘may’) believe. That aside, those are really good reasons not to phrase things in that way; I’ll pay more attention to the specific phrasing of those sorts of points in the future.

  • Delphinius

    Thank you for a well-written, meaningful perspective on this conversation. Too often, reasonable voices are drowned out by the extremes of “abstinence is the only way” or “there must be something wrong with you if you haven’t had sex yet. You must be repressed!” Having been on both sides of the fence, you are absolutely correct that we must respect where we came from and how we have evolved personally without making snap judgements on other who haven’t arrived at exactly the same conclusions. Also, thanks for your efforts to keep comments civil…I hope to see more of the same in reason-centered communities.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Delphinius! I hope to continue seeing you around!

  • Theo

    Thank you for writing this. I am very much in the category of ‘want to have sex’ and ‘am educated about sex’ but also haven’t because the opportunity has never arisen. And I really do feel erased by this idea that everyone my age has already been having sex for 5 or more years.

  • Nathan

    Your writing this is important–it’s what really attracted my friends and I to your blog. I notice a couple of harmful comments, so I want to point out how frustrating it can be, for a non-dogmatic self-aware atheist who is sexual by nature but doesn’t have interest in it, to deal with those who aren’t aware of such a mindset.

    “I completely agree, but I’d also add the harm it does to teens who aren’t even interested in sex”

    This comment is great. There are other mindsets, and sometimes it has nothing to do with development or dogma.